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Foreigners in Japan, spooked by radiation, heed governments' evacuation warnings

Expatriates tell of hurriedly packing for trips away from Tokyo. Some return to Los Angeles while others take vacations elsewhere in the Pacific. Many say they are pressured to leave by worried relatives elsewhere.

March 17, 2011|By Rong-Gong Lin II | Los Angeles Times
  • Tourists and passengers arriving from Japan pass through a radiation detector at the Incheon International Airport near Seoul, South Korea.
Tourists and passengers arriving from Japan pass through a radiation detector… (EPA )

More foreign residents left Tokyo on Thursday, spooked by the grave crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and heeding foreign governments' calls for their citizens to evacuate northern Japan.

Many said they were pressured to leave by worried family members from afar. Some described packing within a matter of hours Thursday and heading to train stations and airports to get farther away from Tokyo.

Their destinations were far and wide, with some expatriates returning to Los Angeles, while others headed on vacations to the Pacific islands of Okinawa, 1,000 miles away from Tokyo, or Guam, 1,500 miles away.

Photos: Earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan

"Can't believe I'm saying this, but it feels like lying not to: We're going to try to leave tonight. With mixed feelings, all of them bad," said @sandrajapandra on Twitter handle . She said rice, milk and tofu had disappeared from her local grocery store, and by Thursday night was hoping to board a flight bound for Los Angeles.

"My relatives in Miyagi are safe, but have been evacuated from their home ...I feel terrible leaving them behind, but it's getting difficult to be in Tokyo," said @otsuki3c, who described himself as a graduate student in social-cultural anthropology at the University of Toronto.

A man writing on his blog, Nate in Tokyo, opted to stay in Japan but relocate 250 miles away from the capital.

"I have not given up on Japan. I hope... No, I believe the situation with the nuclear reactors in Fukushima will be contained soon but... For the time being I've decided a short holiday to Osaka might be for the best," Nate wrote.

"It's a terrible thing waking up to your mother's tears," the man continued. "I only intend to be gone for a couple of days but... With all my mother's fears and my father's worries I couldn't help feel that maybe, as I packed my bags and walked out the door, this might be my last night in Tokyo. I might never see my home again.

"It's a devastating feeling," he wrote.

A person writing on a personal blog pledged to stay in Tokyo unless the U.S. officials tell Americans to leave Japan.

"I may not be a citizen here, but this is my home, and I will not give it up without a fight," the writer said.

U.S. officials have said American citizens should evacuate from areas at least 50 miles away from the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant, but Tokyo is 150 miles away from the hot, damaged reactors. The Japanese government's evacuation zone, however, is limited to a 12-mile radius from the stricken plant.

The British, Australian and Hong Kong governments have issued a stronger advisory to their citizens, urging them to leave Tokyo and the areas north of the capital.

Metropolis Magazine, a popular English-language publication for expatriates in Tokyo, struck a defiant tone as it established a Facebook page on radiation levels in Tokyo.

"For everyone flying home to get away from radiation in Tokyo. When you fly you are exposed to levels around 15 times normal so people are fleeing the radiation only to be exposed to more," the magazine posted.

Someone on an flight from New York to Los Angeles is on average exposed to 30 to 40 microsieverts of radiation. By comparison, the radiation given off by a full-body airport scanner is 0.0148 microsieverts; a chest X-ray, 100 microsieverts; and smoking a pack a day for one year, 80,000 microsieverts. A radiation dose of 500,000 to 1 million microsieverts will cause radiation sickness (Graphic: Radiation effects).

The breaking point for many appeared to be Wednesday, when even a skeleton crew of emergency workers at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant had to briefly evacuate because of a surge of radiation.

More troubling developments emerged since then, including U.S. officials' statements that the nuclear crisis was more dire than expressed by Japanese officials, and, according to the Associated Press, plans by the United States to offer voluntary evacuation of family members and dependents of U.S. personnel in Tokyo and Yokohoma.

Photos: Earthquake and nuclear crisis in Japan

Rong-Gong Lin II

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