On Tuesday morning all I cared about was getting my family out of Fukushima, far away from the radioactive mess that was percolating down along the coast. We didn’t know where we might end up when we jumped into Jun’s car. Maybe we’d go to Akita, I thought, or Yamagata – put some more miles and mountains between us and the reactors. If we really thought it necessary we could probably get to Osaka, or even Kyushu, where people had gas in their cars and the supermarket shelves were stocked and kids could play in the park without their parents worrying about what might be falling out of the sky. No place could be too far, really. We just needed to find a corner of Japan, a place we could go to be safe, where we could breathe the air and let our kids run around outside, and wait until things settled down. Then we could return home and get on with living our lives.
The long ride to Morioka – the stretches of quiet thinking time along a road through a country that seemed much more dead than alive – those four hours in Jun’s car changed all that.
Even if we went to Kyushu, far from any threat of fallout from the fallout, how long would we stay? How long could we sleep in a hotel room, living out of our bags before our kids started wigging out and the walls started closing in and the four of us finally just went crazy? When would we be comfortable returning to Fukushima, and did we want to live like runaways in the meantime, for two, maybe even three weeks? Or could it conceivably turn into months?
I didn’t consider going all the way to America when we were scrambling to stuff our lives into two duffel bags. By the time we got to Morioka we knew that was where we wanted to go. My wife, in her eminent wisdom and foresight, had brought our passports; she seemed, actually, more eager than I was to head overseas. Which made me forget what she was leaving behind, until she spoke with her mother on the phone while I played with our sons on the bed in our room at our hotel in Ohdate.
I half listened in as she asked her mom if she would consider leaving Fukushima, if only for a short while. But for her father, confined to a wheelchair since he went down with an aneurism two years ago, a trip to the bathroom was hard enough. Leaving home – a home he hadn’t been more than a few dozen miles from in God knew how long – was, in his mind, out of the question. Heck, leaving home for anything less than pure free will was unthinkable; home was home, where their whole life was…and, my wife’s mom said, where they would die.
My wife’s sister offered less compelling excuses to remain, but would remain just the same. Her son was starting high school in a couple weeks. And the government said things would be fine.
I spoke briefly with my wife about her family; I knew the answers already but I thought she might want to tell me anyway, like she needed to get her bad day at work off her chest. Thirty minutes later she was settling down with the kids and I was heading to the hotel lobby where I would spend the next hour on the Internet, reading messages of encouragement from family and friends, all praying for me and my family to make it out of Japan safe and soon.
In the morning the mission was simple: get breakfast and then get to the station in time to catch the bus to the airport. The six inches of snow that had fallen overnight was light and fluffy, the kind that feels like feathers underfoot. My son stomped along like Godzilla, kicking up white puffs and making three-year-old noises of utter destruction. I wanted to drop our bags and tackle him, play in that perfect blanket until we both collapsed from exhaustion and laughter. But this would have to wait for another day.
There were forty-two people in front of us, with more lining up behind us with each passing minute. Few had bags as big as ours; many had only a briefcase, or nothing at all. A few minutes before departure time a man in an official-looking windbreaker asked all of us going to the airport to form a new line, closer to the curb. Only about twenty of us stepped forward, which to me meant we were one step closer to home.
From a distance the airport seemed not much bigger than the house I grew up in. There was no line at the check-in counter, where a woman smiled graciously and spoke gently as she helped us through the automated check-in process. A smattering of people drifted through the main hall, gazing at travel posters and sipping coffee and seeming very much removed from the world unfolding 200 kilometers to the south.
From the plane we looked down on a snow-covered world. Mountains dominate the northern part of Japan, and from the air you see nothing but trees and valleys and water and serenity. But it was not long before we were passing over Miyagi and Fukushima. In places inland we could see towns and villages, appearing as they should from 25,000 feet. Further off was the coast, and while sun, moisture and distance conspired to hide any detail from us, we could see in that indistinct mass of brown and gray that things were as far from ‘should be’ as one could ever imagine.
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to get on a plane and fly off overseas when hundreds of thousands of people had in a moment lost everything they’d ever known, unable now to buy even a bus ticket out of town. I wanted to kiss my family and put them on that plane and go back to Fukushima and do something, anything, I didn’t know what but I could figure it out because there were people back there who didn’t have a credit card and two bags of clothes and a family on the other side of the world to take them in and a whole army of friends standing by just in case. I wanted to get to the gate and find that someone needed a small miracle - a mother with a small child, or an elderly couple, waiting on standby because they were one seat short. My family would be fine. I wanted to be useful.
