On the news tonight, we we saw images of long lines of foreign residents at Narita Airport; people who’d finally decided Tokyo was too far outside their comfort zone and were waiting for the first available flights out. Earlier this week, the European CEO of my wife’s company fled the country while the rest of the company continued on at work. Many other professional expats joined him, many likely cabbing it to the airport and saving the receipts for their employers to reimburse them the 15,000 yen fare.

Out the window, I see the buildings of Tokyo still standing, people walking past with dogs and strollers. There’s a team of workers lopping trees and making a righteous racket with their chainsaws. Apart from one old woman carrying a bulk packet of toilet paper in each hand, there’s no hint of any panic in the air. Or radiation, for that matter.

At first I thought the knee-jerk evacuations might be another example of the cultural divide in Japan between Benefited Expat community, with their lucrative perks to compensate for the struggle of daily life overseas, and those of us who make just enough to get by. That all changed as the various foreign affairs departments of the UK, USA and Australia began advising their citizens to leave the city if they were able (France chartered planes to evacuate its own people; the UK is considering it). The decision to flee finally had some legitimacy, at least at the diplomatic level, relieving many of the duty to appear brave in front of their Japanese friends and colleagues.

“I think it’s the difference between foreigners and Japanese,” said a woman I spoke to this morning, suggesting the mentality of a non-local tended more towards flight than fight. Other company employees, now preparing daily reports to send to their bosses on the other side of the world, have openly questioned how much respect their co-workers will receive when (or if) they arrive back in Tokyo.

Tokyo: still a going concern as of 17 March 2011

TV interviews with the departees indicate that none of them would be leaving if they had their way. They’re only evacuating because family members back home demanded they return, or they had small children “whose health must come first.”
To many Japanese, it merely reinforces the image that foreigners are only in Japan for the fun of it, and are ready to abandon their stake in the country once the discomfort reaches a slightly above average level. As of today there have been no radiation warnings for Tokyo, no indication the city is in any peril, and almost no damage from last Friday’s earthquake. On the other hand, there have been long queues at some train stations, rolling blackouts, and a noticeable shortage of bread and toilet paper in most shops. The US State Department itself said its advice to leave Tokyo was based on these daily difficulties, rather than any threat to public health.

We may not all be at the front lines of this disaster here in Tokyo. Our skills are probably not required to search through the rubble for bodies or to neutralize the radiation threat at Fukushima. And anyone, Japanese or otherwise, who is suffering in that region and has the chance to go elsewhere, probably should. All we can do here in the city is show our Japanese friends that we’re not afraid; that our affection for them and our adopted country is strong enough to endure a few nights in the dark, and that we want to play a part in the eventual rebuilding.