At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum this past week, the busiest exhibition was that showing the effects of radiation exposure on the human body. The grotesque photographs and figurines had been etched in my mind from previous visits to this shrine to the victims of the atomic bombing of the city, but never before I had I seen so many people take the time to stop and digest every word on display.
Fears of exposure to radiation and its potentially devastating effects led to a minor exodus of Tokyo residents to western parts of Japan or overseas. The majority of those fleeing seemed to be foreigners or Japanese with young children.
I made my decision to depart for the Hiroshima region (where I used to live) on Tuesday, following a total reversal of my mindset. On Saturday (the day after the cataclysmic quake) I was preparing to meet a contact from Time magazine in the Sea of Japan city of Niigata. The plan was to drive from there up the coast and cut across to report on the disaster unfolding in Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.
But on returning from picking up a rental car, I found my wife staring at the TV screen in tears. She told me of the first explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and pleaded with me not to depart that evening. In the end I knew I wouldn’t be going.
Two schools of thought formed quickly last weekend – those who wanted to stay put and carry on with life as normal, and those worried about the worst-case scenario.
Many Japanese and longer term foreign residents belonged to the former school. They stuck around in Tokyo, queuing up to buy supplies and doing what they could to get to work or school despite unpredictable train schedules and blackouts. They made a valid case that Tokyo is their home and they wanted to stay close to immediate family, friends and colleagues. Writer Ryu Murakami put this argument across succinctly in this New York Times opinion piece.
As for people in the latter school, the urge to leave Tokyo was fuelled by embassies issuing advisories to citizens to get out of town, and sensationalistic reports in rags such as The Sun, a British tabloid. Scaremongering reports on foreign TV stations such as CNN also instilled a sense of panic. The problem is that this also frightened people overseas who urged the return of family members resident in Japan. Thankfully, the majority of Japanese were spared much of this and received their news in a much more matter-of-fact manner.
While every new report of radiation seemed to contradict the last, the likelihood of a Chernobyl-esque disaster was actually small to begin with. Even if it all went bang, the levels of radiation in the Tokyo region would, according to scientists (who know what they are talking about – as opposed to many journalists), have thinned out to such an extent that it would pose very little (or no) harm to people residing there.
So why did I decide to head west? The answer is simple: I have a six-month-old son and wanted to keep him safe. Some people argued in favour of staying put, saying that Tokyo is their home. I empathize and wholeheartedly support them. But Tokyo (nor anywhere for that matter) would feel like home if anything happened to my boy.
I’m back in the Tokyo area now, and the engineers working on the Fukushima plant look like they may have averted a crisis with reports Saturday that one of the reactors appeared to have been stabilized. But regardless of how things have turned out, I still think I did the right thing.