The March 11 earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis prompted an exodus of foreigners from Japan in scenes more usually associated with war-ravaged countries—unrest in North Africa, the Middle East and the Ivory Coast has prompted numerous governments to implement civilian and military measures to evacuate their citizens. But in the case of Japan, the focus has been not so much on evacuation measures implemented by foreign governments, but rather the action taken by foreign companies and investors.
According to the latest statistics released by the Japanese government, tens of thousands of foreigners fled the country in the wake of the nuclear catastrophe. But while more than 30 embassies simply relocated from Tokyo to cities in the south of the country, many foreign companies purchased plane tickets and chartered flights to evacuate non-Japanese employees and their families.
All this prompted the coining of the term flyjin—a combination of the English word ‘fly’ and the Japanese word gaijin, which means foreigner.
The term flyjin undoubtedly has negative connotations, and reflects the frustration that many Japanese felt over the exodus of foreigners. In many companies, there has been displeasure among those left behind, with the sense of desertion particularly acute in cases where foreign managers joined their non-Japanese staff in fleeing the country.
More than two months after the disaster, many foreigners have returned to Japan. Yet these returnees are facing the difficult situation of having to justify their departure to Japanese colleagues, friends and, in some instances, even family members.
It’s an issue that foreign governments and companies are very much aware of, and it has prompted three broad responses.
One approach adopted by a number of companies has been the introduction of so-called reconciliation workshops. Meetings of these are aimed at generating a better understanding between Japanese and foreign nationals over the decisions made, and the feelings behind them.
Second, foreign governments and companies alike are moving to address the potential damage to their reputations. At the core of this approach is the support of social causes in Japan, particularly emergency shelters and rebuilding efforts. The message that’s being conveyed (albeit belatedly) is that Japanese and foreigners both need to be looked after.
In addition, some are pointing out in response to criticism of flyjins that Japanese authorities and nationals have themselves acted similarly in the past. Indeed, governments worldwide regularly assist in the evacuation of their citizens in instances such as armed conflict, political unrest, health threats and natural catastrophes.
The reality is that extraordinary incidents, such as those that occurred in March, require extraordinary measures. Yet while the departure of foreign nationals is understandable, so is the Japanese feeling of abandonment. Both sides have started on the road to reconciliation. Let’s hope there’s no renewed crisis that that will sidetrack them.