Flyjin: my decision to stay in Japan

1105019561 300x199 Flyjin: my decision to stay in JapanA new word, flyjin, seems to have entered the Japanese vocabulary. A disparaging pun, it plays on the word gaijin which literally means ‘outsider’ and in everyday Japanese describes foreign people. Flyjins are those foreigners who have fled Japan  during the last week and who some Japanese people now view as merely fair-weather friends.

Last Wednesday my wife and I checked all our windows were closed and that any drafts were sealed. But even then we were afraid, unsure whether radiation could penetrate the glass or even our apartment walls. On Friday we felt a little safer and decided to venture outside, but did so wearing masks and with scarves wrapped right up to our chins, as we’d read that radiation enters mostly through the neck. When we came back we showered immediately and washed all our clothes in case we’d carried any radiation back in with us.

Apart from radiation leaking from nuclear plants, there can be very few problems that make people feel so vulnerable and at risk. It’s an invisible, mysterious threat. It can cause cancer and problems with childbirth. It’s unnatural, and comes from an industry with a history of secrecy and lies.

Glued to our laptop screens, we, like everyone else, had seen smoke wafting from the Fukushima plant and workers racing to prevent meltdown. Many people we know fled Tokyo, and we’ve watched reports of long queues at the airports as foreign workers try to board especially chartered emergency planes. Friends back in England have told us to ‘come home now’. But, for the moment at least, I’m staying.

In order to even slightly understand our predicament, my wife and I have had to learn a lot over the last ten days. Things like nuclear fuel rods, storage ponds, and reactors hadn’t ever entered our minds before, and quickly we needed to know what things like caesium are and what millisieverts measure in order to understand our situation. It seems, though, that the people who already understood nuclear energy have agreed that there is currently no nuclear threat to human health in Tokyo, or in most of Japan. These experts say that even in a worst case meltdown scenario – with winds heading from Fukushima directly towards the capital – all people would need to do to avoid harm is close their windows and seal drafts, because Tokyo is so far from the plant.

Deciding to stay has, however, been extremely hard. My wife left Tokyo in order to see her worried friends and family back home. I know that mine will be somewhat concerned that I’m staying, particularly when they read headlines about Japan raising the nuclear alert level or water which contains an increased (but completely safe) level of radiation. Hopefully, beyond the headlines the facts about radiation levels in Tokyo will reassure them.

The decision to stay was made easier by the fact that in the last couple of days the aftershocks, which had been constantly shaking Tokyo, have become far less frequent and strong. Given the fact that crime is so low and life is so well-ordered, without a real nuclear threat, Tokyo remains one of the world’s safest cities.

After a few days of reduced hours due to power cuts and suspension of some train services, the college where I’m employed has now started back to work as normal. The traditionally stoic appearance of people in Tokyo gives the impression that day-to-day life hasn’t changed at all. There seems no chance of an en masse evacuation of the kind I, my wife and so many other foreigners feared. However, despite the lack of a nuclear threat, a huge exodus of foreign workers continues from the capital and the level of international hysteria has caused many Japanese people to complain. Countries like Germany and Switzerland have moved their operations out to Osaka and Kobe, as have many large multinationals. Much of the criticism of the so-called flyjin has come from Japanese workers at companies in Tokyo. They’ve been trying to keep a stiff upper-lip (or in Japanese, shiran kao shiteiru, ‘making know-nothing faces’), but their jobs have become impossible because their foreign colleagues, customers, and clients have left Tokyo.

These flyjin are one example of international over-reaction which seems unreasonable to many Japanese people. In China, Korea, and Singapore all imports from Japan have been scanned for radioactivity, while people as far away as America have been shown on TV here hunting for potassium iodine pills, in order to combat the effects of radiation. I myself have huge sympathy for the foreign people who left Japan; I nearly became a flyjin too.

