Amid escalating fears of a catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northern Japan, China became the first nation to begin evacuating its citizens from the country, saying the "seriousness and uncertainty" of the damaged reactors caused it to be "very concerned" about the safety of its nationals. Foreign companies, too, have begun flying nonessential expatriate staff out of the capital, Tokyo. But other countries, including the U.S. and Canada, have adopted a wait-and-see attitude before ordering costly and logistically challenging evacuations, only advising their citizens at home to avoid travel to Japan.
After the Chinese embassy in Tokyo posted the notice on its website Tuesday, buses were immediately mobilized to begin transporting Chinese nationals from four northern prefectures Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki and Iwate to airports in Tokyo and Niigata to fly home to China. China Southern Airlines said it would replace the Airbus 321 aircraft on its Tokyo-Shenyang route with much larger Airbus A300s to accommodate the sizable numbers of evacuees. Two ships capable of transporting a total of 4,000 people were also on standby in the Chinese city of Yantai, China National Radio reported.
"Everybody was happy when we heard that the embassy would send a car to pick us up," Li Mingwei, who ran a small shop in Sendai, told the Beijing News. The government, however, cautioned that a complete evacuation could take some time given the fact it has made contact with some 22,000 Chinese citizens in the region around Fukushima. "We hope our compatriots in the worst-hit disaster areas remain calm, listen to instructions, understand and cooperate with the evacuation operation," the embassy said on its website. Given China's track record at this sort of thing, it shouldn't take long. The country recently plucked more than 35,000 of its citizens out of Libya over the span of nine days a maneuver hailed in the Chinese press as the largest overseas evacuation since the 1949 communist takeover.
Meanwhile, Chinese in other parts of Japan are trying to get out on their own. Wang Chengyu, who works in a company in Tokyo, told the Beijing News there were hundreds of people waiting at the Tokyo Immigration Bureau to get re-entry permits before leaving the country. "The supplies in the supermarkets have almost sold out," he said. "All that my colleagues talk about is nuclear leakage."
Other countries have yet to follow China's lead by ordering evacuations, though some have advised their citizens get out on their own accord, if possible. The French embassy sent an e-mail to French citizens on Sunday advising those who have no reason to stay in the Tokyo region to leave "for a few days." About 3,000 of the estimated 5,000 French citizens living in Japan have already left the country. The German and Swiss embassies posted similar messages on their websites, while Austria said it was relocating its embassy to Osaka, about 250 miles (400 km) to the south.
The U.S. has only issued a travel warning for Japan. Low levels of radiation were detected at two U.S. military bases in northeastern Japan on Tuesday, causing Rear Admiral Richard Wren, commander of U.S. naval forces in Japan, to advise residents to "limit outdoor activity." But an evacuation of the bases would happen only if the level of radiation in the atmosphere reached 5,000 millirems, another official told the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes; on Tuesday, it was at only 0.05 millirems.
In Tokyo, some foreign companies are moving ahead with their own plans. German companies like Bosch, Daimler and BMW have flown some employees and their families out of the country, while the French oil giant Total offered to move staff south to Fukuoka. Others, however, are staying put. Naomi Watanabe, a spokesperson for Citigroup, told TIME the company had made contingency plans to move staff to other locations if need be. But until then, "it's business as usual."