On 11 March 2011, a great earthquake shook Northeastern Japan. The area was soon devastated by one of the largest tsunami that the region has ever seen. A few days later, Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant experienced meltdowns, giving rise to fears of nuclear disaster. This led some Japanese families to evacuate overseas and to consider permanently leaving Japan.
I met some young families in this situation in Malaysia during my dissertation fieldwork on Japanese retirement migration in 2015. The extent of such overseas evacuation has not been studied systematically. The research is complicated by the fact that some migrants may not immediately identify themselves as hinansha, or evacuees. Saya, one of the evacuees I met, told her friends in Japan that she was in Malaysia for her children’s English education. Some Japanese people called foreigners who fled the country after the disaster with derogatory term, flyjin, playing on the words fly and gaijin (outsiders). She felt that her overseas evacuation too would be stigmatized.
On the other hand, Yuri, an evacuee from Tokyo, felt liberated in Malaysia precisely because she could openly declare herself to be hinansha. In Japan, she felt this term was reserved only for people from Fukushima. Other areas like Tokyo were supposedly “safe” according to official declarations from government authorities.
In this field note, I share some of the themes that emerged from my brief encounters with five such families in Kuala Lumpur in Penang in 2015. Their experience is neither representative nor atypical of overseas evacuation from Japan post-Fukushima. I write this note to participate in broader conversations on how disasters affect women, as well as to raise questions about how women navigate gender and citizenship in both physical and digital realms to protect their children.
Saya opened her doors to anyone considering a move to Malaysia. She had so far hosted eight mothers who came on trial visits to Malaysia. As soon as they reached her house, she told me, they started to speak non-stop (seki wo kitta youni hanashidasu) about the concerns that they could not openly raise in Japan. Most of them talked about how they had to fight their own husbands and relations to come to Malaysia. Their husbands told them that they were just overreacting. But they saw changes in their children’s bodies. Saya herself experienced bodily discomfort after consuming rice from Fukushima. She was living in a small town in Fukushima when the 3.11 disaster happened. The town was located 42km away from the nuclear reactors; by car, it was 1.5-hour distance away. She thought they would be ok. When she finally decided to evacuate, she took with her a bag of rice that she had just bought from the local supermarket. After consuming the rice, however, her children suffered stomach ache and she developed sore chapped fingers.
Their anxiety may be conceptualized productively with the emergence of a post-3.11 phenomenon called the “radiation divorce” (Weston 2016: 21). “Radiation divorce” (genpatsu rikon) is a neologism coined to describe the separations that occurred after 3.11 when couples disagreed on how to handle family life after the disaster (Weston 2016: 99). On one hand, the national-level government gave constant reassurances that radiation levels were under control.iv On the other hand, social media was filled with warnings about the threat of radiation exposure.
With no way to adjudicate the difference between the two discourses, women often bear the blame for any misfortune which arises from that uncertainty. An anthropologist, Aya Hirata Kimura, talks of a mother who blames herself for believing government reports when her son’s urine was found to contain radioactive cesium (Kimura 2016: 1). On the other hand, women who incessantly measure radiation levels with their own radiation measurement equipment are blamed for being irrationally spreading harmful rumours (fūhyō higai). They were called “radiation brain moms,” and tarred with the labels of being anti–scientific or hysterical (Kimura 2016).
The ecological anthropologist Kath Weston posed concrete hypothetical questions to her readers: “What would you do … [i]f your partner dismissed your daily routine of scanning the rice with a Geiger counter as a silly obsession? If you woke up every day with the dream of moving your child to a place with lower levels of radioactivity, only to have your husband tell you to stop paying so much attention to harmful rumours?” (Weston 2016: 99) It appears that some mothers, agonizing over similar questions, have decided to move with their children, over their husbands’ objections, to Malaysia. Their husbands typically stayed in Japan to work and send a monthly allowance.
