Before I left Japan three months ago and returned to New York to take a new job, I had dinner with a fellow American expat at a ramen-counter restaurant in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. As we sat side by side eating our noodles, I sought assurance that my impending move wouldn’t constitute desertion—a strange anxiety, maybe, but one an expat feels acutely.
In the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, expats in Tokyo confronted that same insecurity as they wrestled with a far more fraught stay-or-go dilemma: to tough it out or join the great, and greatly maligned, foreigner exodus. Complicating the calculus was the fact that the decision wasn’t simply a matter of self-preservation, the way it seemed to be from thousands of miles away. To judge from foreign-news segments in the days after the disaster, all of Japan was a radioactive hell¬scape, one aftershock from even graver calamity, and families watching those broadcasts understandably urged their loved ones to get out, now. But life in Tokyo offered a less alarming perspective: The lights were slightly dimmed and the trains out of whack, but the karaoke bars remained open, as did the pachinko parlors. And with city radiation levels reportedly below what you’d be exposed to on a long flight home, there were reasons to bet against catastrophe.
Leaving meant abandoning that reality in favor of the apocalyptic narrative from abroad—to take the outsider’s view after wanting so badly to prove yourself an insider (another expat fixation). For Tokyo expats, many of whom take pride in rejecting the conventions of their old lives, it also meant suddenly, openly, opportunistically trading on their nonnative status. Foreigners in Japan are sometimes given a “gaijin pass” upon trampling one of the country’s social codes, but if you want to fit in, that’s not a privilege you exploit. To now abandon Japan for a former, safer home—to take the escape hatch not available to Japanese friends—would be a betrayal, both of your hosts and of the expat identity you’d carefully cultivated.
Over the past two weeks, the same social-networking sites invaluable in confirming acquaintances’ safety following the disaster have doubled as a scorecard for tracking how expats were resolving that conflict. Among those who stayed put, status updates carry a whiff of back-patting, as if, once the Fukushima Dai-Ichi reactors cool, the government will begin distributing awards for loyalty. Expats who announce their departure, meanwhile, are now “flyjin,” a freshly coined pejorative for fleeing foreigners. (“Maybe it’s good if those people don’t come back,” a Japanese finance worker told a friend. “Then maybe some of the homegrown talent can finally rise through the ranks instead of being condescended to by Brian or Jean-Philippe.”)
With the nuclear situation still uncertain, those now watching from abroad hope for the best while ramping up their defenses. “Running away is not what I do,” wrote an American friend I’d made in Tokyo, “and yet, here I am, on my boyfriend’s dad’s computer in L.A.” In other cases, guilt is mixed with counter-resentment. Another friend, who’d kept his movements off social networks, spoke candidly via Skype after arriving back in his home country. “You know this whole going-down-with-the-ship thing?” he said, leaning into the screen and eyeing me as if facing an accuser. “I am not the fucking captain.”
This post has been edited since its initial publication.