A Year After the Quake: Why Am I Still in Japan?

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?


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16 Responses to A Year After the Quake: Why Am I Still in Japan?

  1. I’m glad to hear that you stayed in Japan after many people fled the country after the tragic event. It’s hard to believe it has been a year already since the terrible disaster. I remember pretty much watching it live on TV in Australia and being unable to move as I was in shock. The next few hours was a frantic time of trying to get in touch with family and friends in Japan to make sure that they were OK. Japan has done a remarkable effort in rebuilding but now needs tourists to help boost its economy and recover further. Hopefully 2012 is a great year for Japan and tourist numbers will return for the cherry blossoms in spring.

    Japan Australia

    • Amanda says:

      It was something to see, especially those videos of the tsunami, knowing those were real people whose lives were being snuffed out. I continue to go to charity events and try to help out. I really feel for the survivors who are homeless, and lost loved ones.

  2. I arrived in Japan one week after the big quake. People thought I was mad for carrying out my plans to move to Japan. And Fukushima was going to get worse before it got better at that point. I guess I have always been a stubborn person and I wasn’t going to let any body, even Mother Nature, stand in the way of my dreams.

  3. kuma-san says:

    Great post. I wish more people like you would tell stories about how Japanese friends were the “first” to leave Tokyo during the first days of the nuclear crisis. Last March/April there were so many ugly comments from fellow gaijin about “flyjin” and about foreigners panicking and leaving, but I was there and I saw first hand–as you did–that the vast majority of people rushing out of Tokyo were Japanese.

    I still think that event has forever divided a lot of people: self righteous gaijins who stayed vs gaijins who opted to play it safe (just like a lot of Japanese people did) and either leave the city, or the country. I find it odd that no one mentions all the Japanese I know of that have literally moved away from Japan to another country permanently because of fukushima. Why are these people not discussed, but a gaijin who flew home during the crisis gets crap? Just uncool and childish.

    Anyway, glad you’re still happy there. Personally, after seeing the poor way the the Japanese govt. handled the situation, as well as the severe cover-ups and lack of emergency support, I can’t blame anyone for leaving. Why? Because rest assured, that 9.0 wasn’t the ‘big one’ predicted for Tokyo, and look what happened. Now that the ‘big one’ is predicted to now to come even sooner, I think we’re going to see a tragic story unfold. Good luck, and enjoy Japan while you can.

    • Amanda says:

      I worry about that big one. I need to do more to prepare that’s for sure. But I hear a lot of conflicting reports. Some say it will hit in the next four years, others in the next hundred. No one really knows for sure. I guess that’s why I take the risk of staying here. I do hope that the 2011 earthquake was a wake up call. It seems more is being done now to prepare for a major quake in Tokyo because of it.

  4. Indi says:

    Since I live so far south on Shikoku, it really was surreal standing around in my office watching the whirl pools swirling madly with boats and cars in them on the tiny old tv they have here. We never got any after-shocks, and the tsunamis on our coast (since I live in a tsunami inundation area) were only about 5 meters tall…. but the constant coverage on TV has left an effect on me and every time they talk about the disaster my heart grips and I need to turn off the tv. That, and the sirens that blast through my town daily at noon (to test the tsunami sirens)… during that time, the sirens would go off randomly and scare the shit out of me. Even though I know the patterns, and these days the siren only goes off randomly for a fire, once i hear it, I stop dead in my tracks and listen.

    But like you, I’m still here and may even be considering a move to Tokyo or Osaka once my contract ends in July. :\

    • Amanda says:

      Well good luck! Personally I think you should stick with Osaka. Tokyo’s a great city but that big one is coming any year now.

  5. Vivian says:

    I’ll never forget that feeling of waiting in line for the train to Osaka- and I’m glad you pulled me (?) away with you when you did. But you’re right- we didn’t know that it was so bad until much later. I didn’t even realize how bad everything was until weeks afterwards. The whole country was in shock- myself included. Thanks for being my “running away” buddy. :)

    • Amanda says:

      Thank you! God that was the scariest time of my life, but at least I got a reentry permit out of it. Honestly I think your parent’s friend was right, and only by pure force of human will to survive did they get that plant under control.

  6. Henry says:


    I’m a newly arrived expat from southern Cali and have been here less than a week (first time in Japan with virtually no Japanese skills, but am fluent in Spanish– wondering how I can use that to my advantage…). I’m living in Asahi, Chiba, and teaching English with ALS. People from back at home were worried about the radiation. I did my research and came to the (possibly naive, idk) conclusion that Chiba is safe.

    I will be hitting Tokyo for the first time this Sunday. I’ll be adding your blog to my roll.


    • Amanda says:

      Hey Henry! Good to hear from you!

      Frankly I don’t think anywhere in the entire Kanto region is safe. Right now it feels to me like we’re out of the immediate danger zone, but there is still a threat. You know?

  7. zoomingjapan says:

    Sorry for my late comment. I moved and was without internet for almost a month.
    I totally missed the anniversary.
    I remember everything still clearly.
    So many people around me packed their belongings and went back home. I’m surprised to read that you were one of them. At least you decided to come back.
    I remember that some Japanese people were angry at the “flyjin”, too.

    I understand some of them, though.
    The first few days after the earthquake … when the situation in Fukushima was very unclear I got ready and packed, too, just in case. I never left Japan or left my apartment to stay somewhere else. Luckily I lived far enough away anyways.
    However, I already went through a similar situation once and got my dose of radiation when Chernobyl happend :(

    I’m glad to see that you decided to come back and keep living in Tokyo, dear!!! :3

    • Amanda says:

      I don’t know why people were angry at those who left. I think it’s our God-given right to protect ourselves of we feel in danger. It’s survival instinct.

      • zoomingjapan says:

        I think it might be for the same reason that most Japanese people stayed completely calm while all of us freaked out.
        That’s what I’ll never understand, but I guess that’s our difference in mentality.

        There were even some (not many) Japanese people who left the country for a while as well.

        I agree with you, though. Of course it’s our right to leave if we feel we’re in danger.

        • Amanda says:

          That’s the thing: I don’t think most Japanese people stayed completely calm. When I took the Shinkansen to Osaka it was packed — mostly by Japanese people. And when I talk to my students about it they admit, they were scared. The difference is the Japanese kind of had to “suck it up and deal with it” because this is their home. If something similar had happened in California or Vancouver to Japanese people working or studying abroad they would have gone back to Japan where they feel safe, and that’s their right.

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