On Exhaustion, Self-Censorship and Affective Community

From the Series: 3.11 Politics in Disaster Japan: Fear and Anger, Possibility and Hope

Photo by IAEA, licensed under CC BY SA.

From the first series of earthquakes, online social media users continuously and spontaneously posted their affective reactions to the disaster. The responses to these upsetting events produced excitement on one hand, and exhaustion on the other. But even in these most intimate acts of expression, there was a micropolitics of communication and maybe even community, an effort that is echoed elsewhere.

Online, we saw a range of posts about “self-censorship” and “self-control.” There were posts that described the excitement of the earthquake, such a huge event, experienced by so many at the same time. Many people posted simply, "I got excited by the earthquake.” Since those who were able to post on the Internet were not usually those most severely affected by the earthquake or tsunami, part of the significance of the event was that it was something shared with others online. Even as they posted, sharing their affective response with so many, they also realized that the emotion in their own response might not be welcomed by others, especially, those in severely affected zones. Therefore, often when people posted “I got excited by earthquake" they prefaced it with: "It is indiscreet, but….” Someone commented directly on a friend's post: "Seeing my friend posting that he got excited by the earthquake on mixi, I wanted to kill him. It's indiscreet. He should put himself in the place of those who have really suffered in the earthquake.” Such outbursts were labeled "indiscreet (fukinshin)," demonstrating a lack of "self-restraint (jishuku)" in one’s contact with those unseen others in the disaster. At the same time, there was a backlash to the overuse of these terms and admonitions, by those who argued that the attempt to control others’ posts amounted to a form of censorship. Another post voiced the opinion that this sort of self-restraint would not help victims, that it might even have a negative effect on their lives and even the economy. The frequent appearance of these two words on social media made users more aware of what they write, but it also created a sense of self-monitoring and self-censorship stronger than usual. (On April 17th, an amendment of the penal code was approved by the Diet that would allow governmental monitoring and control over all internet sources deemed necessary.)

In a very short time, evidence of accumulated exhaustion was also evident among social media users. Some of this came from the demands of self-monitoring and self-censorship, but it also came from the fear and anxiety from their experience (direct and indirect) of the continuous exposure to disaster information. Not only stress but also the excitement triggered by the disaster was expressed as a "disaster high” (shinsai hai). Among both mass and social media sites, there emerged the idea that such exposure could lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Psychiatrist Kayama Rika noted: "All people in Japan are under acute stress disorder now. It happens to those who not only directly experienced the earthquake but also those who are exposed to images and information.” But the real worry was for the future. Kayama continued, “If this state is prolonged without relief, it can lead to PTSD. What we can do is not let ourselves get PTSD." This discussion of trauma became a common idiom of self-examination and self-expression. One post read: “It’s shaking again. I am traumatized by the earthquake. I’m so scared.” In response to discourses of exhaustion, trauma, self-restraint, and self-control other kinds of posts began to appear among social media users as well; urgings to each other to "stay calm" and "live a regular life if you can," were widely seen on social media sites.

But we have to ask, what does living a “regular life” mean especially now in the midst of a crisis when so many (others) are suffering? Should we really “stay calm”? Is this a retreat into a selfish and private world? An apolitical retrenchment? For some, probably it is. But for most, I think it is more complicated than that. Some needed reassurance that it is ok to talk about matters other than the disasters all the time; that there needed to be some part of digital life that is not the disaster. For some, this online posting is a reaching out to others, to express and communicate, and thus maybe to craft, some collective affective response. In stark contrast to the public explosions of emotion of the demonstrations or angry protests against nuclear power, the majority of people in Japan are involved in much more intimate and closed attempts to deal with the flow of mixed emotions. Excitement and exhaustion, self-restraint and self-censorship; these are the less spectacular but maybe more widespread struggles to deal with the collective crisis that people across Japan shared on social media. Maybe this is one way to also create some affective community, to protect against the possibility that we will all become exhausted and forget, that we will all simply be anxious by ourselves, alone. Maybe this is some sort of micropolitics.