Tokyo Expats Live in Altered Landscape

Jacinthe Martin says it took her a few days to reach “panic” status last March, as Japan’s nuclear crisis deepened following its earthquake and tsunami. But the agitated news reports and frantic emails from friends finally pushed her – like many foreign residents of Tokyo – to abandon her adopted city for sanctuary overseas.

A boy walks in front of a huge anti-nuclear banner during a protest rally in Tokyo In February, 2012.
Toshifumi Kitamura | AFP | Getty Images
A boy walks in front of a huge anti-nuclear banner during a protest rally in Tokyo In February, 2012.

Ten days of “sound sleep” in her home town of Montreal were enough to convince Ms Martin, her Japanese husband and their two children that it was safe to return. But even a year later, she says, her normally cosmopolitan neighborhood is missing some of its international flavor.

“You don’t see many expats at the supermarket,” she says. “One neighbor, they never came back, not even to close the house. They just sent a mover.”

The exodus from Japan of people who had obvious places to go generated its own term: “flyjin”, a cross between “fly” and gaijin, the Japanese word for foreigner. Immigration statistics show that in March 2011, 270,000 more non-Japanese left the country than entered it.

Many of the flyjin are long back, after waiting out the fraught first weeks of the crisis at home or in places such as Hong Kong or Singapore. Yet not everyone has returned: the lower numbers are evident not only in emptier foreign-food aisles, but in shrunken international school enrolments and depressed rents on expatriate-oriented housing. Ms Martin’s neighbor's house, for instance, is renting for 20 per cent less than it did before its previous occupants fled.

Among the returnees, meanwhile, there has been the sometimes tricky process of getting back to normal – not only at home but at work, where companies have learnt tough lessons about the trade-offs involved in evacuating non-local staff. “When we came back, there were difficulties in terms of a few odd comments and stuff,” says Stephen Brierley, a British currency-swaps trader at a Japanese financial firm.

About 30 per cent of the traders on his floor are foreigners, he says: they went to Hong Kong for a week, while their Japanese colleagues stayed put.

A manager at one Swiss-based company says he was told not to let his Japanese colleagues know he was out of the country, to avoid damaging morale – a ruse that seems unlikely to have fooled them. “Everyone knows that all the gaijin left,” says a Japanese IT specialist at a US consulting firm.

When they returned, many were put through a regimen of corporate group-building exercises designed to smooth over any rifts with colleagues such as company-sponsored golf weekends. A few businesses went further, linking team spirit with volunteer efforts in Japan’s tsunami-stricken north-east. “That was a real game-changer,” says a foreign manager who spent a weekend shoveling muck and picking up debris. “My relationship with the team here, and their view of us, changed dramatically for the better.”

As for the decline in expat numbers, it has been oddly uneven across nationalities, with continental Europeans the mostly likely to have stayed away – a reflection, perhaps of differing attitudes towards nuclear power and radiation risks. Enrolment at a school for German children in Yokohama, just south-west of Tokyo, is still down by 25 per cent, while parents at Tokyo’s French Lycée report a similar fall there. At the British School numbers are down just 5 per cent.

The overall numbers decline should be put in perspective in any case, says Tom Satoh, the husband of Ms Martin, the French-Canadian teacher. He is a senior recruiter at Talent2, a headhunting company, and says other factors have weighed more heavily than fears about aftershocks or radiation-tainted food: the weak global economy, retrenchment at crisis-hit banks and the attractions of cheaper, lower-tax regional hubs such as Singapore.

Still, amid the broad trends have been many painful individual decisions. “You question whether you’re doing the right thing,” says Mr Brierley, the trader, who came to Japan seven years ago with his wife and three children. He says he has had to cut off contacts on Facebook who accused him of exposing his family to radiation – even though most experts say health risks outside the evacuation zone are negligible. “These are people sitting at home in the north of England reading the tabloids. They don’t have any real information. But still, it does kind of chip away at you.”

This is the first in a series on how things have changed a year after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s north-east.