WORLD MARCH 17, 2011
Beijing, China—Despite nuclear, geological and logistical disasters unfolding simultaneously, deciding to leave Tokyo on Monday was not a quick decision. My departure was no reflection of the endurance of the Japanese people to overcome this disaster. No doubt, within the nuclear power plants, there are sleepless men, everyday working men, continuing at tremendous personal peril to ensure the safety of millions. Heroic seems an understatement to describe their efforts, and they are not alone. I left because, unlike so many people there, I could—a lucky privilege I did not take for granted. The chance of being alone, in a dark apartment in a foreign land without news sources or the ability to communicate with my neighbors, was not a fate I wanted to consider. But, due to the lack of reliable information available to me in Japan, I felt that I should go.
It is clear the Japanese government is working hard, but it is struggling to cope with unfolding traumas, as would any government facing such a multi-faceted emergency. There is no reason to think at this time that Japan’s efforts have been short of extraordinary. The mobilization of resources, from troops to medical teams, appears on the surface to be substantial, but it is unclear if they have been effective. What’s more, after the bumbling government response to the earthquake in Kobe over 15 years ago, a city in which I lived shortly thereafter, I am less trusting of public reassurances about today’s unfolding crises. Adding to my concern is the scandal at TEPCO—the utility company overseeing the potential nuclear disaster—in 2002 that brought down its president for falsified safety records.
In addition, the government’s response to direct questioning has often been apologetic and vague, which isn’t what one wants to hear. On Tuesday, for instance, the government requested that residents a certain distance outside the failed Fukushima nuclear plant stay inside, but it did not speculate how long that would be necessary. It is trying to balance the citizen’s need for specific answers with its own desire not to foment fear.
This hesitancy by government officials to state facts and offer candid future assessments until all facts are known allows space for rumors to build and fosters a lack of public confidence. What’s more, government assurances that, for example, the nuclear releases seem contained have not proved true. Moreover, a docile local media, although admittedly more aggressive during recent events than they usually are, have not been able to obtain details that would allow for more objective analysis. The foreign media have also added to speculation that events may be worse than they appear.
Indeed, initially, there was too little news information about the crisis and, then, too much, as the arrival of foreign journalists made discerning news of importance difficult. By the late weekend, the cacophony of reporting clouded the few details that would allow me to assess what actions I should take. As a researcher in Japan, I know first-hand the challenges of getting information in a close-knit society even in normal times. And, from speaking to some in the foreign media, it became clear that my suspicion that they were starved for details was right.
I would have liked to have known how likely additional earthquakes were, and what the worst-case scenarios for the nuclear power plants might be, as reactors appeared to be blowing up like Jiffy Pop. The local news media took great pains to produce a documentary that explained the science behind the tsunami. A fascinating show and likely comforting to those trying to make sense of the events of last weekend, but not the forward-looking analysis I was seeking. To be fair, I was also likely searching for the unknowable—would I be safe?
As the weekend ended, more details came out from the government that the air was safe (although, paradoxically, they requested we stay inside), rolling blackouts were on the way, and transport would be sporadic. Despite the obstacles to a normal routine, I took comfort in knowing that the Japanese were trying to get to work and continue on with their daily lives. This meant that food was still being delivered and that Japanese short supply chains would likely keep up with the needs of the people in Tokyo. I felt comfortable that my short-term needs would be met.
But, when I heard from two reliable sources that the state meteorological agency predicted a 70 percent chance of a magnitude 7 earthquake striking within the next three days, I reassessed. After surviving what was for me a frightening magnitude 5- quake on the Japanese scale on Friday, it was unclear to me whether I would know what to do if something worse happened. Access to all my sources of information required having power; without it, my only plan was to head to the British Embassy less than a mile away, and then the U.S. Embassy another two miles away—hardly a fail-proof idea.
On Sunday evening, a friend who had spent years reporting news, often in areas in upheaval, said that I should leave—adding that I need not be a hero. Although her words likely were chosen in haste, I believe that most of the people staying behind are heroes, by doing their part to keep the economy and the relief efforts going.
Being in Beijing is a difficult emotional separation. The tug back to Japan keeps me close to Skype (unfortunately, Facebook is inaccessible here). I wanted to stay and help, but I worried the information I was receiving about the unfolding events was not complete and would not allow me to make an informed decision if circumstances deteriorated. Since I was blessed with the option of leaving, I took it.
David S. Abraham is a Hitachi International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.