By JOE McDONALD
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 12:30 PM
TOKYO - China became the first government to organize a mass evacuation of its citizens from Japan's northeast on Tuesday, while other foreigners left the country following radiation leaks at an earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant.
Austria said it is moving its embassy from Tokyo to Osaka, 250 miles (400 kilometers) away, due to radiation concerns. France recommended that its citizens leave the Japanese capital, while the U.S. government advised Americans to avoid travel to Japan.
China's announcement came as Japan's nuclear crisis took a dramatic turn for the worse following an explosion and a fire at reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi complex. Japanese authorities said the fire caused radiation to spew into the air and told people living nearby to stay indoors.
The Chinese Embassy in Tokyo said on its website that it was preparing to send buses to remove its nationals from Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki and Iwate prefectures, the hardest-hit provinces.
The embassy said the evacuation was necessary "due to the seriousness of and uncertainty surrounding the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant at present."
Chinese diplomats were visiting the area to assist Japanese officials, said a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, in Beijing. She gave no other details of the operation.
The number of Chinese affected is unclear, but the Ministry of Commerce in Beijing said it had contacted 22,155 Chinese nationals in the quake-hit areas, while another 261 could not be reached. Many Chinese work in factories in Japan, and the area around Fukushima is home to numerous small manufacturers.
China Southern Airlines said it will use larger, 272-seat aircraft on the route between Tokyo and the Chinese city of Shenyang to handle the evacuees, the official Xinhua News Agency said.
Tokyo, which is about 170 miles (270 kilometers) from the stricken nuclear complex, reported slightly elevated radiation levels, but officials said the increase was too small to threaten the 39 million people in and around the capital.
Liezel Strauss, a South African art consultant in Tokyo, decided to leave Tuesday after her husband and mother called from abroad and said they were very concerned about her.
"Up to this point I was adamant to stay," Strauss, 32, said in an exchange of Twitter messages from her mobile phone as she rushed to the airport for a flight to Singapore. She thought the foreign press was overdramatizing, she added, but "now I'm not so sure anymore. Maybe it was time to get out."
Due to the risk of more earthquakes and uncertainty about the nuclear question, said an e-mail from the French embassy to its citizens, "it seems reasonable to advise that those who have no particular reason to stay in the Tokyo region leave ... for a few days."
State-run Radio France pulled seven reporters and technicians out of Japan, leaving behind just one journalist who will be based in the northern city of Sapporo.
Thierry Tropee, a French IT engineer who lives in suburban Tokyo, said he and his Japanese wife took their 3-year-old son to her hometown of Nagoya over the weekend, about 170 miles (270 kilometers) west of the capital. The couple plans to join him this week.
Tropee, 41, said six of his friends - three Indian, two French and one British - are thinking about leaving.
"Right now, I don't feel comfortable with the situation. It keeps changing every hour," he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said Americans "should avoid travel to Japan at this time." Several European countries, including Norway and Latvia, issued similar advisories. Finland advised families with small children in the Tokyo area to go to Japan's south or abroad.
Indian outsourcing firm Infosys Technologies, which has a work force of 250 in Japan, was making arrangements for Indian employees to go home after they asked to leave, spokeswoman Sarah Gideon said.
But a group of 16 global banks including Citigroup, Bank of America and Societe General issued a joint statement saying they were operating normally. They denied what they said were rumors they had evacuated staff.
"It's business as usual for us," said a JP Morgan spokeswoman, Sachiko Hasegawa.
Beijing's evacuation comes just weeks after turmoil in Libya prompted the Chinese government to send planes and ferries with military escort to bring home more than 32,000 workers from the North African nation.
Other foreign nationals said they were staying put, for now.
"We are keeping our eye on the situation, but it doesn't seem it has reached the point that we have to pack up and run," said John Ricciardi, a 35-year-old New Yorker who translates foreign video games into Japanese. He noted conflicting rumors "flying around - what's legit and what's not."
Associated Press writers Gillian Wong in Beijing and Tomoko A. Hosaka, Shino Yuasa and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.