When I went back to Canada on March 18, I wasn’t at all sure I was coming back to Japan, though I knew I wanted to. I’d left the majority of my clothes in my room in Tokyo like a frail, gossamer thread connecting me to Japan. An argument to any opposition on why must return. Also in my arsenal were an outstanding cell phone contract, a six month lease on my place, and my job. It made perfect sense to me. I’d spent two months making a life here. I had people and places and things I wanted to get back to. So my plan was to fly home, prove to my family that hadn’t sprouted any extra limbs, monitor the situation at the Fukushima nuclear plant and go back in a couple of weeks.
But, honestly I just didn’t know if that would be possible. I felt I had a reasonable shot at keeping my job — I wasn’t the only one or the first one leaving and the precedent had been set. But I was dreading having the discussion with my parents. I knew they wouldn’t be too happy about my return to the “danger zone”. I’ll forever remember the1000 watt smile my dad, a man who is usually very reserved with his emotions, gave me when he saw me at the airport. I know I made the right decision to fly home, but would it really be wise to return to Tokyo? I can’t say I missed the aftershocks or the daily reports of spreading radiation and contamination, and what about my job? Even if I got to keep it there could be consequences for becoming a fly-jin, a (cowardly to some) foreigner who left the country after the earthquake. What would my coworkers say? As the nuclear crisis unfolded, there emerged two distinct voices. The voice of panic — largely found in the foreign media — told us Kanto was doomed. The radiation plume was coming and there was nothing we could do about it. Hell, radiation would trickle all the way to North America by some estimates what chance did Japan have? Then there was the voice of denial, channeled by people who wouldn’t or couldn’t leave Kanto and supported by TEPCO’s sugar-coating of the facts, telling us the radiation was not an immediate health risk. The voice of denial said everything was OK. So what if there was a sickly nuclear reactor threatening to spew harmful amounts of radioactive puke all over us? It probably wouldn’t happen because…because it just wouldn’t.
And so I found myself stuck in between the rock and hard place of legend. Behind the rock was my Canadian social network who, fueled by foreign media coverage, thought I was crazy to go back into the “mess” that was Tokyo. Clearly it was a ghost town. Clearly all the grocery stores had empty shelves. Clearly all the produce and the tap water were contaminated with radiation. What could I be thinking going back there? Yes, I doubt there was one foreigner here who didn’t wake up to frantic Facebook messages and Skype calls in the week after the earthquake. There was even an article in the Japan Times about it.
The hard place housed the people who came up with the term fly-jin in the first place. They metaphorically glowered down at me in judgment; their eyes alight with romantic notions of bravely sticking it out in their adopted home. OK, to be fair, I can see how people with long-term friendships, wives, husbands and in-laws would feel wary leaving behind the people they love. However, I also say where there’s smoke (and there was literally smoke coming out of those nuclear reactors) there’s fire and you need to get the hell out of there before it’s too late, especially if there are children involved. And that’s exactly what my loved ones were telling me to do.
But even though I was safely tucked away in Canada and I had a chance to see old friends and spend quality time with family, I spent a good deal of time asleep. I passed it off as jet lag to both myself and others but now I know it was something else. I was homesick. How could this be? I was home. I’d only been in Tokyo for two months, how could it be that I felt that familiar urge to be “back in my own bed”, when I was in my own bed? The bed of my childhood that I had slept in for over 10 years?
Because I had internalized Tokyo. I had ingested it. I’d feasted my soul on the walk to the train station, drank in the shining lights of Shibuya and desert was the crazy confections that Japanese fashionistas and fashionistos wear. I like the place, dammit. I like the life I’ve built here, the life that wasn’t merely handed to me. So I weighed all the facts. I needed to be back at work before April to keep my job. I determined that in terms of danger Tokyo was maybe at a 5 out of 10, (not great but I wouldn’t die). Said a silent prayer of thanks to have my Tokyo home intact and that there was no need for a forced evacuation, and took the plunge. My parents, though nowhere near thrilled, didn’t try to stop me. They simply wished me the best and told me to stay alert and keep in touch.
So come what may I’m back in Tokyo. I’ve been focusing heavily on myself these last couple weeks. My aim now is to find ways to help the people who are suffering because of the quake and nuclear disaster: the people who have been forced to leave their homes behind, those living in temporary shelter among crying babies and dying seniors, shivering when it gets cold. The children orphaned by this disaster. The people who have had their livelihood washed away in the Tsunami. I’m eagerly anticipating the release of 2:46 (known on twitter as #quakebook). If you don’t know about it, check it out. 100% of the proceeds go to helping victims of the Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami through the Japan Red Cross.
So, the prodigal fly-jin has returned to Tokyo, just in time for a warm sunny spring and cherry blossom season, a reminder that nature can be destructive, but is also capable of creating great beauty.