National / Media | Japan Pulse

Typhoon Hagibis highlights the value of social media in a disaster

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

There has been plenty wrong with conversations on social media over the past decade and yet it’s hard to argue that online platforms are anything other than essential in an emergency.

This was almost certainly the case when Typhoon Hagibis made landfall on mainland Japan last weekend, flooding towns that lay in the path of the storm and leaving dozens dead.    

By now, many media organizations appear to have developed a clear-cut formula on how to cover both foreseeable and unforeseeable events such as typhoons and earthquakes. Either ahead of a typhoon’s arrival or immediately following an earthquake, they publish comprehensive guides on what people should do in the event of a disaster. 

With Typhoon Hagibis bearing down on the island of Honshu, sites such as BuzzFeed Japan and HuffingtonPost Japan shared illustrated guides on how to cope with water damage and other effects of a typhoon (even if they were essentially just drawings aggregated from Twitter). 

Meanwhile, media outlets try to keep on top of false reports that tend to emerge in such situations. In terms of Typhoon Hagibis, that meant erroneous pictures of the storm from space and footage of gargantuan waves wiping out balconies of a high-rise near the sea (an incident that actually happened in the Canary Islands, even if the original tweet merely implied it happened in Japan). Images of a pre-typhoon sky that looked like the color of cough syrup were real, though. 

It all looked eerily similar to what happened during the floods last year in western Japan. This time, however, Twitter appeared to play an even larger role, whether that was because more people have learned how valuable the platform can be in an emergency or because the typhoon was forecast to strike one of the most densely populated cities on the planet. 

Local governments in Tokyo used the site to share info on evacuations and other developments, which some sites helpfully gathered into one place. Organizations such as Tokumukikan NERV shared up-to-date info on Typhoon Hagibis in Japanese and English, while independent users uploaded sign language instructions they could use in evacuation centers. 

A number of users offered assistance in English to help people get through the storm. Perhaps due to a perceived lack of foreign language assistance, users such as Dogen and Jenny Silver, among others, offered to translate emergency materials and give advice on what to do as the storm got progressively worse. Save for a pre-Hagibis tweet from NHK that was posted entirely in hiragana as a way to inform non-native Japanese speakers that fueled a vigorous online debate, most social media posts over the weekend appeared to be incredibly helpful.

And while this conversation was refreshing, it didn’t take long before posts on social started to get weird again. A micro trend on Twitter as the typhoon was swirling closer was for young men to head out into the rain and re-create J-pop group T.M. Revolution’s video for “Hot Limit.” Those who really went for it attracted myriad likes and retweets, as well as replies by others who expressed a concern about their future health. A mascot even got in on the action

Once the typhoon passed and it became possible to record the damage, users started zeroing in on the many problems that had become clear. Reports that an evacuation shelter in Taito Ward wouldn’t allow homeless people inside drew criticism, as did a tweet sent out by the official Japanese language account of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe congratulating the national rugby team on their win over Scotland. This riled up netizens, who wondered why he hadn’t tweeted anything about the disaster itself in the past few days but had put this congratulatory post up so fast

And, while you’re here, there was also a video of two dogs having gusts of wind push their fur back, which was a nice change of pace.

For all the dancing in the rain and pooches in blustery wind gusts, Typhoon Hagibis showed that natural disasters in Japan now appear to have a set formula in how they play out online. Everyone tries to help one another as best they can via advice and news, as social media can be a great hub to disseminate information in times of need. After everyone weathers the storm, however, users tend to get in among the weeds and pick apart specific issues that emerged during the disaster. The impact of Typhoon Hagibis may well be remembered for decades to come, but this scenario is almost certain to play out again online at some point soon.  

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