Tokyo's Ex-Pat Exodus: Rush Hour of the Foreigners

  • Share
  • Read Later
Issei Kato / Reuters

Passengers crowd as they queue to check in for flights at Narita airport in Narita, east of Tokyo.

For foreign residents in Japan, it's been pandemonium. The ex-pat exodus from Tokyo is in full force. But I'm going to stick it out. As a journalist it's just too important to be here at this time. I've had a deluge of emails telling me to do otherwise, as well as Facebook messages and calls from family and friends abroad, worried sick. They've been glued to the TV news watching the unfolding drama of triple whammy 3/11 (March 11) earthquake+tsunami+nuclear power plant emergency. "Get out right now, that nuke plant's going to blow!" emailed one friend. "No iodine? Start eating pickled plums, miso soup and seaweed!" said several. "Buy yourself a Geiger counter!" warned another.

The gaikokujin alarm first went off on the evening of Sunday 13th when the French embassy emailed its citizens a recommendation that they leave the Tokyo area. (Gaikokujin is Japanese for "foreigner.") Other European countries quickly followed their lead. Then the international schools starting closing which kicked the fear factor into full gear. The American and British embassies were the holdouts. On Thursday early morning I received an emailed message to American citizens from Ambassador John Roos. Styled with diplomatic flair, it was a 'stay-calm-we're-on-top-of the-issues' missive. On Friday, however, the tone suddenly turned with an offer to get citizens out of Japan. I got just as fearful follow-ups from the American Club, American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and several other international organizations. (But the General Manager at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan bucked the trend and wrote that it is keeping open 24/7 and to come on down.)

The Kansai area — Kyoto/Osaka/Kobe — has become the foreigners' refuge of choice. Osaka hotels were empty after Friday's quake when the Japanese cancelled their reservations. Now they're packed to the gills with ex-pats. Even some international companies have closed down their Tokyo office and set up temporarily in Osaka, booking hotel suites and conference rooms... just in case. One journalist friend joked that the lovely Kyoto Hyatt Regency lobby has turned into "a bad Sunday at National Azabu supermarket" (a favorite among Tokyo ex-pats.)

Here in Tokyo, the energy-saving, dimmed lighting and blackouts have been eerie but manageable. When a news reporter from abroad asked me about looting, I had to admit I hadn't even thought about it. It just simply doesn't exist here. The long, snaking lines of commuters waiting for trains have been remarkably orderly. One friend living in Kamakura, about an hour's commute from Tokyo, said "I'm just goin' with the flow." Today, I heard the sound of an old-fashioned yaki-imo (baked sweet potato) seller in my neighborhood plying his wares with his distinctive echoing song.

I'm staying on in Tokyo but I'm sending my kids elsewhere. On Friday, I said goodbye to them and our border collie as they headed south for relatives in Kobe. My 17-year-old surprised me with a big tearful hug and then handed me a box of protective face masks. I promised her I'd at least try one on. You don't get moments like this if you don't stick around.