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80% believed fake rumors of crime by foreigners in Japan after quake: poll

Kwak Kihwan (Mainichi)

SENDAI -- Fake rumors of rampant crime by foreigners in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami six years ago were believed by over 80 percent of respondents here in a recent survey of people who said they had heard them, it has been learned.

    Tohoku Gakuin University professor Kwak Kihwan, who specializes in co-existing society studies, conducted a survey on the rumors in September and October last year. He said the results show that a particular mindset can easily spread in an emergency, and is calling for people to choose their information carefully.

    Kwak posted the survey to about 2,100 people of Japanese nationality between the ages of 20 and 69 living in the three Sendai wards of Aoba, Miyagino and Wakabayashi, which suffered extensive damage in the quake and tsunami on March 11, 2011. Responses were received from 770 people, or 36.7 percent of the target group.

    A total of 51.6 percent of respondents said they had heard rumors of crime by foreigners in the disaster areas. Of these, 86.2 percent responded that they had either "largely" or "somewhat" believed the rumors. When asked what crimes had been rumored, with multiple answers permitted, "looting and theft" took the top spot at 97 percent, followed by "damage to corpses" (24.4 percent), and "rape and assault" (19.1 percent). When asked who they thought had committed the crimes, again with multiple answers permitted, 63 percent said "Chinese," 24.9 percent said "Koreans," and 22.7 percent answered "people from Southeast Asia."

    Television footage taken in the wake of the disasters showed Japanese residents cooperating in an orderly fashion.

    "It was probably convenient to have rumors that it was foreigners who were committing crimes so as not to conflict with the image that Japanese people act in an orderly way," Kwak said. He added, "There also may have been people who spread rumors about crimes not out of malice but because they were worried about those around them. You can't simply dismiss it as exclusivism. It's a difficult issue."

    To provide a basis for comparison, Kwak conducted a similar survey in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward targeting 700 people, and received responses from 174 of them (a response rate of 24.9 percent). Just 70 respondents said they had heard rumors of crimes by foreigners. Of these, 60 people, or 85.7 percent, said they had believed the rumors -- a result similar to that seen in the survey in Sendai.

    "False rumors commonly surface in the event of a major earthquake, and it is no easy task to erase them. Rather, each person needs to acquire the ability to judge them," Kwak said.

    Miyagi Prefectural Police statistics show that of the 3,899 people that police exposed in connection with criminal offenses in the prefecture in 2011, the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake, a total of 57 (1.5 percent), were foreigners either visiting or residing permanently in Japan. The figure dropped to 53 (1.3 percent) in 2012, and rose to 67 (1.9 percent) in 2013 -- indicating there was not a great deal of variation.

    At the time of the disaster, prefectural police distributed fliers to evacuation shelters warning residents to be on their guard against rumors. Online, police stated that there had been four serious offences between March 12 and 21, 2011, not significantly different from the seven cases recorded during the same period the previous year.

    Satoshi Konno of the prefectural police safety department commented, "During disasters, we want people to confirm information provided by news organizations and government organizations and act appropriately."

    False rumors have been seen following major disasters in the past. When the Great Kanto Earthquake struck in 1923, a false rumor that Koreans has been poisoning wells spread. Police and residents formed vigilante groups and Koreans and Chinese were killed in various areas.

    Recently false rumors have spread on the internet. In the latest survey, respondents were asked where they had heard the rumors. The top answer, at 68 percent, was "from family members and locals," followed by "on the internet," at 42.9 percent.

    The prevalence of smartphones following the disaster has provided more opportunities for people to share information through social networking services (SNS) such as Facebook and Twitter. In the wake of the Kumamoto quakes in April last year, police arrested a man on suspicion of fraudulent obstruction of business over a fake photo and tweet indicating that a lion had escaped from Kumamoto City Zoological and Botanical Gardens.

    Kwak commented, "With the Kumamoto quakes, we saw fake rumors that had been posted on Twitter being dispelled by other posts. SNS can be effective if not used in the wrong way. Ways of handling the situation should be incorporated into disaster education programs."

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