Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Whither the "flyjin"?

Lots has been written about the exodus from Tokyo and the surrounding area. Some journalist coined the term "flyjin" for the foreigners who have left (gaijin who run away at the first sign of trouble, geddit?) but since "jin" just means "person", the term should apply equally to the Japanese who have left in rather greater numbers (albeit surely as a smaller proportion). See the discussion here for more on the origins and relevance of the term, and here's a whole blog on the topic. This article talks about the full hotels in Osaka, which is Japan's second business centre and where some companies have shifted (some) operations, and there are also reports of pregnant (Japanese) women fleeing to the west of Japan. There simply aren't enough foreigners here to have caused the reported crowds on the shinkansen and at the airport.

There is no doubt that overall a lot of people have left, and for may of them it was a logical enough decision - for example, consider a family with children, with power cuts, disrupted transport, yoghurt shortages in the shops and Tokyo Disney shut who found themselves facing an unexpectedly extended spring break holiday when the international schools closed a week early. While I reserve the right to gently poke fun at some who have run away rather irrationally, it did actually take a bit of work before I was completely confident that staying was an entirely correct decision, so I don't think vitriolic accusations of "cowardship" and "desertion" (which I've seen no mention of outside the rather febrile ex-pat community) are really appropriate. When you have government and (potentially) relatives overseas pressurising you to leave, it may be hard to stay put. On the other hand, for many people there is no really compelling reason to leave either, as the current (past) disruption is hardly major.

Anyway, what I haven't seen discussed is, what are the leavers going to do now?

If they are actually worried about the current level of contamination (which I've argued is basically negligible) then this is not going to go away any time soon. Plutonium has been found outside the reactor buildings (albeit at near-background levels - see the 28 March, 23:00 UTC update), partial meltdown is now widely accepted to have happened, and there is ongoing leakage of highly radioactive water. This might take quite some time to plug, since all the while they have to keep pumping more water in which is leaking straight out and adding to the contamination, which as well as threatening the local environment must be making life increasingly difficult and dangerous for those trying to actually fix things. Incidentally the much-quoted reading of 1,000mSv/h (I wonder how many know that that is 1Sv/h?) for the water seems to be merely the upper limit of the meters they are using, so it could be an arbitrary factor worse than that (ignoring that these units seem pretty inappropriate for the surface of a body of water). Ultra-low-level (but detectable) food contamination will probably spread substantially further and continue for years. At some level all agriculture is probably contaminated by past bomb tests, of course.

So when, if at all, are the "flyjin" going to come back? In time for the new financial year start on April 1, or the school year which begins the following Monday (for the international schools at least)? When various governments remove their (IMO silly) advice to stay away? Are they planning on waiting for the Fukushima problem to be "fixed", which experts are warning may take months or even years? Or have they simply re-emigrated in a hurry, never to return? I wonder how much thought they have given the subject.

It was recently asked what JAMSTEC's policy was towards staff who had left the area on the advice of their governments or otherwise. No answer has yet been forthcoming. In fact I still don't actually know if any such people exist, though I would expect there to be one or two. There are all sorts of special leave provisions in our rule book and JAMSTEC is generally a generously paternalistic employer (albeit horribly bureaucratic), so I'm sure they will do their best to be flexible. But they can hardly be expected hold jobs open indefinitely, let alone continue to pay salaries, for staff who have no clear commitment to return. And of course we are a govt-funded research lab that doesn't actually have any real products or customers. No-one will care too much if we don't get quite as much research done as we might have hoped (and the computer down-time is a great excuse anyway). For a company whose bottom line depends on actually making and selling stuff, staff desertion may be hard to tolerate. It will be interesting to see what happens when their patience runs out - if it hasn't already.


Anonymous said...

And a lot of the Flyjin are people just taking their usual end-of-year trips back home, or people whose contracts have ended and are returning home.

James Annan said...

Certainly it's always a period of high turnover, but this year is much more than just that. I think the fate of the international schools will be a useful bellwether - we happen to know one or two of the teachers socially so should get some strong clues over the next month.

Anonymous said...

I would assume that some of the people who are leaving are not leaving because of the _current_ levels of radioactivity, but rather because they are worried that there will still be some disaster that will release much more radioactivity... personally, what I've read indicates that that risk is negligible, but I could understand that some people might not trust the official reports after seeing the early confusion.

In that case, every day without such a disaster is a day closer to feeling like the situation is "under control" even if not "fixed".


SCM said...

I agree that the risk to Toyko-ites is negligible - I'm happy enough that my other half will be there next week (though I'll tell him to pack natto :-)

However the 1 Sv/h measured at the plant (turbine hall) is bloody awful given the LD50 (for a full body dose) is around 5 Sv. It makes dealing with this for the workers there a nightmare.

Richard said...

My wife coined the phrase "okaeri-nasai-jin" for those coming back...