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(Yuta Onoda/The Globe and Mail)
(Yuta Onoda/The Globe and Mail)

Elsewhere in Japan, life carries on Add to ...

It has been about a week. A week of e-mails and phone calls from family and friends, some of whom I had not had contact with for years, and in one case decades.

All were asking the same two questions. Am I safe? Why do I not leave?

The answer to the first question also answers the second. Yes, I am safe. I live in Osaka, Japan, 1,000 kilometres away from Fukushima, so I am learning about this triumvirate of destruction like them - through the news and not from my surroundings, which have not changed.

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The earthquake and tsunami on March 11, and the resulting nuclear emergency, have likely affected my days no more than theirs. I continue going to work, the gym and the supermarket no differently than before. While in the past few days certain items have indeed become fewer, such as water and toilet paper, there remains no evidence of chaos or panic.

Friends here reminisce about the Great Hanshin earthquake in 1995, which killed thousands and was much closer to my home. They do this not to compare the devastation, as it is far too early to judge the tragedy unfolding in the north, but to recollect the response. Like now, there was no looting, no hoarding. The people retained their ethos of community.

I have read foreign publications expressing awe at the absence of such anarchy. Yet having lived in Japan for several years now, I cannot imagine people's behaviour being otherwise.

Similarly, there is no open despair. I have not heard one person complain about the injustice, or conversely point out how lucky we are to be here rather than there. In general, the people appear fatalistic. What has happened has happened. This is not cynical. What it means is that we must persevere by continuing with our responsibilities, while not forgetting a new one, which is now paramount - helping those in need.

The other day, a professor at the university where I work asked everyone to collect a list of items for colleagues at Tohoku University in Sendai. Other professors have spoken with relief about sons and daughters working in Tokyo who are safe.

The colleagues in my office have not even mentioned it, at least not to me. Some are wearing the facemasks that are ubiquitous in Japan, the ones you've probably seen in photos of places like Miyagi and Yamagata. But this is because it is allergy season, when pollen is at its most hostile, not because of some fear that the radioactivity is more severe than the government is admitting and that it has already arrived.

In fact, my colleagues spend more time discussing the retirement of one of our co-workers at the end of the month. In some ways it is eerie, this ostensible obliviousness to a catastrophe. Each deals with tragedy in his or her own way.

No doubt they are anxious. No doubt the whole country is anxious. Every day, I stare at the headlines and look at the photos. My eyes tear up, but I do not feel any alarm. There remains a general calmness, not only in me but in the entire people, at least in the west of the country. Like the contagion of panic, there is also a contagion of serenity.

Just how fragile that serenity is, I cannot judge. However, it is withering from me as more and more of my foreign friends are beginning to whisper that they are considering abandoning the country, for a short period at least. Last week, I received a call from one foreign acquaintance in Japan to whom I had not spoken in months. "When are you leaving?" he asked.

That was the first I ever thought of it. Gradually, others repeated the question, causing me to give the option thought. Now, I check embassy websites as frequently as I check the news. An Australian friend suggested I ignore the media and especially the Japanese government. The embassies, he advised, are the most reliable sources of information.

Those who are staying are at least leaving Tokyo. Many of my foreign friends have headed as far west in Japan as they can, and my own refugee arrived to stay with me late last week. However, calm is now prevailing, as he went back to Tokyo today, as did a foreign couple I met in Osaka last weekend.

From the very beginning, my Japanese friends reacted differently. Many of those living in Tokyo are from elsewhere, but have no intention of returning to their hometowns. They are nervous, but unwillingly leaving one's home is not an easy thing to do. It is why I do not leave. My career, my friends, even my identity is in Osaka. When I return to Toronto, friends introduce me as "Peter, from Japan."

The Japanese have always been know for their stoicism, and this period is another example of just how strong it is. For all of the country's exports, I have long wished to see this become its No. 1 product. To see it again first hand, the weekend after the quake, I took the train into the city. I had sent my modest donation to a respected charity group, and decided that for now there was no more to do, as it was still far to early to assess the extent of the damages and deaths.

So I walked solemnly, as I simply wanted to be outside and observe. Passing the main shopping district, I saw the usual bustle for a Sunday afternoon - with one difference. Spring sales abounded. Yes, this country can hold itself together.



Peter Karagiannis lives in Osaka, Japan.

 

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