Despite Fears of Fukushima's Radiation, Many Expats Stay Put

With the nuclear situation unclear in Japan, expats are urged to evacuate affected areas. Although the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have been in cold shutdown since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the situation remains serious and radiation monitoring is ongoing. The U.S. State Department, among other agencies from other nations, is providing voluntary evacuation for American citizens who are currently in Japan. However, many are refusing to leave despite the risk from radiation and inconsistent food supplies.

Irishman John Blakeney, a student of urban planning at the University of Tokyo, expressed trust that the Japanese government is doing the best it can.

When asked why he chose to stay, he said, “To be honest, I never really thought about leaving.
As it stands, the science says that in Tokyo, which is more than 200 kilometers from the nuclear plant in Fukushima, we are not likely to be affected by the radiation. [There’s] a worry that it might get into the water, but I am trusting that if it does, this will be picked up by the many independent people who are monitoring it.”

Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), operator of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, is working on keeping the nuclear crisis under control. According to the release on Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, “there is no influence of radioactivity outside as of now.” Experts such as Matthew Bunn, professor at Harvard University, doubt the accuracy of this information, as well as whether the company was really caught unaware by the situation, “The limited and often conflicting information that TEPCO has made available about the plant has also raised questions about its decisions.” Blakeney expressed a similar view of the company. He stated that “TEPCO [is] a joke, mind you, but at least they are now being monitored closely.”

Located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, Japan is no stranger to disaster, and the nation is well equipped to deal with it. Children are taught from a young age how to behave when an earthquake strikes. “The risk of earthquakes has always [been] and will always be here in Japan; that hasn’t changed,” added Blakeney. “There are regular aftershocks, which rattle the nerves, but these are not necessarily related to the probability of there being another ‘big one.’”

Leza Lowitz, an award-winning poet and owner of Sun and Moon Yoga in Tokyo, blogged about the nonchalant way everyone reacted when the earthquake first struck. “When the shaking started, I looked around to see if anyone else was alarmed. No one was. Tokyoites are famous for their calm in the face of earthquakes, which are frequent and even expected here in Japan,” she states. Although her family and friends overseas repeatedly urged her to leave, she refused. She is aware of the dangers of subsequent quakes and radiation, but she also sees an opportunity to help those less fortunate and has opened up her yoga studio as a refuge for others who chose to stay and has even continued holding classes there every day.

Emily Miller, an American student at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, was preparing to leave for Shinjuku when the earthquake struck. She was on the phone with her fiancé, Wataru Yamanaka, who told her to get under the table. Yamanaka is a Japanese national who works for Real Intech, a company that fixes and replaces water mains and pipes in Tokyo. Her first instinct was to go outside, because at her home in Kansas, whenever there was a tornado, she would always look outside to see if she could see it coming.

Miller explained why she chose to stay in Japan. “I feel like Japan is where my home is now, and my house is pretty far away from the nuclear plant and the evacuation zone, so I don’t feel like my life is in immediate danger.” She watches the news daily to stay informed. “I think one of the reasons a lot of expatriates left is because they probably couldn’t understand the news in Japanese, and that’s scary.” Yamanaka is in Fukushima now, helping to restore the water supply to one of the hardest hit areas.

Miller is worried about his safety, but remains optimistic and proud of his efforts.

Although Blakeney and Miller opted to stay in Japan, they both left Tokyo because the nuclear situation was still unclear. Aftershocks were causing a considerable disruption to the trains, and there was a lack of food in the shops.

Paul Blustein, a former Tokyo correspondent for The Post, thinks that the risk of radiation is low for most of the residents of Japan. He is confident that the government will prevent the consumption of contaminated foods. This will significantly lower the risk of the radiation’s adverse effects. In his article, entitled, “Why I’m not fleeing Japan,” Blustein writes, “It hardly seems sensible for people like us to pack up and leave. Nor does it seem sensible or fair for people here or abroad to act as if Japan is a hotbed of fissile material. All those heartfelt expressions of sympathy for quake victims aren’t going to mean much if overreaction to the nuclear mess worsens Japan’s plight.”

Although Blakeney, Lowitz, Miller, and Blustein’s other halves are Japanese, this is only one of many factors in deciding to stay in Japan. They consider Japan a second home, and they think that a mass exodus would only be detrimental to the country. They also believe that they are fairly safe from the effects of radiation and the dangers of subsequent earthquakes.

Although many chose to stay, many also weighed the risks of radiation and opted to leave, at least for a while. Concerned not only for their own safety but for their children’s, parents constitute a large portion of the evacuees. Nancy Singleton Hachisu blogs about her agonizing decision to leave the country for a few weeks, citing that it was a “decision I had to make for the kids and for their future.” Nancy is an American freelance writer and is also the owner and director of Sunny-Side Up, an English immersion pre-school in Saitama, Japan. Like Blakeney, she has trouble trusting information disseminated by TEPCO, but despite her continuing fears, she has returned to Japan to resume her normal routine and provide whatever aid she can offer to refugees. As an advocate of home cooking, she grows her own food and has concerns about radiation contamination. Nevertheless, she continues to tend the garden and hopes for the best.

“Being a student, and having contacts in other parts of Japan, I have more of a safety valve, so I have some sympathy with foreigners who have arrived more recently, can’t access the Japanese media as easily, and feel somewhat isolated and vulnerable,” said Blakeney. “The current advice from the Irish embassy is that there is no need to leave, although they have obtained a stock of potassium iodine to cover any worst case scenarios. Some people have joked that they just couldn’t afford to fly us home given the current economic situation!”