Although more than a year has passed since the magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami struck Tohoku on March 11, 2011, Ivan Stout’s memory of the moment when the Shinmarunouchi building in Tokyo’s Chou Ward began to tremble is as vivid as ever.
While Stout, 33, had lived through the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 as an exchange student in Osaka, the fact that he was working on the upper floor of a skyscraper meant that the experience felt “very different and more perilous” this time around.
“I mainly just watched in shock, first at the buildings swaying from the earthquake and then at the tsunami, as we had several television screens on our floor,” he says. “It then took an hour to contact my wife, who was located in Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo, and confirm her safety.”
At the same time — 2:46 p.m. — on an upper floor of the Harumi Triton office tower, also in Chuo Ward, Kate (not her real name) frantically grabbed a safety helmet and hid under her desk as it became clear that the earthquake was stronger than anything she had experienced before.
“I managed to reach up and grab my cellphone off the desk, as I wanted to email my parents and close friends to say that I was OK and where I was, before communications were lost,” she said. “When I later checked my outbox, I was surprised at how many emails I had time to send, which made me realize that I had hid under my desk for such a long time.”
Once the earthquake ended, Kate immediately went into “crisis mode,” taking emergency supplies, such as water and food, from her office drawers and the storage box under her desk, while at the same time trying to determine what impact the quake had had on the company’s infrastructure and business.
“I also made a tour of my office space to look for fires, office damage and injured people,” she says.
Even as Stout and Kate were trying to comprehend the shocking images on TV and the Internet of the resultant tsunami laying waste to the coast of Tohoku, they found themselves facing a further threat they had never imagined having to contemplate: nuclear disaster.
“The seriousness of the situation taking place at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant only started to become clear from the 13th and 14th,” Stout says. “My primary source of reliable information came through the Internet.”
Kate, on the other hand, first learned about the situation at Fukushima No. 1 from an email sent by her worried mother.
“My mother’s first email was followed up by more specific emails and information from my father, which really caught my attention, as my father had actually worked for a firm that was responsible for some elements of the Three Mile Island reactors during the disaster that took place in 1979,” she says.
By March 12, Kate’s father was advising her that the situation in Fukushima was dire, the media could probably not be trusted, and that she ought to think about leaving.
“Based on his experience on Three Mile Island, he knew that the media reports would be filled with inaccuracies and outright lies told by the government to prevent panic,” she says.
The developing situation in Fukushima hit a particularly raw nerve with Kate and her family in Pennsylvania, as they had been living within 80 km of Three Mile Island when a partial meltdown at reactor No. 2 sparked America’s worst-ever nuclear disaster in the late ’70s. Kate now faced the prospect of living through the second nuclear crisis of her life at the age of 40.
Kate’s father had trusted the media reports at the time of the Three Mile Island disaster, and made the decision not to leave the area. Only a few years after the fact, Kate says, did he find out “how wrong those initial reports were.”
“To this day, my father says that he made the wrong choices during that situation”.
By March 13, Kate’s father was urging her to leave Japan. Two days later, he was begging her.
The final straw came when Kate received an email from her father in the early hours of March 15 saying that his personal network of boiling water reactor experts agreed that if there were more explosions or an expansion of the evacuation zone, they would recommend she leave.
“Both things ended up occurring on that day,” she says.
Faced with a seemingly unimaginable nuclear crisis brewing in northeast Japan, Stout remembers trying to downplay the situation at first after reading a news article saying that there was zero chance of any radiation getting out of the nuclear plant, company emails reassuring everyone that there was no danger, and statements from the Japanese government.
“However, at a certain point, this view of the situation no longer seemed to reflect reality,” he says. “At that moment, there was no turning back and I no longer trusted those sources anymore.”
The decision to leave Japan for Stout came on the morning of March 15, when his employer called him and said it was time to vacate the area.
“We were a two-man team and our New York-based manager was OK with it as long as we could work remotely,” he says. “My son was 3 at the time and it seemed like the most prudent choice in consideration of his safety and future.”
Based on the expert information she had received from her father’s professional network, Kate also made the difficult decision to leave Japan the same day.
“I waited so long hoping that the workers at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima would pull off a miracle, but it never happened,” she says. “I sometimes regret having left it so late.”
