Return of the prodigal 'flyjin'
There was a time when Anders (not his real name) had given up all hope of returning to Tokyo after the events of 3/11 forced him to leave Japan indefinitely.
Yet over a year later, he was back in the country he had called his home for half a decade.
“It’s a strange feeling to be back,” Anders says. “On one hand, Tokyo is exactly as I remembered it, almost as if I had never left. Yet at the same time, some things have changed and they remind me of how much time has really passed.”
Like many of Tokyo’s inhabitants, Anders was at work when the large earthquake struck Japan on March 11, 2011.
Although Anders had lived in Japan for several years, this was the first time he had experienced an earthquake of this magnitude.
“I remember there were some tremors in Tokyo following the big (Chuetsu) quake in Niigata in 2007, but the Tohoku earthquake last year was much stronger and lasted longer,” he said.
He admits to riding out the initial quake on March 11 sitting at his desk and being transfixed by spectacle taking place outside the office windows, where high rise buildings were “swaying ridiculously from side-to-side, as if they were animated structures in a Looney Tunes cartoon.”
“When I exited the office building after the quake, there was already a shell-shocked crowd gathered while alarms and sirens were going off in the background,” Anders says. “My co-worker commented that it all felt as if aliens had invaded the Earth, and I felt it was an apt description of the situation at the time.”
While Tokyo as a whole was left relatively undamaged by the earthquake that day, most if not all train lines in the greater Tokyo area were shut down following the disaster, meaning that many people had no immediate way to return to their homes.
Because Anders lived on the outskirts of Tokyo, he was able to get home by foot, joining the hundreds of thousands of people who had the same idea.
“I had never seen so many people crowding the footpaths before, not even during a fireworks festival in summer,” he says. “Fortunately, all the people were so orderly and composed that the whole experience wasn’t as chaotic as it could have been.”
While the weekend following the earthquake was mainly marred by news of power blackouts and continued train issues, a more precarious development would soon rear its head.
“Two days after the quake, my parents (from overseas) called me out of the blue,” Anders says. “They asked me whether I knew what was happening in Fukushima and if I was making preparations to leave the country.”
Anders was a bit perplexed that his parents would suggest he leave Japan only because of an earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, but it turned out his parents were concerned about something else.
“When they first told me that there was an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, I had trouble believing what they were saying,” he says. “I just told my parents that it’s probably not as bad as the media makes it out to be, and that Fukushima Prefecture is really far from Tokyo.”
When Anders came into work the following Monday, he had barely sat down at his desk when he received another phone call from overseas.
“Another explosion had occurred at the nuclear power plant and my parents were absolutely hysterical at the news,” he says. “They were begging me over the phone to drop everything and get on the first flight out of the country.”
After ending the call, Anders turned to the Internet for additional information and updates about the crisis brewing in Fukushima, but instead found himself faced with more damning evidence.
“At that very moment, NHK was running a story about how radiation from the power plant was making its way to Saitama, which is next to Tokyo,” he says. “Additionally, it seemed like everyone I knew in Tokyo was posting on Facebook about how they were evacuating to Osaka that day.”
Anders called an emergency meeting with his superiors to ask for permission to temporarily leave the country, only to be told that the company’s official position was Tokyo was safe, as no formal evacuation orders had been ordered for the city and surrounding prefectures.
“The only way I could convince them to let me leave was by promising that I would be back at work within two weeks,” he says. “I think we all expected the situation in Fukushima to be over in one way or another by then, though it didn’t quite end up that way.”
The following day, Anders was on a plane back to his family’s home in Sweden.
“Before I got on the train to the airport, I saw numerous people walking on the streets with open umbrellas but there was no rain that evening,” he says. “People were genuinely afraid of radiation raining down on them.”
After Anders boarded the plane and it began to taxi for take-off, he found himself overwhelmed with emotion.
“As soon as I got on that plane, I knew I would be saying goodbye to my life in Japan forever,” he says.
