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Should I cancel my trip to Japan?

For a couple of days, on Reddit, on French blogs, I started to see that question popping up more and more.

Here is my take on it.

(Disclaimer: since I started this blog I decided to make it as consensual as possible for a bunch of reasons – the main one being that even if this blog is personal, I want it to be about Japan before being about me. Well, I’m throwing it all out of the window for this post. I hope I won’t offend anyone, if I do, tough shit!)

(Second disclaimer: This post is much longer than expected, try to stay with me to the end, if you really can’t, the middle part is the more important one)

What is happening to Japan right now? What about to the rest of the world?

I am a bit baffled (and this is an understatement) by the nuclear panic that is taking over the whole western world right now. Where does that come from? Is that a sequel from the Cold War? What triggers totally irrational fears, nonsensical panic as soon as the words “nuclear” and “radiation” have been pronounced?

Well, my first advice on the topic would be to read and listen what nuclear scientists have to say about it rather than fearmongering western media.

Seriously, do it. I don’t have the time nor the skill for a lesson in nuclear physics right now, but if google it, it shouldn’t be too hard to find (a posted a few links on my Facebook page those past couple of days).

Chernobyl comes to a lot of people’s minds. Well, as a Western European living in Western Europe in 1986, I can tell you that I’ve been “contaminated” by the nuclear cloud, just like pretty much the whole population of Europe. Are we all dead? Is Europe a nuclear wasteland now?

Sure, a bunch of people in the vicinity of the power plant were badly affected and died soon after. Yes, in the vicinity, because they were submitted to massive radiations and not evacuated before it was too late and well. Don’t forget that it took place in the Soviet Union, land of lies, corruption and disinformation.

What about the rest of Europe where the nuclear cloud traveled all over for a few days, maybe weeks? Well, there never was any conclusive evidence that anybody was affected. It most likely caused a few cancers here and there, but we’ll never know how many exactly. What is known is that there was no spike in cancers during the following years.

Now let me be clear. Radioactive particles were found here and there, but we cannot tell that they caused any serious problem.

This is the thing, people hear words like “radioactive” and they freak out without really understanding what it means.

Radioactivity can kill, of course it can. But the keyword here is “can”. You, me, the whole world receive certain amounts of radioactivity everyday, does it kill us? No it doesn’t.

Radioactivity can kill you (or make you really sick) but it won’t necessarily do it. So please, stop freaking out about it. Respond to this word with using your brain, not raw uncontrolled emotions, please, it will be better for everybody.

Back to Japan and the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Things are bad there, very bad. Apparently they’re getting worse as I type these lines. Yet, worst-case scenarios still won’t be as bad as Chernobyl, and even if it gets worse, the affected area won’t be larger than 30 miles. If you’re within that radius, yeah, things will be problematic for you, and you will most likely be affected by the radiations coming out of the plant. Luckily most people in that area have already been evacuated as soon as Friday night or Saturday morning.

What about Tokyo?

Well, Tokyo is almost 150 miles away. You most likely heard that a spike in radioactivity has been recorded there. Yes it has. It went from almost nothing to pretty much what you’ll get from sun radiations when you’re on a plane or in the Himalaya. Check your dictionaries, it went to almost nothing to something in a short amount of time, it’s a “spike”. Another example of spike: it’s freezing and a few hours later it’s 70°F/20°C. It’s a spike in temperature. Was it dangerous? Were you scared?
If you take a plane this week you will most likely received more radiations than anybody in Tokyo will. And I’m not going to even mention if you need to have an X-ray done.

To go or not to go to Japan?

Teahouse in Ritsurin Park, TakamatsuFirst a small reminder: about 90% of Japan is unaffected by the disaster. If you had plans to go to Japan, that still leaves you with a lot of possible destinations. You may even discover than Japan is not only “Tokyo plus two days in Kyoto” (how many Westerners are not aware of that fact yet?)

