Anxious foreigners flee Japan

March 15, 2011

Scores of anxious foreigners bought last-minute plane tickets out of Japan on Monday and Tuesday, desperate to leave their adopted country’s escalating nuclear crisis and uncertain when — or whether — they would return.

“We’ve sort of made our peace that we may never actually come back to the house,” said David Atkinson, a civilian employee for the U.S. Air Force who has lived in Tokyo with his family for the past two years.

With a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami triggering explosions, fires and possible meltdowns at a nuclear plant on Japan’s northeastern coast, Atkinson, his wife and their 16-year-old son packed their bags and found a place to board their dog. They arrived at Haneda Airport on Tuesday, a full 24 hours before the flight they had booked to Seoul, not at all sure whether they would use the return tickets. 

“All of that is up in the air,” said Atkinson, a native of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Airports, train stations and taxi lines were hubs of anxious activity Tuesday. Although most of the country was spared the damage wrought by the earthquake and tsunami, officials have been unable to say what areas might be affected by the radiation leaks or quantify the dangers posed by exposure.

The lack of information — or the unreliability of it — has frustrated not only citizens, but also foreigners who call Japan home. But fleeing the country has not been simple. Flights were selling out quickly. With no trains and little gasoline, transportation to Tokyo from the north has been close to impossible.

Sophie Loemce, a 24-year-old doctoral student in the quake-ravaged city of Sendai, said she could tolerate the destruction of the physics lab where she did her research, the tsunami that erased the nearby coastline and two days of living in a cafeteria at Tohuku University because of concerns that her residence was unsafe. But the ambiguous threat of a nuclear catastrophe sent her scrambling to get back to France — especially after the French government urged all its citizens to come home and said it would pay their airfare.

“It’s because of the radiation,” Loemce said. “We hear a lot of different stories, depending on the country [giving information]. . . . I’m exhausted, completely.”

Loemce crisscrossed Japan’s main island, traversed a mountain range on two buses and took a train in order to fly from Niigata to Osaka — only to find no way to reach that city’s airport. On Tuesday morning, every single flight out was booked, she said. She finally managed to reach Haneda Airport seven hours before her flight was scheduled to take off.

She started her doctoral research at the university a month ago and said she hopes to continue it as soon as possible. “I will go back as soon as I can,” she said.

Praceth Rao and Prarhana Kulkarin, both 30, spent 90 minutes in a taxi Tuesday to get to the airport a day in advance of their impromptu visit home to Bangalore, India. They said they were motivated to leave by a mixture of fear and uncertainty and planned to sleep at the airport before their Wednesday morning flight.

 “We don’t know what is a rumor and what is a fact,” Kulkarin said.

They said they booked a return flight for a month from now but will not come back to Japan “until it’s safe.” However, no one is sure when that might be. Although aftershocks have continued for days — including a major one Tuesday night — many residents of the country had hoped the danger would have passed by now.

The moment Alexis Couet, 19, heard about the damage to the nuclear plant, he fretted about how he could escape. His uncle, an engineer familiar with nuclear reactors, instilled a healthy dose of fear in him.

Couet, a chef-in-training from Marseille, France, was at the airport Tuesday morning as soon as he heard the French government would pay for his trip. “We all need to go,” Couet said as he waited for a spot on a flight.

When limited train service resumed Tuesday morning, Bradley Trenery and Cyndi Chong, who had been teaching English in Fukushima prefecture, where some of the worst devastation occurred, were among the first to board.

Chong, a 25-year-old native of Sydney, was assigned to a school in Minamisoma, about 15 miles from one of the damaged nuclear plants. The evacuation zone covered all areas within a 121 / 2-mile radius of the plant. But the government’s evacuation area changed several times, so people in the region were never sure whether they were in a safe area.

“There was anxiety,” she said. “Especially when they say it’s fine and the next minute you hear about the problems.”

“You don’t know,” Trenery, 28, a native of Newcastle, Australia, added, “what to believe.”

Cox is a special correspondent.

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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