While leaving Japan seemed like the logical choice for Stout and Kate based on their circumstances at the time, the decision was met with a wide range of reactions from their immediate network of friends and coworkers in Tokyo.
Stout’s direct supervisor never questioned his decision to leave, even when he himself eventually decided to return to Tokyo because “he felt obligated and had no kids,” unlike Stout.
“There were other managers who certainly tried to make me feel like I was overreacting, but that quickly subsided as I gave the consistent message that I would consider returning as soon as it appeared the situation was improving,” he says. “A year on and I have yet to see an improvement, and instead the bad news continues to pile up.”
Looking back, Stout says that his friends’ and acquaintances’ reactions to the situation fell into three categories.
“There were those who also fled or eventually left, those who could not leave and respected — or were even envious — of our decision, and those who stayed but never indicated any bad feelings towards us,” he says.
Kate, on the other hand, found that most people chose not to discuss the matter with her.
“I did explain to some people the reasons why I left, and some understood, particularly after I explained my father’s experiences with the Three Mile Island incident,” she says. “Some people didn’t agree but gave me the courtesy of not talking to me further to avoid having to express their disapproval.”
Of those people who did talk to her, Kate says they were all supportive and understanding of her decision, particularly after they learned about what her family went through in 1979.
“I still got the feeling they had sort of written me off a little,” she says. “I had a lot of guilt about leaving, so my emotional response could have colored the interactions.”
While people may have been civil in face-to-face interactions with their departing colleagues and friends, social media networks such as Twitter were not so kind, with departing foreigners from Japan famously branded as “flyjin,” a play on gaijin, the Japanese slang for foreigner.
Stout heard the term for the first time from one of the managers responsible for trying to convince him to come back to Tokyo.
“He said something along the lines that ‘There are only two types of foreigners: gaijin and flyjin’ — though I find both terms equally offensive,” he says.
“Silly name-calling,” as Stout calls it, did not have the slightest effect on his feeling of responsibility toward his family; neither has it altered his conviction that “gross negligence” led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and that it continues to this day.
“If I am living somewhere where the government is incapable of basic public safety and transparency, I will move,” he says. “Those doing the name-calling would do a better service to themselves and society if they focused on the reasons people were leaving.”
He adds that if the world measured the “greatness of nations by their adeptness at baseless insults,” then North Korea would be “the best nation,” though he feels that the outside world “usually associates such rhetoric with desperation.”
“Unfortunately, I am not surprised at this branding or the strange focus towards what foreigners were doing at the time,” he says. “I believe the foreigners were being used as a proxy so that the Japanese public would not be required to directly address their own conflicting emotions.”
Kate’s first contact with the “flyjin backlash” was online in the days after she arrived in the U.S., though she mostly did not care about what people in various parts of Japan called her and other evacuees.
“It was more general derogatory name-calling and I have thicker skin than that,” she says. “Plus, I was pretty sure that people might reconsider calling me a flyjin if they knew about my prior proximity to Three Mile Island.”
While there was an initial exodus of foreigners in the early days of the crisis to areas of Japan outside Kanto and overseas, the Ministry of Justice reported a mere 2.6 percent fall in the foreign population in 2011 — a similar drop to a year earlier and continuing a three-year downward trend. This suggests that a large number of non-Japanese soon returned to their homes after they felt that the situation in Fukushima had stabilized.
While many may feel that the Fukushima No. 1 plant is currently under control, Stout sees no evidence of that.
“If reactor building 4 collapses, Kanto is finished,” he says. “The technology needed to stabilize reactor building 4 does not currently exist, and there is no conclusive evidence that the technology will be invented in time to save the Kanto area.”
Stout also points out that he is unable to “economically” measure the level of contamination from particular radioactive isotopes around his house in Ibaraki Prefecture to assess the health risks.
“Knowing the different isotopes is essential to knowing the risks from internal exposure, which are still poorly understood and another reason to be cautious,” he says.
Kate is also wary of the “soothing reports” from the government and media, but admits that this is largely based on her family’s experiences with Three Mile Island.
A month after Stout and Kate left Japan in March, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) raised the severity of the disaster at Fukushima No. 1 plant to 7 on the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES), its highest level.