That initial hunch would turn out to be prophetically true, as what initially started out as a two-week sabbatical from Tokyo would soon stretch into a month and beyond.
As the days went by, Anders hoped in vain for a breakthrough at the Fukushima plant that would enable him to return to Japan and the life he had left behind, but he says that day never came.
“While there were no further explosions at the nuclear power plant after I left, the situation there never really seemed to improve overall,” Anders says. “Then the Fukushima nuclear disaster was given the highest rating (on the International Nuclear Events Scale by the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency), and that was the final nail in the coffin.”
While Anders felt it was safe enough to return to Tokyo, his family, who had lived through the Chernobyl accident in 1986 that affected Europe, did not.
“I tried on numerous occasions to change their mind, but every time I failed,” he says. “I knew if I returned without their blessing, I would either get disowned or have to take responsibility for any undue stress I would cause them, and neither prospect appealed to me.”
Anders eventually emailed his resignation to his employer, but made sure to keep an open line of communication with his Japanese superiors “to avoid burning any bridges.”
“My boss was very patient and understanding of my situation, and he tried on many occasions to convince me to come back,” he says. “Sadly, my hands were tied the entire time and I was unable to do that.”
Anders would only have the chance to return to Japan over a year later, once the nuclear disaster in Fukushima had come to a standstill, mainly to take care of what he describes as “loose ends” left in the wake of his departure.
On that occasion, Anders decided to visit his former workplace in Tokyo to meet with his former boss and co-workers in person for the first time since leaving last year.
Any fears Anders had about being scorned by his Japanese employers vanished when the first thing they did was invite him to an impromptu lunch.
“Despite the fact that I had failed to keep my promise to return to Japan and quit my job, they seemed to be completely understanding of my situation and didn’t seem to hold a grudge against me in any way,” Anders said. “I felt like I was returning to family after a long absence.”
While people like Anders may have grudgingly accepted their fate in the wake of 3/11, others such as Stuart accepted it as a sign to pick up and leave the Japan permanently.
Although Stuart weathered the earthquake that had shook his Tokyo office much in the same way Anders had, he admits to immediately researching the distances involved in the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters following the news of what was happening at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
“I was trying to figure out if people in Tokyo would be evacuated, whether we were in any danger and what the extent of the risk was if we were exposed to radiation as in those earlier cases,” he says.
The lack of what Stuart felt was “trustworthy information in a timely manner” about food and air radiation levels in various locations around Japan, as well as the resulting aftershocks and threats of future earthquakes, would convince him to finally uproot from Japan after living there for over a decade.
“Both my fiancée and myself are not Japanese with nothing except our jobs keeping us in Tokyo, so we immediately began considering leaving,” he says. “However, we ultimately decided to stay and wait for more information, hoping that the risks, transparency and general outlook would improve over the next two months. Only after we did not see any significant solutions, nor much future change, coming did we begin making mutual plans to leave Japan together.”
After preparing all of the relevant paperwork involved in quitting work, such as HR documents, taxes, and pensions, Stuart handed in his resignation at his workplace, citing “family reasons” as a reason for his departure.
“After 10 years, I find Japan work relationships to be a very funny, fragile thing,” he says. “At certain places I could have been more honest, but due to the industry I worked in and where I was specifically, I thought it best for my future career possibilities to have a Japanese style tatemae (official position) excuse that did not upset anyone or break the so-called harmony of the workplace.”
Stuart found that by giving his Japanese employers a non-disaster-related reason for quitting the job shortly after the events of 3/11, as opposed to telling them directly that he was leaving Japan because of the nuclear disaster, meant there were no awkward discussions or questions that, for example, Anders said he had to field.
With news of non-Japanese fleeing Japan in the wake of the Fukushima incident, then branded under the “Flyjin” moniker, there was concern among some of the ex-pat community that this reaction would reflect badly on them.