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  • Buzzardbo

    Yeah, I left the country… but interestingly, on my way, I met Japanese leaving Honshu too. They understood English, and having read foreign news reports decided to move to safety. At least one would have left the country too, had her passport not expired.

    I have sympathy with anyone who decides to stay, but I see no shame in moving out of an area which is pretty dangerous. Worse case scenario- quadruple meltdown. It’s looking less likely to happen now, but I won’t come back until it’s sure. People may grumble at me and others who have taken a similar path, but what’s the sense in pretending there’s no danger? Can the author also supply a disparaging term for Japanese mothers who have taken their children to Kansai? Or my Korean friend who went with her kids to Seoul? Or is moving children away from possible exposure to radiation not to be condoned?

    Remember, once it’s happened, it’s too late. You’ve got to move before it happens. I’d rather be called flyjin (furaijin?) than be in harms way; if the harm doesn’t materialise, all I look is a little silly. If it does materialise, then the ones calling names now will wish they had followed me.

  • Fred46

    I cannot see any reason to criticize the thousands, in particular mothers with small children, both Japanese and foreign, who have left Tokyo as a precaution. Further, one cannot blame individuals who may not be fluent in the language (having limited access to information) or are not native to the area being more uncomfortable. If a similar disaster happened in my area, I think it would be reasonable that some people would evacuate, just as they would before a powerful hurricane that might end up being nothing more than some wind and rain.

    Unfortunately, there is an appalling lack of clear information from the Fukushima power plant. Tokyo Electric officials appearing on Japanese media typically lack answers to simple questions, responding with “we’ll look into that” or “we have to get back to you”. I know many smart, successful people who have heard and seen this, and have so little confidence in the situation, would rather be safe than sorry. Who can blame them.

  • tony_smyth

    Good: the more that leave the better. I’m a gaijin who stayed and am being offered lots of work, some of which I have to turn down due to time conflicts. In fact many foreigners left, not because they thought Tokyo was so dangerous, but because their families were in a panic caused by watching sensationalist western media reports.

  • Buzzardbo

    Yes, good for you if you need work. But my hopes are for your safety, and the safety of everyone who remains.

  • Eija Niskanen

    I stayed until Mon morning 3/21, but I had a ticket to my EU home country booked in January, and some work-related stuff to do in my home country. So I left a few days earlier as the airline allowed a change of flight date for free even for my cheapest possible ticket. I will be here in Scandinavia for 2 weeks and return, no matter whether this damn thing in Fukushima is still radiating or not. I did not were any protection when I went out in Tokyo, and even made my morning coffee out of tap water.
    One of the things which would have made my staying hard is that I don’t have any hot water coming to my cheap apartment, so showering every time I get home would have been impossible – I have used the local sento and my fitness club sauna and showers for daily washing.

  • Fred46

    Sadly, conditions in eastern Japan including Tokyo are bearing out the wisdom of precautionary evacuations by foreigners and Japanese, particularly those with children, and the larger exclusion zone recommended by the U.S. government. Most recent reports tell of harmful levels of radiation outside the 30km zone and a warning against giving infants Tokyo tap water. Radiation levels at Fukushima’s reactor 2 have spiked to their highest levels recorded so far. Although the U.S. government has made little of it, one cannot ignore the recent stories about the U.S. government providing potassium iodine to its nationals in eastern Japan, and preparations for the evacuation from the Yokosuka base south of Tokyo. There are numerous other stories, although not widely publicized, that speak to the U.S. military taking widespread precautions in Japan that speak to serious potential problems.

    A secondary, but important consideration, is not so much the danger of radiation, but panic caused by reported contamination of food and water. Food and water safety issues may become the dominant story in the coming days and weeks. In the past, Japan has been extremely aggressive in banning imports of U.S. beef, for relatively minor issues that were not seen as a problem in the U.S. A combination of panic buying and a strong sensitivity to food and water quality issues could lead to unforeseen difficulties in life in Tokyo and all of Japan.

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