REPORT FROM JAPAN: Sticking together in a crisis

CBC's Amber Hildebrandt reports from Tokyo on the duelling mentalities of foreigners inclined to flee Japan and the community-focused approach of many Japanese hunkering down in their homes.

'They think of themselves as a group,' Canadian says about Japan's communal mentality

Canadian John Hanlon says rising concerns over the nuclear crisis in the wake of the deadly earthquake and tsunami have sparked one important question for his Japanese wife: 'What will people think of us if we leave?"

"And this means a lot to her," adds Hanlon, a reporter in Tokyo with Japan's national broadcaster, NHK.

The couple represents the duelling mentalities of foreigners inclined to flee the country, and the more community-focused Japanese approach that has many hunkering down in their homes to wait it out.

"I'm sort of doing the mental calculations and thinking, 'Does it matter what people think?'" Hanlon asked. "Or if everything turns out OK and we come back, how are we going to face people?"

Hanlon, who moved to Japan in 1996, says a group mentality pervades Japanese life.

"Even if you leave home for work at night, you apologize if you have to leave ahead of everybody else because they think of themselves as a group," he said.

On Wednesday, emergency workers temporarily stopped efforts to try to contain the Fukushima Daiichi reactors after radiation levels surged, sparking fears that officials couldn't contain the deepening crisis.

Emperor urges cohesiveness

It is common for workers in Japan to apologize to their colleagues if they have to leave ahead of everybody else. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC))
In a rare TV address, Japan's Emperor Akihito said he was "deeply concerned" about the worsening nuclear situation. He urged people to stick together.

"I hope from the bottom of my heart that the people will, hand in hand, treat each other with compassion and overcome these difficult times," he said.

The official death toll from the disaster has hit 3,676, and some 8,000 people remain missing. About 434,000 people are homeless and living in shelters.

When news came out that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants were leaking radioactive material, the government instructed nearby residents to secure windows and doors and stay inside.

To those in the West, those instructions may seem ridiculous. But stocking up and hunkering down are becoming commonplace across Japan.

Natsuno Shinagawa, 23, a freelance researcher and translator in Tokyo, says she tried unsuccessfully to get her parents to leave Tochigi prefecture, located next to the disaster region.

"[My father] understands it's quite a dangerous situation," said Shinagawa of fears radiation could spread. "But he says there's nothing he can do, just let it be. That's sort of the attitude of my family."

Her parents, both teachers, also fear losing their jobs and wouldn't likely leave unless they received permission from supervisors, she says. Shinagawa notes it's also hard for people to leave behind homes and communities.

"Some people don't want to leave because that's where they were for their entire life," said Shinagawa. "That's where their house is. Their identity belongs to the area."

'I think this is crazy'

Canadian John Hanlon, a reporter in Tokyo with Japan's national broadcaster, NHK, says a group mentality pervades Japanese life. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC) )

On the streets of Shibuya ward in Tokyo, Japanese people told CBC they felt shocked at the increasingly dangerous situation and didn't fully trust that the government was revealing the extent of the troubles.

But all said they were staying.

Meanwhile, many foreigners are booking flights out of the country or train tickets to cities further away from the nuclear power plants in northeastern Japan.

At least one Canadian non-profit organization, the Canadian Medical Assistance Teams, pulled out of Japan, saying the team was "not sufficiently equipped to assist in the event of a nuclear emergency."

Another Canadian team with emergency relief charity, GlobalMedic, however, planned to stick it out and was trying to secure enough fuel to get to the affected areas.

Hanlon is still unsure about whether to follow some colleagues leaving the country or to stay.

"Sometimes during the day, I think this is crazy. I should get out. Why take the risk?" he said.

"Other times I'm quite optimistic. And I feel almost guilty that if I left here, I would be leaving people behind."