“Osaka? Why didn’t you tell me about this? I’m responsible for the whereabouts of this institute’s employees, you know.”
After receiving this e-mail, I started churning out apology letters to my bosses. Since losing many foreign employees to fear of radiation fallout, they had been counting on me to set a better example. Instead, I made a last-minute decision to evacuate my Tokyo home of two years.
The truth is, I had no intention of leaving Tokyo on March 18 for a long weekend in Osaka, where I observed the crisis from a safe distance, a reluctant “fly-jin” (apparently what they call us) taking advantage of a distant perch. In my layman’s judgment, at 225 km from the Fukushima No. 1 plant, Tokyo was far enough away from the unfolding nuclear disaster for me to feel secure. But it was the seven or so phone calls I received the day before from my parents — who nearly broke down in disbelief that I would be risking my life for my job and my adopted country — that made me reconsider.
“That’s not your home, Darek. Your home is here,” my mother said, on the verge of tears. “My hair is turning gray.”
“Why?” I asked, naively. “From old age?”
“No, because I am worried about you.”
Well, that did it. I was out of there.
It made no difference to rationalize with my parents, both of whom lived through Chernobyl’s restrictions on food and travel (as did I) in southeastern Poland. They didn’t quite understand the specifics of radiation risk, but that made it worse. It was invisible, painless and bad, no matter the dose or the type.
I was surprised to learn the worst was just about to happen every time we talked on the phone: The reactor would explode. Tokyo is in a panic. There won’t be time, space or gas to escape later; I had to do it now. The Japanese government wasn’t telling the truth. Tepco wasn’t telling the truth. Apparently I was watching the wrong news (admittedly, the sleepy pauses of the NHK translator I listened to could sometimes make an apartment fire seem mundane).
Looking at foreign media coverage of this event, you would think all of Japan was crumbling, sinking, radiating or panicking out of fear of any one of the above, making it all the more difficult for non-Japanese, with news-addicted family back home, to try to stick it out and honor their professional and personal responsibilities in Tokyo.
Asking a few Japanese acquaintances if they were planning on getting out of Tokyo for a while, I got a pause and an uncomfortable look every time. Of course they were thinking no such thing — they had to work or take care of their families. And where would they go? They are Japanese!
Whereas in the West we would be thinking of personal safety, among Japanese this concern seems to be offset by the societal expectation that one shouldn’t do anything too spontaneous or out of the ordinary, but also with a kind of deference to authority and social institutions that I find hard to understand. It seems to entail a feeling of responsibility toward the victims of this disaster, to the nuclear technicians in Fukushima putting themselves in harm’s way, to the Self-Defense Forces airlifting 15-year-old boys and their 80-year-old grandmas from the rushing tsunami. All of these individual hardships and sacrifices seem to ignite a sense of pride, admiration and, most of all, duty — a duty to offer reciprocal support, which goes without saying.
But there is something else in that look — some kind of disapproval at my selfish departure, as if to say, “Are you just going to leave the rest of us here? How irresponsible.”
It’s harder to take when this look comes from your boss or coworkers. After all, good standing among colleagues is of utmost importance in the Japanese work environment, and no one wants to have this kind of thing held over their heads. It creates resentment between staff and management, and between colleagues who left and those who stayed if the former believe they are being judged negatively. This may be particularly true for those who judged the risks to be minimal, even after watching helicopters desperately giving nuclear reactors the equivalent of mist showers, but were worn down by pressure from families back home.
Is this well-publicized foreign migration out of Japan going to further draw lines between Japanese and non-Japanese in the office? Is it going to increase mistrust and division because, after all, “Foreigners can never become like us”? As they say, you really find out who your friends are in times of crisis, and in this crisis, the ease with which embassies and foreign companies are pulling out their nationals may really reflect badly on our dependability.
A similar challenge arises in international relationships, where the non-Japanese partner may try to convince the other to leave for safety reasons, over the objections of his or her Japanese family and friends. One friend has already had to utter the words “It’s over” after getting flak for leaving his Japanese girlfriend alone in Tokyo two days after the earthquake to attend a barbecue with friends in Tochigi. Another managed to convince his Japanese wife to leave the country very reluctantly. The discovery of each other’s differences, which at times makes intercultural relationships so exciting, can at other times present obstacles, especially when differences in values are highlighted.
It seems to me that some companies and foreign embassies overreacted in the early days of the Fukushima nuclear crisis. In Japanese circles, I heard murmurings of disappointment at the speed with which U.N. institutions concocted Tokyo exit strategies. In recent days, I believe these grievances have been expressed in political circles. On March 25, the British Embassy made public conversations with its science advisers, who offered a composed tone in sharp contrast to some of the alarmist coverage in the foreign media. Chief adviser Sir John Beddington especially emphasized Tepco’s progress at stabilizing atmospheric radiation levels and restoring power and freshwater cooling systems. Advice about preventive actions was deferred to the Japanese authorities, whose regulations were repeatedly called conservative, having triggered radiation warnings based on concentrations that would be permissible in Europe.
Knowing the right thing to do is difficult when you and your spouses’ families are separated by culture and distance, and placing your own family’s interests first may jeopardize your relationship with your partner’s family. If anything, this experience should make non-Japanese residents re-examine our loyalties: Where is our home? How much do we feel a part of Japanese society, and should we too take up the responsibilities of contributing to it and living within its norms?
The opposite side of the coin is to ask if Japanese society is ready to accept non- Japanese who have slowly embraced this society and have, perhaps unbeknown to them, become a little Japanese.
Darek Gondor works in the academic sector in Tokyo. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to email@example.com.