According to a recent Tokyo Metropolitan Government survey, 25 percent of foreigners living in Tokyo left Japan temporarily after the March 11, 2011 disasters. That survey seems to imply that many foreign residents did indeed become “flyjin,” a pejorative term coined from “fly” and “gaijin” or foreigner. The survey, however, also confirms that the vast majority of foreigners in Tokyo stayed right where they were — in Tokyo.

At the time, some Japanese and foreign media, as well as the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, inflamed the controversy by exaggerating the extent of foreigners leaving the country and impugning their motives for leaving. They suggested that in tough times, only Japanese would endure. That quasi-nationalistic suggestion should be set aside for a more dispassionate evaluation of what happened in the aftermath of the disasters, and why.

The survey found that among those who briefly left, nearly half were foreigners who lived in Japan for less than three years. The shorter the time a foreigner lived in Tokyo, the more likely they were to leave after the disasters.

Many of those who left were instructed to do so by embassies or employers, a fairly standard response by international companies and embassies in the event of dangerous conditions, and not an unreasonable judgment given the limited information at the time.

With the comfort of hindsight, that evacuation advice now appears to have been premature. However, those who left were not being selfish, disloyal or scared; they were being cautious.

Similarly, those Japanese who remained in Tokyo were not necessarily acting out of national pride or bravery; they may have been too terrified to go anywhere. The foreigners who stayed during the crisis did so for a variety of reasons.

The survey did little to better understand all Tokyoites’ complicated reactions to the crisis.

The survey, interestingly, did not determine exactly how many of those 25 percent eventually returned to Tokyo. The survey did little to focus on what can be done to ensure that all residents of Tokyo be given clear information about conditions and constructive advice about what to do in the event a similar disaster strikes in Tokyo in the near future.

The “flyjin” issue, besides being a derogatory term, was always a tempest in a teapot. Surveys that find information to help improve communications are important, but it is the actions that follow that really count. The metropolitan government should prepare a means to give all residents of Tokyo, whatever nationality they are, trustworthy information during emergencies so safe, sensible decisions can be made.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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