To Leave or Not Leave Japan: That Was the Question

What follows is a description of what I experienced in Japan from the moment of the earthquake until the day I left Japan -- March 14, 2011:

Friday, March 11th @ 2.46 p.m."
Heading to a business appointment, I am on the Marunouchi subway. The quake hits while between stations. The train stops as soon as it began. It lasts nearly a minute. Everyone is calm (as quakes happen often) but we all realize this is a really big one. I wonder if we are safe and very uncomfortable underground. I (and others) try to get internet signals on our cell phones to check the magnitude. I get one and hear from my office it was magnitude 7.9.

Friday, March 11th @ 3:02 p.m.
After nearly 20 minutes, the train conductor decides to move slowly to the next station where I exit the train and station. People are standing on the streets everywhere, scared to be inside. Large aftershocks continue. Soon, all trains throughout Tokyo are stopped for the rest of the day to check train tracks for problems. By 6:00 p.m., the streets are packed with thousands of people headed home on foot. As I am too far to walk home, I check in to a hotel where gas and the elevator are not working but at least I have a bed for the night. I head to a convenience store which is completely wiped out - everything worth eating is already gone. Aftershocks and new quakes throughout the night make for a sleepless night.

Saturday, March 12th @ 5:15 a.m.:
I leave the hotel and head to Shinjuku station where the trains are confirmed to run. The first train leaves at 5:53 a.m. Once home, amazingly, I discover no damage to my home. Watching TV to catch up on the news, I learn of the problems facing cooling one reactor at the Fukushima nuclear plant and become very concerned. My concern is not only for radiation leaks, but also because I know from my 25 years of training Japanese that a) decision-making takes too much time, b) Japanese tend to respond reactively vs. proactively to events, and c) Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) has a history of not revealing reality forthrightly.

Saturday, March 12th @ 10:00 a.m.:
I head to a major supermarket to get food for the week, as I do each weekend. To my surprise, it is packed with huge lines. People seem to start to be loading up on food, stocking up on bottled water, milk products, bread and rice. Throughout the day, I stop in at other supermarkets where the same is happening. The shelves at convenience stores, normally restocked, are still largely empty. Now I begin to worry about food in coming days and weeks as people are planning for more earthquakes.

Saturday, March 12th @ 2:45 p.m.:
I have been on the internet exchanging social media notes and e-mails with many friends. I propose the following scenario with Tokyo in my mind: earthquake + scared + food hoarding + radiation +panic = time to leave Japan. This becomes foremost in my mind from now on and is based on assumptions founded in experience and observation. I share this with many people who by and large agree with me. A few call my observations "insensitive" to Japanese. I beg to differ.

Saturday, March 12th @ 4:05 p.m.:
I make a plan to leave Tokyo March 14th and reserve a ticket. I withhold final judgment until I see how things play out on Sunday and Monday morning.

Saturday, March 12th @ 5:10 p.m.:
I read a New York Times article on-line discussing the potential for trouble at six different reactors at two facilities and learn that, as a last ditch effort, sea water is being poured on to one reactor. Not good. I am also in touch with a long-trusted German woman who is married to a Japanese and with a young son. She informs me she is leaving Tokyo and headed south to Kyoto. She tells me she has heard a rumor that several people in Tokyo had shown evidence of radiation. I am very skeptical, not only because it is a rumor but also because there is no evidence it is true from any other source. Still, it is another factor in my decision-making process to stay or go.

Sunday, March 13th @ 10:15 a.m.:
I spend an hour going to five stores (two supermarkets and three convenience stores) to see if shelves have been filled and hoarding has diminished. Indeed, at all stores the shelves are becoming empty as the loading up on food and drink continues. I also go to two gas stations where I see a brisk business.

Sunday, March 13th @ 4:35 p.m.:
I see on TV that one of the buildings housing one of the troubled reactors has "blown up". In addition, sea water is being poured on another reactor. Two reactors experiencing potential melt-down problems and no word on if the efforts to cool the reactors is working. I do not like the lack of transparency. I also see a CNN weather forecast noting that whereas winds in northern Japan have been blowing out to sea, within 24 hours they will head in-land. Being only 150 miles from Fukushima, I see a scenario where any radiation in the atmosphere could easily be blown to Tokyo. Now I am worried.

Sunday, March 13th @ 5:45 p.m.:
I soon head in to Shinjuku by train where normally there are many people shopping and starting to head home for a Monday morning work day. To my surprise, the streets are only 30% of normal people traffic. Some stores normally open are shut. And the normal queues of people going home for the evening are non-existent. I head home pretty sure I am leaving.

Sunday, March 13th @ 8:20 p.m.:
My German friend encourages me to take that flight to the States. But no one else in my circle of friends is planning such a move themselves. Reading again the NY Times, I learn that no clear statement on the effectiveness of the sea water effort is noted. I call my family who urges me to take the flight to Denver. Almost 100% sure I will leave tomorrow.

Monday, March 14th @ 9:00 a.m.:
I want to see if store shelves have been replenished overnight. The answer is no. In addition, whereas the gas stations were simply busy yesterday, now there are lines of 10-20 cars waiting to purchase gasoline. The prospect of food shortages and even fuel shortages is making my decision easy.

Monday, March 14th @ 9:45 a.m.:
I read on line that France has encouraged its citizens to leave Japan. Although no French, I envision more edicts coming from other governments. That notice combined with the lack of food and long gas lines is enough for me. I decide to head to Shinjuku to catch a bus to Narita airport. I pack a small carry-on, water the plants, and as I leave I say: "I will be back in two weeks, two months or not at all". The thought of a "radiated Tokyo", while highly unlikely, would mean I may never come back to a place where I have live for a quarter of a century.

Monday, March 14th @ 10:30 a.m.:
Very long lines of mainly non-Japanese headed to Narita. I have to wait 45 minutes to get a ticket and get on a bus. The line gets longer and longer as I leave. Interestingly, I notice many Japanese with suitcases headed in to the train station.

Monday, March 14th @ 12:05 p.m.:
I arrive at Narita which is much more crowded than normal. Although the flight leaves at 5:45 p.m., I am happy be there early. As the afternoon wears on, more and more people arrive at the airline lounge and we are soon at overcapacity with extra chairs being brought in by airline staff.

Monday, March 14th @ 5:00 p.m.:
I board the plane. It is full. As our wheels leave the ground, several people clap. But not me. I am sad. Will I come back soon? What will I come back to? Additional earthquakes? Will the reactors be able to be shut down and the cooling process effective? Will there be additional radiation leaks? No one can know.

David Wagner is Director of Crisis Communications at Country Risk Solutions, a political risk consulting firm based in Connecticut. He has lived and worked in Japan for 25 years.