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Fearing radiation, family quits Japan

Distrustful of official claims, a pregnant sister and her brothers head for Vancouver

by Julian Littler

The ripples from the Fukushima nuclear disaster have been felt across the globe, drawing offers of sympathy and support for Japan, provoking debates about nuclear power and its alternatives — even sparking complete rethinks of energy policy.

Germany decided to shut down all its nuclear reactors by 2022 in response to the Fukushima crisis. Switzerland will close its remaining five reactors by 2032, and Italians were voting on whether to abandon nuclear power for good in a referendum over the weekend.

Japan has made no such promise, and the government has been criticized for being slow to react to the disaster. But as the politicians dither, the Nishida family in Tokyo have already made up their minds about the nuclear dangers.

They have decided to leave Japan to protect themselves and 21-year-old Reina’s unborn baby.

While radiation in Tokyo, some 250 km from Fukushima No. 1, is currently at a safe level, new information about the amount of radioactive material released in the early days of the crisis continues to be released. For now, the levels in Tokyo are on par with those in other major world cities. Sadly, the same cannot be said for regions much closer to the still heavily damaged nuclear plant.

The unknowns of the Fukushima disaster and the lack of clear information have worried Japan’s nationals and nonnationals alike. Concerned over their safety and the potential worsening of the situation, many Japanese left Tokyo and its surrounds for their hometowns or other regions in the days after March 11. Local and international media, however, focused almost exclusively on the exodus of non-Japanese from Kanto during this time.

Like many of the generation that grew up in the years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Takahiko Nishida, 49, and his wife, Hiroko, 59, were involved in Japan’s antinuclear protest movement for many years.

“My parents were involved in the antinuclear protest for a long time, and other environmental movements, too. Growing up I thought this thinking was normal,” recalls Genki, 26, the eldest of the Nishidas’ three children.

After the Fukushima power plant’s first hydrogen explosion, Takahiko and Hiroko worried for their family and Japan. While the police set up road blockades and famous photojournalists such as Ryuichi Hirokawa made their way to the nuclear site to check the radioactive levels for themselves, no one knew what would unfold in the coming weeks.

The Nishidas were not about to risk what they had feared for many years: a nuclear disaster endangering their family. They did what they had planned a long time ago to do if the worst ever came to the worst: They left the Kanto area for a safer place.

“My parents were really panicked about the nuclear reactors — sometimes they seemed hysterical,” explains Genki. “They were against the reactors for a long time, so when the meltdown happened they thought it best to leave immediately.”

The next day the Nishidas packed their pregnant daughter, Reina, into a car and drove straight to their relatives’ house in Kyoto.

Once in Kyoto, the Nishidas hoped that Reina’s two older brothers, Genki and Ryuma, could join them there. With Genki working as an assistant director on a well-known TV program and Ryuma, 25, employed at a Tokyo real estate agent, Reina and her parents knew it wouldn’t be easy. Many Tokyo businesses at the time were carrying on as normal and making it difficult for employees to take leave. While in Kyoto, the family were even interviewed about the difficulties of taking time off work in the weeks after March 11 by German TV.

At first Genki was pressured into not taking leave, but he was eventually granted time off on family grounds after he considered quitting. Ryuma, however, was only able to make it to Kyoto for one night. Together in Kansai, they discussed the radiation situation and what was best for the future of the family. They also planned a month-long trip to Thailand to re-group and relax.

It’s better to think of not returning to Tokyo,” Ryuma told me over a beer just before he left for Kyoto. “After the earthquake the current really bad conditions came out, and the government seems to be covering up the facts.

“TEPCO also seems to be covering things, hoping that little will come out,” he said. “Things can get worse than they are now, so it’s better to think about not going back to Tokyo. If at all possible, it’s best to plan to live overseas.”

Ryuma explained that he wants to go to Canada because “it seems that Japan’s economy will go down a troubled path from here, and if Reina’s baby can be born somewhere with dual citizenship, then the baby can be free for a better future.”

Reina echoes her brother on the importance of dual citizenship, which Japan currently does not allow beyond age 21. “After Genki decided he was going (to join us abroad), we thought about where we would go too and decided on the same place. The possibility of dual citizenship was important.”

