Nigemashita

As I’m sure you’re all aware by now, Alan and I have fled Japan and are now safely back in Australia. So what happened?

On Monday 14th March (3 days after the earthquake), the trains were all down at Omiya station (which is the 3rd largest station in Japan, by the way, so that was a big deal in itself) so Alan and I couldn’t go to work. Instead, we stayed at home all day watching the Japanese news and reading the international news, and consulting with friends and family back in Australia. We were scared enough by the worsening situation at the nuclear reactors in Fukushima that we went to see our bosses to tell them we were leaving. I think the idea in our heads at the time was that we could escape back to Sydney for 2 or 3 weeks, and come back once the reactors were under control and things had calmed down a bit. With the option, of course, of not returning at all if the situation got out of control and dangerous.

I should explain here the way things stood with our jobs. At that time, there were only 2 weeks left of the school year, so classes were winding up anyway. After that, the students and teachers have a 2 week holiday before the new school year starts (on April 8th). So we could give Japan up to 4 weeks to prove to us that it was habitable. Predictably, our bosses did everything they could to try to convince us not to leave. They said we were far enough away not to be at risk no matter what happened, and that the situation at Fukushima was under control. They also said that if we left now we would lose their trust and most likely will not be welcome back. Alan and I took this all on board and, after a discussion over Ventrillo with some of our cannier friends back in Sydney we decided the risk wasn’t high enough yet to throw away everything we’d worked so hard to set up in Japan.

The next day was the graduation ceremony for my 3rd grade students. Ceremonies like this are a big deal in Japan. They had already spent a couple of days practising for it. For this reason, and because I knew it would be my very last chance the see my 3rd years, I made a big effort to get there, in spite of transport problems. But checking the news at work after the ceremony was over, I found out that reactor #2 had exploded. Reactors #1 and #3 had both had explosions over the weekend, but the reactor vessels were still intact so there was no radioactivity leak. But this time, there was a dramatic increase in radioactivity, indicating that the containment vessel had been breached.

Fortunately I had no classes for the rest of the day, so I spent the afternoon reading international news reports. This is when I read that radiation levels in Saitama (where I live and work) were now 40 times the normal level. Alan and I were on the phone to each other a lot while we were at work that day to keep up-to-date, and so I heard that his school had been sent an emergency safety notice from the Board of Education telling them that even though there was nothing to worry about, they should avoid letting the kids outside for the time being (!!!). His school was also receiving calls from panicked parents asking if they should come to pick up their kids. My school hadn’t heard anything along these lines (that I know of), so I told another teacher who then told the principal. He said it was an overreaction and our school wouldn’t do anything like that.

By this time, Alan and I had made our decision. He called our bosses and quit on the spot. I contacted our travel agent in Australia to get flights home ASAP. And then I only had half an hour to say a stealthy farewell (stealthy because I hadn’t told the principal yet) to the English teachers that I worked with.

That was really the worst. For one thing, they were all so incredibly surprised. They didn’t know that I had even been considering leaving, so it was really sudden. And I think they couldn’t really understand why I was leaving. I think the general feeling amongst the teachers at my school was that the problem was serious and terrible, but also far away and very unlikely to affect them. So I think they couldn’t really see the need for me to leave, and certainly not so suddenly. And of course, Japan is their home. So I think they felt that if something bad was going to happen, then it would just happen and there was nothing they could do about it. I guess I can understand that (although I would still consider taking a holiday to southern Japan if I was them), but I’m not Japanese. I had somewhere I could run to.

Alan ended up having to stay in Japan a couple of days longer than me because I had bought a return flight (for visa purposes) and only had to change the date, whereas he had to buy a ticket from scratch and it would have cost over $5000 (!) to get the same flight as me.

So we packed as much as we could into our luggage, posted a few boxes off to Australia, and (with heavy hearts) threw a whole lot of stuff in the dumpster. This was all the stuff that we didn’t love quite enough (like my work shoes that were a bit too big), bulky items (like our fold-out table and the futon) and stuff you can get back in Aus (like the iron). We also had to abandon our bicycles (T_T). Of course, we had known all along that we’d have to abandon all this stuff eventually, but we spent a lot of money setting ourselves up in Japan because we thought we’d be there for a couple of years. The investment is much less sensible when you’re only there for 6 months!

On top of these hassles, Alan had to take care of the mundane stuff like settling things with the utilities companies and cleaning the apartment for inspection. Of course, the real estate company we rented from charged us every fee they could think up (2 months rent plus cleaning – about 200,000 yen (more than $2000) all up).

The final time we went in to our company to tie up the loose ends they were generally pretty helpful (although one of the Americans that we had liked was clearly furious at us). They got me to write a letter to my teachers and another one to the students. I’m sure they will censor them though. I only alluded to my reason for leaving in my letter to the students, but the bosses might think even that is too much. After all, those kids have to stay in Saitama so they might freak out if they knew I was leaving because I didn’t think it was safe! I understand that, but I’m still sad to think that my students will think I left for no reason. Maybe they think I didn’t care enough to say goodbye 😦

My biggest regret about leaving the way we did is leaving my students, especially without a chance to say goodbye. A lot of them were really awesome. I was especially fond of my 2nd year students. Those classes were split in two so I only taught 20 students at a time, and consequently got to know the students pretty well. I hate to think that they might think they weren’t important to me, because they (especially my favourite students: Akashi, Ookahata, Morita, Hakuri, Yoshida, Sakai, Isobe, Sate and Sudo) were a big part of why I loved my time in Japan so much.

Anyway, that was that. I left the country only about 30 hours after we made the snap decision to flee. I don’t regret the decision to leave. We had said we would leave if things got worse, and they got worse. In fact in the week that followed, the situation got progressively worse and worse, and every moment I felt more justified in my decision. But at the time it wasn’t easy, particularly with all the Japanese people around us telling us we were being paranoid and overreacting.

I still feel pretty down when I think about everything we left behind. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve lost something I can never get back. I had a really good relationship with each of my English teachers, and I still can’t believe I’ll never see most of them again. Saying goodbye to my two favourite teachers was distressing. In one case because he had tears in his eyes, and the other because the last expression I saw on his face was… I don’t know… disapproving? And I didn’t even get to say goodbye to Shimizu-sensei 😦

Anway, that’s the whole story. I’ll write later about what we’re thinking of doing next. But one way or another I’m pretty sure we’ll be going back to Japan in the future.

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2 Comments »

  1. Mischa Said:

    Wow Ing. This post made me a bit sad. I feel so lucky to have experienced a tiny bit of your life in Japan while I was there. I’m very moved by this, perhaps you could send it to the Sydney morning herald or something. I read a lot of the news around the time of the earthquake and some personal accounts, but your story really captured your true love and passion for Japan and how in such a crisis it became a struggle to leave in a way that feels complete and properly understood. A small tragedy in the scheme of things but one that I’m sure many Australians can relate. – not sure that makes sense, but you inspired a rant and thanks for sharing xox

    • Ingrid Said:

      Thanks Mischa *hug*. We should catch up while Alan and I are in Sydney.


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