Of course, you don’t want to go to Fukushima, Miyagi or Iwate prefectures now. Let me remind you that people have lost everything, are hungry and cold there. Yes, I need to remind you that fact because it seems that most of the media have totally forgotten, they’re now only interested in the big scary nuclear plant (Westerners have a much higher attention span when they feel irrational fears than when they watch people who have lost everything in a far away country, plus they had their share of disaster porn over the week-end).

It may not be a bad idea to not stay too long in Tokyo though, not because of radiations, but because the city has to go at a slower pace right now, and the lesser people in it, the better. Actually you don’t even have to land in Narita or Haneda, there are many other international airports in Japan.
(quick trivia about me : I’ve been to Japan three times, I’ve never set foot neither in Narita nor Haneda, I don’t ever plan to)

Does the world care about Japan?

I’m going to tell you one of the first things 康代, my wife, told me on Friday, while we both realized how serious the situation was: “Does the rest of the world care about us? Are they going to help Japan?”

We all know that Japan has a somewhat peculiar relationship with the “rest of the world.” Yet, when a traumatic event occurs, fear of being left alone, abandoned, forgotten is the same everywhere.

I think now is the best time to show that you care – more than ever now that the media have stopped caring about the people of Japan anymore.  Those who consider themselves “Japan lovers” among you, there is no better way to show that love.

Remember, it is during trying times that you know who your real friends are.
Same thing goes here.

If you had plans to go to Japan, don’t cancel them! Don’t give up on the Japanese people now.

They need you. They need to see that the rest of the world hasn’t abandoned them. If you go there, they most likely won’t show you that they’re happy to see you there. They may not show it but they will be more grateful than you will think.

And from a much more down to earth point of view, Japan’s economy has been badly wounded. I don’t have a single doubt that Japan will recover from it and become stronger in the process, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help. Tourism is not the worst of ways to pour money into a country.

So, please, do not let irrational fears control you. Show that you’re a sensible person. More important, show the Japanese people that you love them.

Don’t cancel your trip to Japan.

A few more words for those who want to help.

And if on the contrary you feel that you must go to Japan now, you must go to the devastated areas and “do something” I feel like I need to tell you “hold on a minute!”

Yes, I understand that helpless feeling, I understand that wish to go there and physically help. Guess what? I wish I could to. I feel extremely useless right now, I want to be able to help in other ways than just sending my money while blabbering on the Internet and sitting in front of my computer.

However, unless you have some very specific skills that are needed and missing (in that case, you should contact appropriate NGOs), imagine actually being there for a minute:

  • Are you bilingual? Can you speak, read, understand Japanese fluently? If you didn’t answer yes to those questions, keep in mind that you’ll be illiterate and unable to communicate, give advice, receive orders or anything else there.
  • If you’re not a doctor, a earthquake relief specialist or anything along those lines, you will simply be in the way of other people who have more important things to do than babysit you.
  • Oh and let’s not forget that if you’re there you’re going to eat food, drink water, use a bed and blankets and all of those are needed for survivors, none can’t really be spared for useless people.

The only thing you can do right now is to donate, to the Red Cross, to Doctors without Borders and other credible NGOs (the ones that will really physically help people, not spread some sort of propaganda).

One last thing, a list of people to follow on Twitter (people that care about spreading and sharing real news, not stupid rumors, the scarier the better):

@gakuranman,  @tokyoreporter,  @survivingnjapan,  @Matt_Alt,  @TimeOutTokyo,  @stevenagata,  @HirokoTabuchi

If you want to suggest more people in the comments feel free as long as it’s not spammy (I’ll double check before publishing)


– Saturday, March 19th: Christopher Jones from “Accidentally a Blog” compiled all of the data from the radiations he has found.

– Sunday, March 27th: Viewpoint: We should stop running away from radiation by Wade Allison – University of Oxford.

-Tuesday, April 11th: What Will Happen to Japan? (an article about what is happening to the “unaffected” parts of Japan because of foreign tourists cancelling their trips)

20 thoughts on “Should I cancel my trip to Japan?”

