Saturday, March 26, 2011

on the stay-or-go conundrum

I left Tokyo for the U.S. 10 days ago, so the question for me is When do I go back??

After a week with us visiting family and friends in New York and Washington DC -- and, I hasten to add, working remotely and staying in touch with his colleagues in Tokyo -- my husband will be back in Japan on Monday. He is going back because he has a job there, whereas my job is with the kids, and their job is to go to school, and their school in Tokyo is still closed, due to "continuing problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the continuing number of large magnitude earthquakes and the uncertainty about what would happen in Tokyo if a major incident occurs at Fukushima, possibly combined with a large earthquake, during a time when we had the school full of students," according to the headmaster's March 25 letter to parents, posted on the BST website. Fair enough.

So am I being sensible? Yes. But I feel bad, maybe even a little bit ashamed. I want to show my support for a country that's been so good to us for the last three years. Staying away feels like the opposite.

My situation is further complicated by some family stuff going on at home, matters that are heartbreaking in completely unrelated ways, and for which I am glad to be around for, and that under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn't have been around for. So I am OK with our decision to be in New York for now.

That said, here's an essay I came across on Facebook (a friend posted a link to it). I don't know the writer personally, but I can totally relate...

Reflections on staying in Tokyo after 3/11
by Tito Poza on Friday, March 25, 2011 at 7:49pm

When disaster struck northern Japan two weeks ago, Tokyo suffered relatively little physical damage. Even so, the effect on life in Tokyo has been profound, and caused many foreign residents to decide to leave. I decided to stay; what follows are reflections on the circumstances and decision-making process that I and many others faced.

I've lived in Tokyo for twenty-two years, and I've never experienced an atmosphere quite like the current one. (Probably the closest was after the 1995 sarin gas attack.) There was the emotional shock of the earthquake, which though we were not at the epicenter was for most of us the strongest quake we'd ever felt. It wasn't enough to bring down buildings, but it was more than enough to make one nervous at the prospect of it happening again. Then, very soon, we were stunned again as we watched our TVs and saw the devastating tsunami hit, knowing that many lives had to have been lost. This would have been more than enough of an emotional blow, but then we soon found that there was severe damage at a nuclear power plant, and with it a serious threat of the spread of radiation. That's a lot to absorb in twenty-four hours.

We (non-Japanese living in Tokyo) then began to receive frightened e-mails from our friends and relatives back home, inquiring after our safety and urging us to consider returning. For some of us, these messages were concerned suggestions; for others, emotion-laden pressure. With all this happening, it doesn't surprise me at all that many people would seriously entertain the idea of leaving. In a sense, I feel that at that point the degree of actual danger to Tokyo was not what was driving many people to go, or consider going: as much or more, it was the emotional impact of what had happened. The death toll mounting, TEPCO crews scrambling to avert disaster... even though it hadn't happened in Tokyo, it hadn't been that far away. Tokyo didn't feel like the safe place it had been a few days ago, and the sudden inability to buy bottled water, toilet paper, and other basics of life only emphasized how many were feeling that way. Most of us had never seen so many empty store shelves in our lives. Another jarring change, another feeling of the rug being pulled out from under our secure lives.

If for no other reason, the e-mails and Facebook messages from our loved ones forced us to at least consider the possibility of leaving, even if it was a thought we quickly discarded. Those of us who stayed had various reasons for doing so. Jobs, friends, and loved ones who are here. Feelings of debt and connection to Japan. Not wanting to leave when things got tough. Tasks not yet finished. A rational feeling that the level of danger didn't warrant leaving. Many others, no doubt. But it can be tough to fly in the face of winds blowing so hard in the other direction. More than one person expressed to me that despite having made a well-considered, rational decision not to leave, they later had doubts, mostly inspired by the sheer number of people clogging the Narita and Haneda departure lounges; a feeling of, what makes them wrong and me right? It's a very natural feeling, especially since even though expert opinion is that Tokyo is in no real danger, we cannot prove this. Also, in many cases the people leaving are ones we like, respect, and care about; we don't want to think ill of them, so it isn't so easy to dismiss their actions casually.

So, even though most all of us are confident that we made the right decision, we are in the middle of what can feel like a whirlwind, what with all that has happened and still is happening. We've been buffeted by these events and the atmosphere; even though we're trying to keep it at bay, fear is contagious, and fighting it takes effort. We do research, to convince others (and ourselves) that we've made the right choice. We reach out to each other for support. We think seriously about what's important to us, which is something we don't usually have to do. We avoid sensational news sources and gossip-mongers. We try to approach the always uncertain future with confidence. A friend said that he felt that the decision to stay was a defining moment in his life, which makes perfect sense to me. Making the decision to stay in the face of the enormous pressure of this situation isn't easy, and the harder something is to do, the more impact it has. And one feels bad saying that we have it hard, because those up north have it so much harder; I've talked to more than a few who've had that thought. It's true; we are quite lucky to have what we have, and we know that. But I've talked to enough of us in the past two weeks to know that a lot of us are feeling this stress; this is our reality, we feel the way we feel. So it feels like a good time to take inventory, to reflect on what brought us to the decision we made.

As I write this, two weeks after the disaster, we know that life in Tokyo may not be like it was for quite some time. No one can say when supermarkets will be fully stocked again. Scheduled blackouts in the Tokyo suburbs continue, and may for the foreseeable future. With a significant portion of Japan's electricity production gone, large shortfalls are forecast for the hot and humid summer months. And of course the Fukushima nuclear plants still have not been brought under control, and even if one discounts the radiation threat to Tokyo, this fact will certainly unnerve many. More foreign residents may leave, for no other reason than that they may feel the stress of these circumstances makes Tokyo an unpleasant place to live right now. Or those who had entertained vague thoughts of leaving for unrelated reasons but had not done so may now look at leaving in a new light. Even though I still have no intention of leaving, this feels very understandable: if something important to us changes, we react to that change. A 25% salary cut will cause us to re-evaluate remaining in our job. There is a 'new normal' settling over Tokyo, and inertia will keep many people here, but as with the decision not to leave in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, we will be asking ourselves why we want to stay, and as with everything we do, that will say something about who we are. Every moment, I feel, is a defining moment.


anita said...

He makes some good points, and I understand not giving in to fear/herd mentality, but I feel like he may be discounting the possible health threats even in tokyo, especially for people with young children. I guess only time will tell ...

Kathryn Quigley said...

I was just thinking to myself that I hoped you wouldn't go back to Japan on Monday. So I am glad you are staying in NY a bit longer. Let the nuclear situation get better under control first.

Julia said...

Not just health effects but psychological effects. Our daughter is just starting to voice her fear of dying when we go back. It's been great that she can tell us her fears, and our job to tell her rationally what is going on and also try to talk as normally as possible about life in Tokyo, so that when she sees crappy reporting in papers and in TV she doesn't get anxious. Time will tell indeed...