Should rumor spreading be a prosecutable offense?

April 11th, 2011By Category: Culture

Since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, a number of publications have touched upon reports of wild rumors and fear mongering, circulated via the Internet, social networks and in some foreign media.

The Sankei Shimbun (March 30) carried an article that attributed the run on supplies of bottled water to messages circulated via the Internet and Twitter.

According to the article, a 63-year-old housewife in Mie Prefecture, situated far from the contaminated area, was caught up in the hysteria and purchased 15 1-liter bottles of water and 20 bottles of tea. “I don’t know what to believe, but I feel anxious, so I bought as much as I could take with me,” she was quoted as saying.

Nikkan Gendai (March 30) reported that hotels and ryokan have been refusing accommodations to evacuees from Fukushima Prefecture out of fears over their “spreading radiation,” and that transport firms are avoiding shipments of foodstuffs and fuel into the prefecture out of similar fears.

Such mistreatment of Fukushima residents, opines the tabloid, evokes memories of the ostracism suffered by Hiroshima bomb victims as depicted in Masuji Ibuse’s 1966 novel “Black Rain.”

So then—what’s to be done about these “dema hasshin” (messages spreading false rumors)?

Throw ‘em in jail, urges Spa! (April 5).

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police may be inclined to agree. “By using notices and cyber control, we can track down those who spread wild stories,” warns a source at the MPD’s Hi-Tech Crime Prevention Center. “There’s the possibility that malicious rumors can set off a frenzy, which can be treated as interference in the carrying out of police duties. Our guidelines are to deal with such offenders speedily and severely.”

There have indeed been cases of spreaders of wild stories getting arrested, says IT journalist Toshiyuki Inoue, who cites arrests of offenders in South Korea on March 17 and in China March 21.

“Last February, three middle school students in Japan were arrested after they posted a threat on the web to commit indiscriminate murders in Shinjuku Station. In essence, the stuff being spread now is just as bad,” asserts Inoue.

Some individuals are doing their part to nip rumors in the bud. One, a 30-year-old blogger named Chiki Ogiue, has set up a web site ( that attempts to shoot down crazy rumors.

Spa! runs numerous examples of the malicious material that’s been popping up, and then debunks them one by one. Some examples include:

– “On March 14, former Prime Yukio Hatoyama remarked while visiting Kyushu that he would ‘never live within 200 kilometers of a nuclear power plant.’” (Hatoyama wasn’t in Kyushu that day.)

– The Sanjo middle school in Sendai was forced to halt operations as a disaster refuge due to looting by foreigners. (Denied by a teacher at the school.)

– The government won’t permit supply of emergency items to stranded communities using air drops. (Such drops are in fact being conducted.)

– The University of Tokyo informed successful candidates for entry that their acceptance was canceled. (Publicly denied by the university.)

– Financier Takafumi Horie has pocketed a portion of the charitable donations as “service fees.” (Denied by Horie.)

– The workers at the Fukushima reactor receive a daily wage of 120,000 yen (sourced from a now-defunct position available classified ad).

– Electronics retailer Yamada Denki was selling a set of four size D dry cell batteries for 2,000 yen. (No evidence to support this.)

– Korean entertainer BOA (Boa Kwon) tweeted, “I can laugh at the death and destruction from the Japan earthquake.” (Denied by Boa. Appears to be a possibly maliciously altered mistranslation.)

One of the most common patterns found among these rumors is the ubiquitous source, “a friend of a friend,” who always seems to pop up at the worst possible time.

“There have been reports of a thief and rapist operating in the Tokyo metropolitan area posing as a public building inspector,” goes one, which is inevitably followed by “A friend of Ms (insert name here) was assaulted.” The exact same message has been popping up again and again, with only the name changed to fit the sender’s own situation.

Other nasty rumors have been circulated about activities in the water trade.

“The cabaret club hostesses who’d been working in Sendai have been flowing into Kabukicho in large numbers,” goes one. “There’s been a rush of club startups in Tokyo that exclusively feature girls from Tohoku,” goes another.

Image: Corpse Reviver / Wikimedia


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