The hell I knew was down there slowly faded from view.
My wife had prepared masks for all of us, to use when we got to Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Yet inside the terminal people seemed just as calm and unmoved as they had in Ohdate-Noshiro earlier that morning. No one was wearing a protective mask. Nobody was running anywhere. It barely seemed like Tokyo let alone Tokyo just now settling after more skyscraper-shaking earthquakes the day before and a growing nuclear threat up the coast. ‘Where are you going?’ The young kid with the orange windbreaker smiled, eager to point us to the correct bus stop. He was working, probably for not a whole lot per hour. His country, at least part of it, had been ravaged and the worst seemed yet to come. And he was happy, helping get us on our way to Narita.
Our bus would be full, as my friend Vid had warned us. This leg of the journey, from Haneda across Tokyo and into Chiba prefecture to Narita Airport, had also concerned me. Standing in that hotel lobby, staring at the indecipherable directions for reserving tickets online, I envisioned masses of people fighting to get on the bus to Narita. Our flight could be delayed too, I thought without wanting to. And it might take forever to get our bags. And what if the buses weren’t running the normal schedule? What if there was another massive quake and everything went down? If we didn’t make our flight how long would we have to wait before three more seats opened up? Flights were all but booked solid for the next week and beyond, after all.
Sitting on our bus, my eleven-month-old making funny faces with the woman behind us, it was almost hard to imagine why I had been so worried.
At Narita the line to check in was without exaggeration two hundred yards long. I heard a dozen languages as we walked along, our older son riding on top of our luggage cart. Mothers barked at their unruly (or not so unruly) children. People in a hurry stutter-stepped before shouldering their way through any small break in the line to continue toward the security check and the gates and the relief of knowing they’ve caught their flight. Groups of uniformed policemen stood and talked and watched. Announcements drifted through the air. The huge departure screen loomed high on the wall; somewhere in there was our passage out of here.
I spent the last minutes before boarding our plane texting a few important people. I let Vid know we were on our way, and thanked him for all he had done for us. After making sure we were alive, then offering to drive up to Fukushima himself to bring us to Tokyo if that was what we needed, then keeping everyone informed of our whereabouts as we made our roundabout way, all the while making sure we were set up with hotels and flight information and everything else he could possibly think of, he would end up staying in Tokyo to volunteer at a distribution warehouse, helping to get food up to the Tohoku area, the place I had just run from. Several other friends had mailed me as well, expats who had also taken off and Japanese who were staying put. And finally, as we stood on line to board, I sent word to my mom that we really were on our way. It was only at this moment that I believed that we truly had made it, that we were on our way.
I couldn’t see Japan falling away below as our plane climbed into the sky. But I thought about my adopted home; the people I had called neighbor and friend for the past nine and a half years; the places that, though not perfect, I had grown to love, not as one loves a thing but as one loves an idea. And I knew that no matter how dear Japan was to me, however I would adore her, my home would always be America. And today, I would go home.
I looked over at my wife, cradling our little one. She liked America; liked my family. But America was not her home. And her family was among those we were leaving behind. For our sons’ sake the choice was easy: get to where it is safe, no matter how far we have to go. For me, yes I have struggled with my decision to leave when there are still so many with nothing, so many that could benefit from another set of hands moving food, or bringing water, or clearing debris, so many who, in moments of clarity amidst the chaos, would want nothing more than a friend to lean on and an arm to cry on. That my boys need me too helps to ease this guilt. But it is my wife who is leaving her life behind, at least for now. While my family waits to receive us with outstretched arms her parents are left with one less daughter. While I get to see my nieces and nephews living in a blessedly normal world my wife is left to wonder what is silently raining down on her sister’s son and daughter, who have grown so much since I first met them. And as welcome as my wife feels, as loved as she is by my family, her family and her home are far away.
We know we will return to Fukushima, at least for a time. And perhaps we knew too back in our hotel room in Ohdate. But as I listened to my wife talk to her mother on the phone I knew what our leaving meant to her. ‘Good bye for now,’ my wife said, and gently hung up.
In our hotel room in Ohdate, it seemed like now was all we had.
And we were among the very fortunate ones.