    1. You’re very welcome.
      This is because of this type of fearmongering that I felt I had to write this post.
      Western media and governments have totally lost their minds right now, they’re forgetting about the people of Tohoku, they’re just obsessed by the nuclear plants and imagine stupid things (can you imagine that Californians are scared of it? How ridiculous is that?)

      1. Thank you again.I think so. I felt easy very much.
        I’m angry that some Japanese are also forgetting about the people of Tohoku.
        Anyway the people of Tohoku are afflicted people.

  1. Wonderful post. To the point. While I agree that the west has over-reacted to the phenomenon, I want to say that there are also plenty who think its no big deal or an ‘acceptable price’ in the near impossible instance of this kind of a calamity striking a plant.

    That thought is equally disinforming. The people falling ill from the radiation sickness – the heroes of Fukushima at the moment – are falling ill from very real radiation sickness, and while that sickness is definitely because of their proximity, the consequences for the people from the area are still unknown. Whether they can return home (very likely yes), whether their health will be at greater risk…. these are valid questions. And valid for the world, because many of us have a nuclear plant within a couple of hours drives from our homes.

    I don’t think the overreaction is only because of the spread of radiation. It is also because of the significance of a reactor failing so totally, which brings questions on the security of reactors the world over. In a way, the emotions are invested because if this turns into a tragedy, we all have to face the question of possibility of such tragedy in our backyards. We have that urgency that it be fixed, because then we can thump our chests and claim about the extraordinarily sage means of power, that could be recovered with little damage even when brutalized so far beyond specs and starved of important factors needed for recovery.

    What is distressing is that the plights of thousands dead, homeless, hurt, in shock, cold, hungry, etc for certain in the reality right now has gone out of focus for the sake of the possibility of thousands perhaps being impacted IF winds were a certain way, IF meltdown happened beyond recovery IF more explosions happened, etc.

    If Japan had a penny for every time a person hyperventilated nuclear, the tsunami victims troubles could be declared over.

    1. Thanks.
      I don’t want you to think that I minimize the fact that some people will die from that. The people currently at the plant, trying to cool it off are dead men walking and we all know it, themselves included (and just typing this brings tears to my eyes), I’m just saying the zones and people affected by this tragedy are limited to a couple dozens miles around the plant and include by no means Tokyo, even less places further away.

      I understand that people freaking out do so because they imagine the nearest nuclear plant is suddenly going to blow up too. This is what I call irrational fears. 1. I think it’s mostly people far away from nuclear plants that are actually freaking out (I live 15 miles from one, nobody is freaking out in town) 2. they’re forgetting the fact that there were several nuclear plants affected by the quake/tsunami, one as close as a few miles away from Fukushima Daiichi. They’re all fine. As dangerous as they can become, nuclear plants are generally extremely safe. Anybody in the world has more chances to die the next time they take their car than from a nuclear accident over their whole life. Once again, irrational fear triggered by disinformation and lack of thinking/education.

      I hate media induced irrational fears in normal situations, but when like now, those are hindering help for the people that are really in danger and are really dying (i.e. the survivors of the quake, in shelters that are cold and hungry, soon to be dying from those), it makes me really angry at the media and the people that buy their bullshit.

  2. I am NOT canceling my trip scheduled for October. I had to turn off CNN last night. If I hear Anderson Cooper accuse people of lying/begin dishonest one more time, I’ll throw up! He is a fear-monger trying to boost ratings.
    Thanks for sharing your honest feelings and bringing a few people back down to earth.

    1. You’re very welcome. Yeah, I’m done with watching TV except for NHK World from time to time. And if I run into Anderson Cooper (or his counterparts), I promise to punch them in the face. I will.

  3. I really like how you call out the media, especially Western media, for fear mongering. I wouldn’t suggest that Japan never be visited again. It’s one of my favorite places in the world! But I also definitely wouldn’t recommend anyone to go at this time, unless they’re doing some sort of needed volunteer work.

    While the dangers are likely far less than the “panic sells” sort of propaganda the media is pumping out, there’s still some danger. The American Embassy has requested that its citizens leave Japan (from what I’ve heard). I wouldn’t dismiss that easily.

