Cherry Blossom Paradox

As I sit here in my luxurious Kyoto hotel looking at the deer grazing on the nearby forested hillside dotted with the pink hues of the cherry blossoms, it is hard to believe that 600 kilometers to the north a myriad of people are fearing for their health and safety and a few sacrifice for the benefit of many. It all seems surreal. Yet the graphic images viewed across the globe of the triple disasters to hit Japan on March 11, 2011 are still fresh in my mind. The paradox is hard to reconcile, as are the contrasts between the photos shown in this post that were taken on my recent trip to the YouTube footage from such a short distance away.

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The implications of the devastation in northern Japan will be felt globally for many years to come. The environmental and economic issues will be slowly played out on the world stage while the human implications will primarily be experienced on a personal level, one individual at a time; for some it will be the pain of deteriorating health, for many the grief of losing loved ones, for others the fear resulting from the loss of their feeling of security. For each of us we deal with the reminder of our own mortality and the fragility of life.

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Beauty in the Cherry Blossoms, Path of Philosophy, Kyoto by N. Connor

As a defense mechanism against the overwhelming emotions associated with these tragedies, let me shift to the subject at hand: visual literacy. Though the ultimate focus of this course is on visual literacy in the classroom today, I want to start by focusing simply on the power of visual media to positively influence our world.

The rapid revelation of unfolding events in Japan was evidence of the power of visual media to disperse information. The images and videos posted on the internet of the effects of the earthquake and the resulting tsunami in Japan brought the situation to a world audience in a graphic and heart-wrenching manner. Through the posted images we felt the buildings shake and watched in horror as the wall of water covered the countryside wiping out everything in its path. Images like this had not been seen before. The wireless coverage in Japan combined with its digital and mobile nature allowed people to capture events on their digital cameras or cell phones and practically simultaneously share them with the world. Images were viewed around the world as they happened from a variety of different perspectives.  This demonstrates what a powerful tool digital media is for the timely dispersal of information. But is that all it can do … share information?


It was as I was sitting in my Kyoto hotel at the end of an exhausting yet exhilarating day of

Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kyoto, Japan by N. Connor

 sight-seeing and cherry blossom viewing that the true power of visual literacy and images was revealed. In a twist of irony, I was reading a newspaper in the old-fashioned paper form when the power of visual media to instigate global and

individual response was seen. In the “World News” section of The Global Edition of the New York Times there was an article by Martin Fackler entitled “From shadow of damaged plant, a cry for help.” The article on the internet has a different title but can be viewed here. The article begins by saying, “It was a desperate plea for help, spoken into a small digital camcorder by the mayor of this seemingly forsaken city, and posted on the Internet like a bottle tossed into a digital sea.” Fackler goes on to describe how the mayor of Minamisoma, Mr. Katsunobu Sakurai, posted a youtube video begging for help as he described the plight of his town, located a mere 25 kilometers from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

He spoke from his heart and the world responded. Phone calls and “hundreds of boxes of food and other supplies from individuals, and truckloads of relief goods from non-profit organizations” came flooding in. More important than the actual volume of supplies was the realization by the residents of Minamisoma that though they were locked in their homes, they were not forgotten; the world cares about their plight. Can you imagine any other way that this plea could have been sent out to such an extensive audience in such a short period of time? There was no time for fancy editing of the video or Hollywood-style special effects, just an ordinary man reaching out to the world on behalf of his community. Seeing the face of the mayor as he describes the dire straits of the residents of his town was a far more powerful tool for touching the hearts of others than a written request could ever be. The visual images revealed the human suffering and gave a personal face to the tragedy while also providing people around the world with a practical method of response.
What dramatic proof that images can make a difference. The challenge now is to harness these tools for the benefit of student learning.