Education and Evacuation
While establishing independent lives in Malaysia, these women continue to perform a nurturing role. An educational opportunity for their children was one of the most discussed topics among the evacuee mothers. One of them gave her son home schooling, while others enrolled their children in a Chinese school, hoping their children would acquire Chinese language proficiency in addition to English. Many of them did not consider Japanese schools as the only or preferred option. One of them called herself “the first generation overseas Japanese,” after the overseas Chinese population in Malaysia. She hoped that her children would receive a Malaysian education and adapt to the new country.
Migration is a difficult process. Many returned to Japan because they could not secure a permanent visa. In lieu of this, some mothers tried to secure a guardian visa attached to their children’s student visa status. Student visas were offered by local schools, but not Japanese schools. In such cases, the choice of local school was part of a strategic decision to secure a temporary visa while they sought other, more permanent visa options.
In addition to navigating the complex bureaucratic milieu of migration, some mothers also used education as a means to convince their reluctant husbands about their move to Malaysia. If it was for radiation, they said, husbands would have objected to their move. But if it was for children’ bilingual education, they had to reluctantly agree. Education has emerged as a domain in which mothers negotiate motherhood, citizenship and spousal relations after Fukushima.
Many radiation evacuees used online media to connect with similarly concerned citizens both in and out of Japan. They mainly used twitter to collect and disseminate information about overseas evacuation and education opportunities for their children. Many of them kept their own blogs and keenly read blogs by evacuees residing in other parts of the world.
Some, like Yuri, went beyond social media to establishing their own digital consultancy companies in Malaysia. Yuri negotiated a partnership with a prestigious international school in Johor Bahru to advertise their school to Japanese people considering educational opportunities in Malaysia. Digital consultancy work is particularly suited to the demands of evacuees who are at once consumers and providers of such information. In the process of finding a safe environment for their children, some mothers have become digital entrepreneurs.
Notably, it was not just ordinary people who were using social media as “weapons of the weak” (Scott 1985). Companies in Japan did so too. Consumers wanted to know the source of their food to avoid the dangers of unknown radioactive exposures. But most restaurants were unwilling to openly advertise the source, for the fear of being seen as playing to the discourse of those who are labeled as irrational or, worse, to be seen as spreading fūhyō higai. What some companies did do, however, was to list the sources of ingredients online. Concerned customers could check the online menu before visiting the restaurants. It appears that the helping hands for the concerned citizen came, not from the government, but from capitalism.
“Click the dish to see the sources of its main ingredients”
“Salad: main ingredients and their sources”
Disaster and Postfeminism
Japanese women’s lives in Malaysia shed light on emerging forms and possibilities of being a mother in the aftermath of 3.11. From taking the risk of migration to starting their own digital company to enrolling their children in non-Japanese schools, these women I met embody the postfeminist discourse “that features have-it-all women as a market of the enlightenment and meritocracy of the market-based system” (Kimura 2016: 12). Of course, not all women could leave the affected areas, and even fewer could go overseas. But the typical rhetoric, “rich (and foreign) left and poor stayed” didn’t necessarily ring true. One of the single mothers I met supported her three children by working as a caretaker in nursing homes. Is it true that the rich left and the poor stayed? Is it true that foreigners left and Japanese stayed? Is it true that caregiving is done only at home? Is there more to these popular discourses, especially with new opportunities presented by digital work and inter-Asian mobility?
I see the female evacuees’ experience as speaking to a larger question about how postfeminism will function in Japan, where the state embraces neoliberalism and scientism against a backdrop of increasing inter-Asian mobility. In the months to come, I will follow these women’s lives further, and in doing so I wish to highlight the generative potential of a postfeminist ethos that enables women like Saya and Yuri to pave new ways of being a mother in a “high-tech, ecologically damaged world” (Weston 2016).
Kimura, Aya Hirata. 2016. Radiation brain moms and citizen scientists. Durham: Duke University Press.
Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Weston, Kath. 2016. Animate planet: making visceral sense of living in a high-tech, ecologically damaged world. Durham: Duke University Press.
Shiori Shakuto, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
You may contact Dr. Shakutoi at arisha<at>nus.edu.sg