While the media both in Japan and overseas reported on a perceived exodus of foreigners in the immediate aftermath of the March 11, 2011, disasters in Tohoku, the reality is that very few actually left for good.
As was highlighted in our July 3 column (“The curious case of the eroding eikaiwa salary”), the number of foreign residents in Japan in 2011 dropped by only 2.6 percent compared to the previous year.
Mitch (not his real name) was one of the vast majority of foreign residents that stayed through the earthquake, tsunami and the bewildering weeks and months that followed the Fukushima nuclear accident.
When the earthquake hit on 3/11, Mitch was on a break between lessons at his English teaching job in Tokyo.
“My initial, split-second thought was it was just another jolting, quick tremor that we had all grown accustomed to,” he recalls. “Within a few seconds, however, it was obvious this was much more severe, and it dawned on me pretty quickly that this could have been the Big One.”
Mitch still vividly remembers running to the entrance of the room and standing under the door frame while cracks spread across the ceiling, threatening to dislodge light fixtures and a large air conditioning unit.
“I rode the earthquake out under the door frame, as I was afraid something might fall on me,” he says. “When it settled down, I immediately collected my belongings and left the building with my coworkers.”
Mitch’s relief at having escaped the quake intact was short-lived. By the next day, TV news reports were dominated by the “situation” brewing at the tsunami-hit Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
“Initially I was only mildly concerned, but once I saw video of the (first hydrogen) explosion and the plume of smoke, I immediately began to consider an exit plan from Tokyo,” Mitch says.
His worries mounted when he went back to work on Tuesday, March 15, four days after the earthquake.
Not only had half of his coworkers already left Tokyo, but he was also receiving warning emails from a French friend who had taken up his embassy’s offer of a free flight out of Japan.
“He had heard reports that a plume of radioactive smoke was moving towards Tokyo and was expected to reach the city by midnight,” Mitch says. “That was basically the straw that broke the camel’s back and convinced me I should leave Tokyo.”
Following the lead of his departed friends and coworkers, Mitch bought a one-way shinkansen ticket and boarded the first bullet train for Osaka.
Though they were pleased Mitch had decided to leave Tokyo and head west, his family and friends back home in Canada could not understand why he was not on the first flight out of the country.
“A few Japanese friends indicated that they felt I was overreacting by leaving Tokyo, but I never sensed any real resentment from anyone over my decision,” he says.
The already stressful situation took an unusual twist when Mitch received a call from a Canadian radio station as he was about to evacuate to Osaka. The local radio station had been in contact with his family ever since the crisis in Fukushima had begun to unfold, and a news program wanted to conduct an interview with Mitch.
“From the tone of the interview, it seemed as though people in the West were viewing the situation as extremely dire,” he says. “At one point in the interview, it got really awkward when the news anchor asked my family what message they had for me in Japan, and they said, ‘Come home.’ “
Only after arriving in Osaka did Mitch first come across the term “flyjin” — a play on the word gaijin, meaning “foreigner” — in a Facebook post, just as some of his friends and coworkers were either making plans or were in the process of leaving the country altogether.
“I didn’t feel any resentment towards the people who chose to leave Japan,” he says. “In fact, I half-expected I would soon join them if the situation continued to deteriorate.”
After a tense week in a hotel room in Osaka, Mitch checked out and boarded the shinkansen back to Tokyo.
“The situation with the nuclear reactors no longer seemed to be deteriorating, and from all reports, Tokyo remained safe from radiation,” he says. “Plus, I had mounting pressure from my company to return after a week of unpaid leave.”
Mitch offered to speak to The Japan Times on condition he could use a pseudonym, citing fears for his future job prospects if a potential employer was to discover he left Tokyo briefly as the nuclear crisis was unfolding.
While Mitch admits that he spent the following weeks and months in Tokyo checking the radiation levels in the city on a daily basis, everyday life soon settled back into its regular frenetic rhythm for most of the capital’s 9 million residents.
“Within a few months, it was back to life as usual for myself and almost everyone around me,” he says.
Based on his experiences in those early days of the crisis, Mitch guessed that approximately 25 percent of non-Japanese left the country permanently. He was surprised to learn that apparently only a small number did not return.
“That would seem consistent with the number of people I know who stayed in Japan,” he now admits. “Even my French friend who took the free flight eventually returned, despite the fact that his job in Japan was already long gone.”
Eighteen months on from that fateful day, Mitch says that his family and friends still support his decision to stay in Japan.
“I don’t feel like Tokyo is any different than before the disaster, and I’m basing this on the general atmosphere around the city, the nightlife, and from discussions with hundreds of Japanese students that I have taught since that time,” he says.
While life has returned to normal in Tokyo, Fukushima Prefecture is still reeling from the earthquake, tsunami and consequent nuclear meltdowns that compounded the misery wrought by 3/11.
In Onahama, a port town within Iwaki city, John Loynes was in the middle of a one-to-one lesson with an adult at his privately-run English school when the quake struck.
Since there was just one adult in the class, Loynes was able to escort the student to the doorway before he himself went to the center of the room to avoid the books and other items that were falling from the nearby shelves.