A popular opinion at the time was that if a company is faced with the choice of hiring a Japanese and non-Japanese candidate, the Japanese one will be hired because there will be concerns about whether the non-Japanese is going to stay long term.
A Tokyo-based pharmaceutical executive headhunter, who spoke under condition of anonymity, says the notion is true but “not because of the Flyjin effect.”’
“It has more to do with Japanese culture and how Japanese prefer to stay at one company their entire career,” he says. “Foreigners, on the other hand, change often.”
He adds that whenever a foreign candidate was sent to an interview, the one question that came up time and time again was whether or not they plan to stay with the company or change in three to five years down the tract.
Another concern attributed to the exodus of non-Japanese last year was the portrayal of non-Japanese as ones who view Japan only as a place to work for a few years, earn a lot of money and then return their home country.
“Employers do raise concern over long term prospects of foreigners, and the Flyjin phenomenon may have increased that distrust,” the recruiter admits. “Though, I’m not convinced about the ‘foreigners making a lot of money and leaving for home’ part.”
In the event an employee candidate submits a resume that may show a gap in employment after March 2011, possibly due to evacuating Japan and/or quitting their job, there is concern over whether this would affect one’s job prospects.
According to the recruiter, whatever perceived negative effect the Flyjin phenomena may have had, he is not seeing it.
“It’s still not easy to get hired, but I’ve seen an increase in openness for foreigners at the manager level or above, and many Japanese companies hire more foreigners as new graduates,” he said. “A few of my Japanese clients have even mentioned that they’d like to hire a few foreigners to help shake things up.”
After having returned to the U.S. with his fiancée, Stuart would return to Japan over a year later to officially cancel his visa status in order to claim his pension refund, as well as catch up with friends and former co-workers.
Despite having left Japan soon after 3/11, Stuart says his former employers were happy to see him again and even asked if his Tokyo visit meant that he was moving back to Japan.
“All-in-all, they treated me as someone they respected and missed, and they were happy to see me for the day,” he says.
However, when the discussion turned to Stuart’s fiancée and whether he was thinking of having kids, the mood of the conversation changed.
“When I asked them the same question, they told me they had no plans due to the ongoing nuclear crisis, as they now felt Tokyo was not a safe place to raise children,” he says. “This was not said by just one person, but by multiple people that I caught up with during my visit to Japan.”
Stuart admits to being surprised by these admissions, as one year earlier he had found an overall unwillingness by his close Japanese friends, some whom he had known for many years and even attended their weddings, to discuss anything about the nuclear crisis, such as the food quality and the radiation in the air.
“I caught up with two married couples, one Japanese and one mixed one, who were trying to have children in 2011 but have since reversed their stance,” he says. “Whether they are right or not, they have decided it is not safe to raise children in the Kanto due to various reasons and will now wait to have kids, presumably until they move farther west or out of the country.”
For these reasons, Stuart admits that he does not foresee himself resettling in Japan in the near future, if at all.
“As more and more news is released about what really happened with the reactors in Fukushima, as well as about the cleanup efforts of the radiation contamination, it makes it really hard to want to live in that environment and raise a family when so much more of the world is available to me,” he says. “Additionally, I want to see and explore more of the world now after having 10 years of Japan under my belt.”
While Anders says that he often spent time contemplating how different his life would have turned out if the events of March 11, 2011 had not deteriorated in the way they had, he finds himself doing less so as time goes on.
“Throughout 2011, not a single day went by without me considering how I could return to Japan and pick up my life in Tokyo from where I left off,” he says. “But the passage of time, as well as my recent trip to Japan, has gradually helped me to accept my fate.”
Despite having started a new life in Sweden, Anders adds that he still has not given up on the idea of returning to Japan and resettling there one day.
“When I had lunch with my former boss, he told me drop him a line if I ever decide to return to Tokyo,” he says. “Even after I had greatly inconvenienced him and the company by leaving soon after the earthquake, he showed a willingness to set me up with another job.”