    Personally, I’d recommend people visit Japan, but to postpone any vacation there for the next month or two. Apart even from the potential danger, it just seems a bit insensitive to be enjoying a vacation at a time when so much of the country is in mourning.

    1. What danger?
      If you think there’s any danger out of Tohoku, then the fearmongering media got to you too.
      Also, Japanese people are not American people, i.e. they’re not into “public displays of mourning and sadness.” I won’t repeat what I posted, but the rest of Japan needs people to visit. Tourist areas need tourists so that the economy of those places don’t get hurt, and Japanese people in general, need to see that you care and don’t abandon them especially when they see all of those foreign nationals currently fleeing the country like rats on a sinking ship.

  4. Hello David,
    I’ve been reading your blog for some time, but it’s the first time I’m writing something on it (or on any other blog actually!).
    First of all, I totally share the pain and suffering loads of japanese people feel at the moment. One of my best friends is japanese and lives with his family in Yokohama. I feel really concerned by their safety.
    Your post here interested me at first because I’ve already booked a plain ticket for this summer to visit my friends for the second time.
    I wanted to tell you that I agree with the arguments about financial and moral help we can provide Japan by coming there.
    But as a scientist who worked in the environment department of the CNRS in France (Scientific National Research Center) and who has received a radioprotection formation, I have to write the scientific view many of my colleagues share, in order to moderate stuffs I’ve read here.
    Tchernobyl catastroph was a real one and have caused many deaths and illness in the whole Europe, and not only 30 miles around the nuclear power plant. Its real impact has not really been officially evaluated, but it would be very unrespectful for the victims to say the contrary. Thousands of people died from cancers in Ukraine and countries around. Even in France, where I live, statistics show the thyroid cancer cases (for example, and just to talk about this one) has really increased after the nuclear clouds has crossed the country. And France is more than 2000 miles away from Tchernobyl!
    But the real impact of a nuclear catastroph is not directly visible (short time). The effective effect is to contaminate environment : crops, ocean, mountains, air, water… for more than 30 years (for the most radioactive particules) and up to 300 years (for “middle range” radioactive particules). This means food, air and drinks people will absorb in the next months and years, and for many generations.
    The consequences of a contamination are known. And in the case of Tchernobyl, people are still suffering from cancers and genetic mutations (most visible on childs), even far away from the nuclear plant.
    A possible nuclear contamination on Kanto area depends of many factors : production of radioactive elements (which is now happening in Fukushima : clouds of highly active particules are escaping for the reactors) winds direction (for the moment it’s safe because blowing to the ocean), rain (which concentrate particules on lands)… for the most relevants.
    If those factors are united, Tokyo area is in grave danger. This is not an irrational fear…. consequences will be real and for a long time. And nothing could be done to resolve the situation in the future… Thousands of people would die and suffer. Many generations would be condamned.

    As a blog writer, read by many people, you have a huge responsability : you must tell the truth. And I’m sorry to say so, but the arguments you are using here were the one our government used to tell us to explain how a nuclear cloud was stop by the french border. That was a lie to prevent panic. Now, 20 years later, we know it.

    To put it in a nutshell : I’m waiting now to know if I’ll cancel my trip this summer. If a contamination of the country occurs, this would be stupid to expose myself to such a risk of pain and illness, and to risk that for my next kids. Finally, this action would help nobody. In that case, I’ll open my house and help as much people as I can, by providing a place in France, starting with my japanese friends : that would be a relevant action.

    I’m sorry if my words here are shocking some people. But the situation happening now is really serious.
    I agree with the fact media make people “freaky” in Europe, this is stupid from them.
    But this is also irresponsible to use the other extreme view of the situation by saying “Radioactive particles were found here and there, but we cannot tell that they caused any serious problem.” As a scientist working in environment (and I’m not an ecologist!) I MUST tell this is not true.
    As alwyas, the hardest way is to find a mixed view to be as much objective as you can.
    Your argument are really to much extreme and not respectful for the thousands nuclear catastroph’s victims (passed and future). They actually shocked me.

