On April 25th, Tuesday, during a presentation on the March 2011 disaster, a callous remark slipped out of then minister of reconstruction Masahiro Imamura. Revisiting the numbers that represent the damage the disaster had made, Imamura casually pointed out that, “It was a good thing that the disaster hit Tohoku,” as the damages would have been incalculable had it struck anywhere near the capital.
Needless to say, the remark was not well-received. When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took the stage later that night, he began with an apology, stating that Imamura had uttered inappropriate words during his presentation that hurt the feelings of the disaster’s survivors. It was too late to do damage control however, as Imamura’s words had made its way to Twitter, and enraged comments have popped up under the hashtag “TōhokudeYokatta.” (#東北でよかった; Good thing it was Tōhoku)
People called for Imamura’s resignation and by Wednesday night, the minister caved into submission. In the timeline of news stories, this would have been the end—a transgression has been made and accordingly sanctioned, balance has been restored, and people can now move on to the next story.
Except that the hashtag didn’t disappear after that. Once the bearer of bad news and angry messages, #TōhokudeYokatta became a badge of honor, with Twitter users reappropriating Imamura’s words to highlight what’s good about Tohoku. From gorgeous scenery to local cuisine, Twitter was filled with overflowing appreciation for the region.
“Just about everything is warm and wonderful,” says @camera_miki.
@rice19971111 chimes in with, “Rice field art in Aomori Prefecture. Taking this photo wasn’t easy but it was awesome!
@haru00usa sums it all up with the tweet, “Watching Imamura on the news was irritating so I went to see what’s going on Twitter. And then I saw how people have given a lovely meaning to the hashtag. I’ve moved to Kanto because of the earthquake, but I’m glad I was born in Tohoku. I’m grateful to you all… Thank you!”
There is power in social media. And in an era where online shaming is the norm, at a time when we jump from one scandal to another to vigorously participate in the tearing down of alleged transgressors, Japanese Twitter users seem to have found even greater power in positivity.
What I find most fascinating here is the collective display of defiance. These tweets essentially tell us that Tōhoku is beyond the disaster it survived. It is a place of grace and enormous strength, and Imamura’s fault lies not as much in his insensitive remarks as it does in failing to see the beauty of the place that he was tasked to help rebuild.
Witnessing an online transformation take place leaves one to wonder: could we possibly apply the same technique in communicating the ideas we wish to state and values we wish to uphold? Perhaps not in everything, but it’s good to know that there are alternative ways to proving a point.