Canada is like a part of Mother Nature that doesn’t see too much action. It’s like her back, or the underside of her forearm — nothing much going on there. When I lived in Canada I used to wonder about people who lived in other parts of the world more prone to natural disasters. What were they thinking? I wondered about the people who had stayed to watch their homes and their lives devastated by hurricane Katrina.
And now I find myself comfortably settled in Mother Nature’s stomach, where things are constantly churning and rearranging, in a country smack dab on what has been dubbed “the ring of fire”, for all the volcanic and seismic activity.
Yeah, life’s a trip.
This time last year, I had been living in Japan for about two months. I was having the time of my life, making new friends and having all kinds of new experiences. I still barely knew anything about Japan though. In fact when the quake hit I didn’t even know it was that bad. Whoa…Japan has some crazy earthquakes I thought. I even tried to make it in to work. Then I got a message on Facebook from my sister — thank God the internet was still up — saying they had heard about a bad earthquake in Japan, and begging me to let the family know ASAP that I was OK. Things only got worse from there. I learned about the tsunami. I remember seeing one particularly chilling video of black water slowly coming for people who were running for higher ground. The video pulled away as the water reached them. I started to cry as it sunk in that the video wasn’t special effects from some natural disaster movie like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012.
And news started to get out about the malfunction at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant.
The days after the quake were the most stressful, the only time where I’ve ever had legitimate cause to fear for my life. You might think I’m over exaggerating, but ex-Prime Minister Kan has since come out and said that the government was expecting the worst from the Fukushima Daiichi crisis, but couldn’t say anything without creating panic. There was already a mass exodus as people migrated from Tokyo to the south – people knew something bad was going down. At the time I lived in a guest house with three Japanese roommates, one from Australia and one from Canada. My Japanese roommates all left to stay with family elsewhere. One even wanted us to come with her, but we refused. I can’t speak for my roommates, but at the time I didn’t want to believe it was that bad. I convinced myself she was being too cautious. And sadly the focus on the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant was taking attention from the people suffering in the aftermath of the Tsunami.
I didn’t get much sleep in the week after the quake. Every night, when I wasn’t shaken awake by an aftershock, I woke up periodically to check twitter for news on the status of the plant, and every day it was worse. Another hydrogen explosion, soaring temperatures, another reactor critical. There was this aura of doom in Tokyo, like the calm before the storm. No one was working and the normally crowded streets and trains were disturbingly empty. My guest house was too quiet with half the residents gone. My parents were calling every day in a panic, governments were advising their citizens to get the hell out of Japan before it was too late, and the Japanese government was ominously silent other than to issue a 30km evacuation zone around the plant, which the U.S government expanded to 50km. I think it was around the 4th hydrogen explosion that one of my roommates and I packed up everything valuable — in case we couldn’t come back to Tokyo — and caught the shinkansen to Osaka to meet up with the “too cautious” roommate who was staying with her family there. We had to stand in line for about an hour and a half to get a ticket, and there were no free seats. All the hostels in Osaka were booked and we were lucky to find a place that had recently opened. After four more days in Osaka, and four more days of pleading and guilt from my family, I went back to Canada.
But after a week, in the midst of the ongoing Fukushima Daiichi crisis, I came back to Tokyo. And despite occasional aftershocks, worries about radiation in the food and water supply, and warnings of another big quake coming any day now, I continue to live in Tokyo. Am I nuts? This isn’t my country. It’s a beautiful country with lots to do and see, but I don’t have family here, or national pride. I’m way worse than those people in New Orleans who felt they couldn’t leave. Why am I theoretically risking my life to stay here? What is about the quirky country that draws me, despite the danger?
Maybe it’s because I feel guilty. Aside from some donations and attending a couple charity events I haven’t done much to help those whose lives were turned upside-down by the tsunami. I thought about volunteering, but felt with my poor Japanese skill I’d just get in the way, and I had to be honest with myself about my motive. I decided I would just be volunteering to say I had, and that they were better off without me. Japan would benefit much more from my working and paying taxes and contributing to their economy, so here I am.
Maybe it’s because this time in Japan is the first time I’ve lived independently. For three years after I graduated I kept living with my parents, while I frantically paid off my student loans — like hell I was gonna give the government $10,000 in interest. I guess in my head Japan and independence are mutually exclusive. I’ve built a life here, with a job and friends and a cute apartment, and I don’t want to give it up.
Maybe it’s the thrill keeping me here. Perhaps some stupid part of me feels it’s somehow brave, loyal or tough of me to stay here, laughing in the face of danger. Though I left for a week, I came back so I don’t think I can really be called a ‘flyjin” — that derogatory term for foreigners, not Japanese, who had the audacity to worry about their safety and leave Japan. Though I know it’s ridiculous, I think there is a part of me that feels I’m somehow special, or more courageous than the people who left. And I do get an ego boost when my students seem impressed that I’m still around.
Or maybe I feel I’m just not done with Japan yet. I want to become proficient in Japanese. I want to visit Hiroshima and Kyoto this golden week. I want to see a Maiko. I want to lie on a beach in Okinawa. I still haven’t worked up the courage to go to an onsen. I want to eat more okonomiyaki and I want to wear a yukata to a festival. This place is so chock full of culture that even after a year I still have much more to see and do. There’s really no other place quite like Japan. I also want to visit other countries in Asia, like Cambodia and Indonesia, and I feel like if I go back to Canada, it’s unlikely I’ll make it all the way out here again.
So now I have a first-hand understanding of why someone would knowingly put themselves in harm’s way to maintain a life they’ve built and love. To the other expats here, especially those in the Kanto area, why do you continue to live in Japan?