Genki had considered Australia as a possible destination, but Reina was adamant that she loved Canada and wouldn’t think of going anywhere else. As an exchange student there, she had developed special feelings for the country, and she felt welcome there.

After time together in Kyoto and Thailand, the three siblings decided to move to Vancouver, based on the fact that there is a healthy Japanese community there, which should make finding work easier.

“Reina can’t work just before she gives birth and can’t work immediately afterwards either, but we need to choose a city where she can find work”, Ryuma says.

Their parents, however, will not be joining them. “Their house in Saitama is rented so they will move in with my aunt and uncle in Kyoto. The family business has contacts and associates in Kanagawa where they need to do business, so they cannot leave Japan,” explains Ryuma, whose parents run a trading firm. “While they live in Kyoto, my parents will make work appointments for one day a week, for example Monday or Friday, and then go to Kanto for that single day for work meetings.”

He doesn’t yet know if his parents will be able to make it across the Pacific for the birth of their first grandchild.

On returning to Japan from Thailand, Reina asked her husband whether he had saved any money in preparation for the coming baby. On hearing he had planned nothing, Reina decided to leave him and start building a more secure future.

Reina’s husband was very understanding of the dangers of radiation for the baby. He was also supportive when she left with her family for Kyoto while he stayed behind in Saitama to work, but the thought of struggling financially with a baby was too difficult a prospect to contemplate for Reina. On Reina’s decision to separate, Ryuma vowed to support her, quitting his job to do so.

Sitting in the emptied apartment of his younger brother, Genki cleans the flat for inspection while telling me his thoughts. Ryuma decided to move out so as to be ready to leave Japan as soon as his and Reina’s visas are ready.

“I was already planning to go, then Reina decided to leave Japan and Ryuma decided to go with her to support her,” explains Genki. “Of course I like Reina, but Ryuma really has a close relationship with her. So he quit his job and he’s going with her.”

Asked if using his money to support his sister is a big deal, Ryuma is philosophical. “My saved money has no meaning if I don’t use it, so for my family’s circumstances now, because the baby will not wait, I’ll use the money for the baby,” he says. “And when we come back, I’ll see whether the money is returned. If the money is used for my family, then I don’t mind.”

“Time, not money is most important. We need to leave Japan quickly,” stresses Ryuma, taking a friendly swipe at his brother’s procrastinating. Genki is still considering whether to stay in Japan a little longer to collect unemployment insurance he’s owed or to leave for a new life straight away.

When I talk to Reina, she is staying in Kyoto with her aunt and uncle. But despite being with her relatives, she feels the strains of loneliness and cries every night, she tells me. These periods of being away from her close family while they organize themselves are taking their toll on this young mother-to-be. She also misses her husband, but still believes she made the right decision.

Her favorite time of the day is now spent going for walks alone, thinking and going to the bookstore looking for inspiration from the life stories of strong characters. People such as Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln and Panasonic founder Konosuke Matsushita bring her inspiration, she says.

“I want to leave Japan because I am stressed about the radiation, and for my baby’s happiness”, says Reina. She is worried about the radiation even while she is in Kyoto. Her trust in her own government has been fully eroded. She doesn’t feel safe anymore.

The last time I saw Reina in Tokyo, she was asking her brothers if they had any (radiation free) bottled water, in her usual cheery tone. This time she is alone in Kyoto. Talking to me on Skype, she sounds sad and stressed but happy to talk to someone. She seems to be caught in limbo, awaiting family and freedom.

Genki will join his brother and sister; it’s just a matter of when. Reina is counting on her two older brothers to step into the parenting role she felt her husband couldn’t fill.

“The biggest worries are looking for work, it being Reina’s first time to have a baby and it also being Ryuma and my first time to look after a baby”, Genki says.

The path is a new one, but the Nishida brothers and Reina will walk it together with the support of their parents in Japan. The brothers are very worried about Reina’s stress and its impact on the baby. They hope that Canada will provide the clean, stress-free environment for a comfortable life, until they decide on their next step.

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