“After that, I cleared the entrance and helped shelter a couple of people from the street during the strong aftershock,” he says. “Then my neighbor told me to get away from the coast, and I immediately drove to where we live further inland in Iwaki to check on my two sons.”
On the way, Loynes picked up and dropped off an elderly lady who had been in Onahama and was walking home in the snow, having given up on public transport.
Loynes was also deeply concerned about the wellbeing of his wife following the quake.
“She was teaching at a school right on the beach,” he says. “With the phones down it meant I couldn’t contact her, though when I did, I was relieved to find out that the school’s elevation meant that it wasn’t hit by the tsunami.”
What should have been a joyous family reunion that evening was tempered by news reports about the Fukushima No. 1 plant, located roughly 80 km from Iwaki, that began appearing on TV that night.
“My mum was watching the news in England when we were sleeping that night,” Loynes says. “When the danger of the spent-fuel pools first came to light, she immediately called and woke us up.”
With a nuclear crisis brewing in his own backyard, Loynes started gathering as much information as possible, as well as preparing for the worst.
“We had a bag packed for if we needed to leave quickly, but after reading all the analysis that was going on, we didn’t feel that was necessary,” he says. “So we never left Iwaki and I kept the boys entertained throughout the ordeal, all the while monitoring news and information online, both for our sake and to spread the word to the other foreigners in town.”
As to why he and his family decided to stay in Fukushima when, seemingly at the time, a large proportion of the non-Japanese population was leaving the country, Loynes says he did not feel it was necessary to leave after reading information from sources he trusted, such as the chief science adviser to the British government.
“City radiation levels and water supplies were below dangerous levels,” he says. “We also had running water, the lack of which made quite a few locals leave, I think.”
Loynes received “100 percent support” from his family in the U.K., which he puts down to the fact that they were following his updates for news of the latest developments in Fukushima, having quickly concluded that much of the sensationalist British media coverage of the crisis was not to be trusted.
While Loynes says he personally felt no need to leave, he respects other people’s need for peace of mind in the confusing period as the nuclear crisis was developing.
“They did what they needed to do for themselves and their families,” he says, “though I would have liked maybe a smidge more stoicism from the British Embassy, such as endorsing the evacuation zones suggested by the Japanese and Americans.”
In the weeks and months following the nuclear meltdowns, Loynes noticed that non-Japanese residents gradually began to trickle back into Iwaki.
He attributes this to the city being “very lucky,” with only negligible levels of increased radioactivity recorded in the area following the explosions at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
“Once levels were being widely monitored and publicized, most people came back and got right into helping with the tsunami cleanup and aid distribution,” he says. “Not all, though, as we lost a few for good.”
Having seen foreign residents return to Iwaki, Loynes is not surprised that the vast majority of non-Japanese decided to stay in the country following last year’s events.
“I know first-hand what a great place Japan is to live,” he says. “The cultural differences and geographical remoteness of the country means people don’t come here lightly, so those that choose to live here I’d say do so with a high level of commitment.”
The announcement in April 2011 by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency that the disaster at Fukushima No. 1 ranked at Level 7 on the International Nuclear Events Scale — the highest level, on par with Chernobyl — did not affect Loynes’ determination to stay in Fukushima Prefecture, nor his family’s support for the decision.
“It only made me a little sad that in this world of surface-skimming news-following and reporting, everyone would automatically assume Fukushima and Chernobyl were as bad as each other,” he said. “I fear that decision really hurt Fukushima’s ability to recover quickly.”
When asked if abandoning his work and home to evacuate his family overseas permanently was ever on the cards, as some foreigners did after the disasters (see ” ‘Flyjin’ feel vindicated, worry for those left in Japan,” Zeit Gist, June 12), Loynes says he did not rule it out.
“If it had been bad enough, we would have gone to the U.K., but I never felt it had reached that level,” he says. “Our motto in Iwaki was ‘Be ready for the worst, hope for the best.’ “
A year and a half later, Loynes admits that the sadness of the disaster is still palpable in Iwaki, with nothing but building foundations left in parts of the city that were washed away by the tsunami. However, seeing how the city has bounced back, he says, has been “very encouraging.”
Although Loynes concedes that some crops in the region have been contaminated by potentially dangerous levels of radiation, he takes solace in the knowledge that everything is being monitored and unsafe items are being destroyed.
“The majority of foods, whilst not completely unaffected, are still safe to eat,” he says. “In fact, we’re eating the local vegetables.”
For Loynes, it is disheartening that the prefecture that he calls home has now become synonymous with a nuclear disaster, much in the same way the city and region of Chernobyl in the Ukraine has.
“The general way in which the troubles and dangers at the Daiichi plant are associated with the entire prefecture is a real shame,” he says. “Outside the 20 km evacuation zone, things are relatively unaffected, with the exception of some well-documented hot spots.”
He adds that scenic Aizu in the west of the prefecture is “just as safe and enjoyable a place to visit as it always was.”
“I really hope the media and people in general can resist the temptation for needless scare-mongering, so that this beautiful part of the world can fully recover and continue to be the Fukushima I know and love,” he says.
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