    And about “Who care about you”? Come on… loads of people care about Japan and japanese people and are really affected by what’s happening. I care about the victims, really. But this will not help to dig your head in a hole.
    I really hope the nuclear catastroph occuring will be resolved. I’m praying for a miracle now… because I care.

    I’m sending you all courage and my compassion.

    Vincent Bazille (Nantes – France)
    PS : your work on this blog is great, I hope you’ll continue like that…

    1. Hi Vincent, and thanks for your long comment.

      Concerning Chernobyl, I cannot agree with what you say, not because I’m denying it, but because there are many reliable yet conflicting reports about its consequences. All the things you mention are part of the “worst case scenario” theories, they’re not proven facts, just theories, and –sadly maybe- one cannot prove what caused a cancer. As a scientist, you must know the importance of proving things before considering them as facts. You mention thyroid cancers, but there hasn’t been any significant change in the evolution of their numbers since 1986 (yes they increased, but they’ve been increasing since the 70’s).
      Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned Chernobyl; I only did it because it’s currently being mentioned repeatedly in the media. My point was that there is no possible comparison between Chernobyl and Fukushima; both incidents are different in nature, scale, intensity, and management. And even if it was (and once again it is not) Chernobyl did not turn Europe into a nuclear wasteland so there is no chance on Earth Fukushima can do so with Japan. That is my main point. One last comparison with Chernobyl; Kiev is 60 miles away from Chernobyl. How far is Tokyo from Fukushima?

      I really think we should stop mentioning Chernobyl altogether, it’s like comparing a terrorist exploding himself in half empty street with 9/11.
      If we want to compare it to past events, let’s compare it to comparable ones, there is one that is more than obvious and yet, almost never mentioned; the Three Mile Island accident.
      How’s Harrisburg doing these days? Or even then? (12 miles away)

      As a blogger, I’m sorry, but I have no responsibility at all, or at least not the ones politicians, journalists or public figures as I ma none of those. I usually don’t have a big readership, this post is apparently going somewhat viral but I didn’t plan for it.
      The only thing I would plead guilty one here is to not quote and link to my sources.
      I didn’t for two reasons: some are months if not years old and as I wrote this post almost in the spur of the moment, I didn’t bother go spend hours looking for them. That is a blog post, not a research article (I’ve written enough of both in my life to know the difference).

      Now, don’t get me wrong, IF a contamination occurs, things will be different, and we’ll all know it and I may certainly revise my position. I just don’t like to cry wolf, and way too many people are doing it right now. If you listen to some people Japan is already doomed.
      You didn’t cancel your trip. Good. Once again, I’m blaming people that have already done so, not mentioning the ones living in Japan and fleeing (what metaphor did I use in the previous comment?)

      P.S. thanks

    2. Sorry David for budding in here, but I’m gonna give Vincent a piece of my mind, if that’s OK with you. Vincent – don’t come. We don’t need people like you here. Go and spend your cash somewhere where you’d feel safe and save your “because I care” bs for someone who might actually fall for it.

  5. Great analysis of the situation. I was just out to dinner with my mom last night and we were discussing the hysteria that has gripped the west coast of the United States. Thanks for putting the fear mongering into perspective.

    1. Thanks for this kind word.
      Yes, this fear mongering makes me sick, it is as bad in France as it is in the US, I’m almost happy that now the media is moving on with Libya.

    1. Optimism? Where?
      Sorry, but when facing something, I don’t rely on ideology, I rely one cold hard quantifiable facts.
      Believe me the French are as stupid as the German can be when dealing with nuclear power (irrational fear = stupidity, what else?) and if more people (not mention the media) did their homework, they would say and believe less idiotic things.

  6. I’m closing comments on this topic. Apparently it recently ended up on a Filipino spamming database for some reason.

    So to people arriving here from that database/link, I have a message for you. You can read it there.

    To other real readers of the blog, I doubt you will comment on this post today, but if you want, I invite to see contact me directly through the contact page if you want to exchange a few words.

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