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Asia

Japan's public broadcaster plays crucial role warning about earthquakes

NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, has an earthquake early warning system that is unique in the world. However, some observers say the station could be more critical of the government's handling of the recent disasters.

Whenever there is an earthquake, NHK's viewing figures soar

Whenever there is an earthquake, NHK's viewing figures soar

On 11 March 2011, NHK was broadcasting live from the Japanese parliament. The MPs were discussing various motions and voting.

All of a sudden, at exactly 2.46 p.m., blue lettering appeared on the screen along with a map. An earthquake had just occurred in the north-eastern part of the main island of Honshu. The reporter, who seconds before had been discussing the debates in parliament, told the viewers which prefectures were affected by the quake.

NHK's main newsroom is in Tokyo's Shibuya district

NHK's main newsroom is in Tokyo's Shibuya district

As soon as an earthquake occurs anywhere in Japan, the station automatically broadcasts an earthquake warning. The information comes from the tremors themselves.

When an earthquake occurs there are two types of seismic waves. The early warning system registers the energy of the first wave that is not dangerous and automatically warns about the second one that is coming and will shake the earth. The few seconds in between can be lifesaving.

Automatic switch to special program

The system also calculates the strength of the earthquake. If it is higher than 6 on the Richter scale, the station changes its program automatically.

"Our journalists have about a minute to switch to the special program," explained Yoshihiko Shimizu, who is head of news at NHK, in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. "That's not much time but it works. We always have a host on hand who can go straight into the studio and host a live program."

The earthquake on 11 March triggered a devastating tsunami that killed thousands

The earthquake on 11 March triggered a devastating tsunami that killed thousands

NHK has 12 helicopters across the country that can be sent out as soon as something happens.

That's why it was able to broadcast pictures of the tsunami as it rolled towards Japan’s eastern coast. Viewers had a birds-eye view perspective when it hit land and engulfed everything in its path.

Keeping emotion under control

The hosts described the dramatic images with voices that sounded distanced and impartial. Yoshihiko Shimizu said this was intentional because "whatever happens, even if they see that cars are being swallowed up, our hosts have to stay calm. If they get emotional then the viewers will also get emotional."

Yoshihiko Shimizu says it is important that journalists do not betray any emotion

Yoshihiko Shimizu says it is important that journalists do not betray any emotion

Four weeks after the earthquake, the developments in Fukushima remain the top story for the NHK but Shimizu said it was difficult to know how to deal with information from the nuclear plant’s operator TEPCO: "We’re supposed to pass on all the information that we get but we also have to weigh it up and think about what might happen if we spread panic."

He also said he would not run a headline such as "Radioactive cloud nears Tokyo" because it would cause alarm among millions of people.

However, this desire to stay calm and not create panic has been criticized by people who think NHK should be more critical of TEPCO and the government.

Author: Silke Ballweg (Tokyo) / act
Editor: Thomas Bärthlein

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