Stout, though, feels he will only be vindicated for leaving Japan once the “criminals responsible for this accident” and the “ongoing gross negligence of the situation” are brought to justice.
“Tokyo is still in danger of being lost and the government should be acting accordingly, prioritizing the safety of its residents,” he says.
While Kate admits that the level 7 classification has vindicated her decision to leave Japan, she still feels that the INES scale is “insufficient to describe the higher-end disasters.”
“In some ways, I believe Fukushima exceeds the level 7 rating as there are four reactors involved,” she says. “I suspect that the government wants to ensure that Fukushima does not exceed Chernobyl’s radioactive element output, and fudges the calculations to see that it does not.”
While the decision to leave Japan has put them out of perceived danger, both Stout and Kate sometimes find themselves struggling to cope emotionally and make sense of the situation, even a year later.
Stout counts himself and his family as “incredibly fortunate” and feels his situation has turned out far better than he could ever have imagined a year ago, but his relief is tempered by concern for the family, friends and colleagues still living in Japan.
“The experience has also made us very passionate to speak up about what happened, what is happening, and what needs to be done before it is too late,” he says. “Our focus has moved from our own situation to the situations of those we left behind.”
For Kate, who had always considered herself to be a dedicated employee — the type least likely to suddenly up sticks and abandon her work responsibilities — leaving Japan has meant that she now has trouble in finding her “new path in life.”
“On the positive side, I’m no longer as anxiety-ridden or jumpy,” she says. “That fortunately left me last year, slowly over time.”
In addition to feeling a form of “survivor’s guilt,” there are times when Stout and Kate wonder why they formed the minority who evacuated Japan while the majority of foreigners stayed.
Stout says the bulk of the people he knows are still in Japan, foreigners and otherwise, and have not left because they simply do not have the choice to do so.
“The majority of any population cannot just leave a home no one is willing to buy and quit their job,” he explains. “Without the Japanese government officially acknowledging the severity of the situation and compensating accordingly, most people are stuck.”
Kate, on the other hand, sees it as a matter of people making their own choices.
“Though whenever I see pregnant friends and families with small children in Japan on Facebook, I feel very worried for their safety,” she says.
Even though evacuees such as Stout and Kate have already settled into their new lives in the U.S., the fact that they had to leave Japan unwillingly has meant that the nation they called home for several years is never far from their thoughts.
“I miss every little thing about Japan,” Stout says. “I was planning to live the rest of my life there, but the nation has been sabotaged by criminal politicians and a toxic nuclear industry.”
In addition to missing her friends, job and lifestyle in Tokyo, Kate has had to contend with what she feels is a “really poorly built” and “not well-maintained” infrastructure in the U.S.
“I miss the Japanese dedication to quality and cleanliness,” she says. “I also miss the good food, and I’m trying to learn how to cook all the things I took for granted in the past.”
As for the prospect of his family returning to their house in Ibaraki, Stout says he would first need to see certain criteria met regarding the ongoing situation at Fukushima No. 1.
In addition to all of the fuel at the site being contained, he wants to see affordable technology that measures the specific types of nuclear isotope contamination in populated areas, as well as significant advances in the science involved in dealing with the adverse effects of radiation on humans and the environment.
Stout would also need to see Japan abandon all of its nuclear power plants and have permanent nuclear waste storage plans with adequate safeguards, as he is convinced that “the Japanese nuclear industry can never be trusted again.”
“Had the Japanese government been forthcoming a year ago and provided support to evacuate western Japan, instead of trying to contaminate the rest of Japan by burning contaminated debris, I would still be in Japan today, even if it meant living indefinitely in a refugee tent,” he says.
Kate has also not given up on the idea of returning to Japan, but as her parents are getting older and she expects that they will need more of her help in future, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
“I am taking the event as a sign from fate that I should be closer to my family,” she says. “Perhaps when I do not have this obligation for my parents, I might look to overseas life again, but I think I will try a country other than Japan.”
While he has a new life with his family in the U.S., Stout still continues to look for evidence that Japan is returning to the way it was before, with the hope that one day, perhaps decades later, “exponential technological advancement be willing,” he can return to the home and life he had to leave behind.
“Every day I will continue to search and hope,” he says. “I hope to live long enough to one day return to the credible, safe country I once knew.”
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