Hong Kongers share postdisaster insights

Calm, cool response to March 11 left expats in Japan impressed


Staff Writer

Most Hong Kongers are enthusiastic about Japan — its fashion and pop culture have been popular for years, hundreds of thousands vacation in the country each year, and more of its food is imported there than anywhere else, with fresh sashimi flown in daily from Narita airport.

But after the March 11 disasters and ensuing nuclear crisis, people in Hong Kong understandably started to question whether Japan was safe and began urging relatives and friends visiting the country to return home.

On Sunday, the book “Japan, Restarting,” written by 22 Hong Kongers living in Japan, went on sale in Hong Kong, recounting their fears, difficulties and perspectives on Japan in the aftermath of the catastrophe, as well as the reactions of their relatives back home.

In their accounts, many of the authors said the crisis revealed new aspects of Japanese society to them, such as the surprising calmness and organization with which the people reacted to the catastrophe — something that contrasted sharply with the often sensational and exaggerated news coverage of the foreign media.

“News reports I saw in Hong Kong were all very negative, including those by some overseas media, such as the BBC and CNN. So I thought I should do something more than just donating money,” said Florence Hiraki, who headed up the Japan Reboot Project to publish the book, in a recent interview with The Japan Times in Tokyo.

One of the book’s purposes is to dispel Hong Kongers’ fears over Japan’s safety by objectively and honestly describing the experiences of the authors, said Hiraki, who has lived in Japan for seven years.

Another aim is to raise funds for victims in disaster-hit areas in the Tohoku region. To this end, all of the authors’ royalties will be donated through the Japanese Red Cross Society and YMCA Japan.

People in Hong Kong have been shocked by excessively negative news reports about Japan, so they are still scared, said Hiraki, who has a Japanese husband and a 3-year-old daughter.

When the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11, she and her daughter were in Hong Kong on vacation. Hiraki had to return to Japan because of her job, but her mother, who was deeply concerned by reports of the radiation leaking from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, asked her to leave her daughter behind in Hong Kong.

Even at the beginning of the crisis, Hiraki started to notice big discrepancies between the coverage in Hong Kong and the domestic news reports her husband in Japan was relaying to her.

“For example, when I was in Hong Kong, there was a big headline in a Chinese newspaper saying: ‘Prime Minister Kan abandons east Japan’ (because of the nuclear accident). But he didn’t say that,” she said.

“I thought about the situation a lot, and decided to take my daughter with me to Japan,” she said. Her worried parents, however, insisted that if the nuclear disaster worsened, they should return to Hong Kong.

May Uehara, who is married to a Japanese man and has lived in Japan for 26 years, also had to make a tough decision during the crisis.

After overseas media started covering the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, her relatives in Hong Kong and Canada urged her and her family, including her husband’s relatives, to flee Japan.

But her Japanese mother-in-law was strongly opposed to the idea. “This is my house and my country. If I die, I would rather die here,” Uehara quotes her as saying in the book.

Her husband was also reluctant to leave, and after much discussion the family ultimately decided to stay put at their home in Saitama Prefecture.

“Their attitude and way of thinking reminded me of the (2002-2003) SARS crisis in Hong Kong. No one in Hong Kong thought of leaving the city back then,” she writes.

In interviews with The Japan Times in Tokyo, many of the authors noted how impressed they were by the calm way the Japanese responded to the disasters and how organized they were during the crisis.

Some said they were surprised to see tsunami victims in the devastated northeast patiently lining up to receive relief supplies, such as food and gasoline. Even in Tokyo, people walked in a calm and orderly manner for hours to return home after the megaquake halted train services.

After the nuclear accident reduced the power supply of Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the Fukushima No. 1 plant, there were widespread fears of power outages in the summer. The government started an energy-saving drive, asking businesses to change their schedules and households to set their thermostats higher to save power.

“The government asked people to save energy so blackouts could be avoided, and (colleagues) at my company and other people I know really did that,” Scarlet Choi, one of the book’s authors, said recently in Tokyo. “Japanese people were really united during the crisis.”

Shirley Lau, who works for a Merrill Lynch office in Tokyo, said the crisis deepened her understanding of the people.

“Hong Kong was a British colony, and we don’t have such a sense of patriotism. But in Japan, people love their country. After the earthquake, they were not frightened or scared,” she said recently in Tokyo.

“Society is very peaceful and everybody thinks about others when they do something. In Hong Kong, sometimes I feel people are very self-centered,” she said.

But not all Hong Kongers are admirers of Japanese society. Tang Wai Yung, who also contributed to the book, said that she initially struggled to adapt to her new life in Tokyo.

The biggest obstacle was the language barrier, and she was stressed out at work, didn’t have close friends and thought the cost of living in Tokyo was too high. She also wasn’t a big fan of the city’s crowded commuter trains.

“I understand that in every country, or every city, there are both negative and positive aspects. Before (the disasters), I always focused on the negative things,” said Tang, who has been working at the Tokyo American Club since October 2008.

But March 11 changed her mind-set and the way she views Japan, she said.

“On the day of the earthquake, I saw how all my Japanese coworkers were united. They became a team, and helped each other out. They were not selfish, and thought about the company,” she said.

When Tang traveled to Hong Kong on March 14 — a trip planned before the catastrophe — her relatives and friends there tried to stop her from returning to Japan. But she decided to come back, largely because she felt an obligation to help out her coworkers.

Tang said that after returning to Tokyo, she decided to focus more on the positive aspects of living in the city. Asked if she enjoys living in Tokyo more than before March 11, she smiled and said, “yes.”

The book, “Japan, Restarting,” is now available in Hong Kong, published by Joint Publishing (Hong Kong) Co., for 125 Hong Kong dollars (¥1.200). It will soon go on sale in Taiwan.