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To Flee Or Not To Flee: Tokyo Residents Weigh Radiation, Aftershock Fears. But Most Stay Put

Nuclear accident fallout and the risk of a massive aftershock have left people -- foreigners and the Japanese alike -- wondering whether they should leave.

Tokyo residents after the quake
Tokyo residents after the quake
Philippe Mesmer

TOKYO - Hunker down or flee? Residents and visitors alike are asking themselves whether to leave Tokyo immediately, or even Japan altogether, to escape the threat of a major aftershock - the national meteorological agency says there's a 70 percent chance of one of 7.0 or higher magnitude occurring in the coming days. And the radioactive emissions being released by the damaged nuclear power plants: could they reach the capital?

Many of the 34.5 million people – native Japanese and a substantial expatriate community – who currently live in the Tokyo metropolitan area are asking themselves these questions. Some did not take long to make up their minds. Already on Saturday morning, South Koreans were flocking, not without some confusion, towards Haneda airport in Tokyo, in the hope of catching a flight for Seoul.

The drama unfolding at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, 124 miles north of the capital, has accelerated the exodus. Several foreign embassies have already advised their citizens to leave Tokyo. French authorities have asked all their nationals "who have no special reason to stay in the Kantô region (Tokyo area) to leave for a couple of days." Some families had decided to do so long before the recommendation was made, right after the first blast at the Fukushima power plant. Others made up their mind after the second explosion on Monday. Some parents have decided to send their children to France. A French woman has chosen to take a flight to Canada: "I'm going away for a month", she says.

Radiation fears

The Japanese have more conflicted feelings about the situation: they seem caught between a mix of fear, resignation and lack of information. The only instructions the government has given about the nuclear threat is stay indoors and use cooling systems. "This is not very reassuring", says Yuriko, a 30-year-old woman. "I don't understand their press releases. My guess is that they want to avoid people panicking, but they should tell us more."

Yuriko says she is looking for a way to leave the island nation, others are struggling with the idea of departing. "I don't know yet if I'm ready to leave", says Yoshinori Ako, an engineer. "I just can't make up my mind, but I am definitely very worried about the nuclear problem".

Ayumi, a survivor of the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, does not know what to do either. "Back then, I lived in Nishinomiya, near Kobe. Right after the disaster, we had no water, no electricity and no gas. This time, we do not lack any of these things, so we can't complain. For now."

But there were no risks of a nuclear catastrophe after the earthquake in Kobe. Ayumi notes how poorly Japanese are informed on this subject: "We don't know much about radioactivity levels, about the basic steps that we should be following," he says. "They teach us everything about earthquakes in school from an early age, so we are prepared. But we are definitely not ready for a nuclear crisis. So the only decision I have taken so far is not to do any laundry, so that I do not have to go outside to hang clothes to dry."

Yoko Yoshizawa, 50, who lives in Kamakura, in the southern part of Tokyo, was likewise more concerned about the air than the ground. "The earthquake on Friday proved to me that my house was solid enough," she says. "I don't want to leave my home. But I admit that the situation at the nuclear power plants worries me a lot."

Panic is the worst risk

Tatsushi Mihori, a salesman in a small company located in Akishima-shi, on the western edge of Tokyo, has resigned himself to staying put. "Of course I am scared", he says. "But I cannot stop thinking about all the people who work inside the nuclear plants and the rescue teams. Those people also have families and friends, but they continue to do their best in spite of their fear. So leaving would not be fair." He adds that if mass numbers began to leave, it would create "a lot of panic, which would be the worst thing that could happen."

Yuki Eguchi is also determined to stay: "I have discussed this with my friends, and they agree with me. There is also my work, which I cannot stop doing. The nuclear problem has only just started; we don't have much information for now."

The Japanese have been hostile over the years to a form of energy the dangers of which they understand all too well. School children visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the two cities destroyed by American atomic bombs in 1945. Some nuclear power plant constructors have faced fierce opposition from local residents. A project in Kaminoseki, in central Japan, has been blocked since it was first proposed in 1981.

One could read from these reactions a certain Japanese form of insularity, and acceptance of their island nation's fate. As Suzuko, 80, noted in explaining why she's staying right where she is: "Wherever you go in Japan, there will be earthquakes."

Read the original article in French

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