Tokyo family seeks refuge in Toronto

After a nerve-wracking month of watching regular radiation updates and feeling the ground shake underneath him in Japan, Naoto Karasawa had enough.
Dan Karasawa, 8, takes a bite out of his first Canadian hot dog as his father grabs another one for the elder son. (Amber Hildebrandt/CBC)

It was a chance encounter that led Naoto Karasawa's family from the shaky ground of Tokyo to the firm soil of Toronto.

At a business conference in the days after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake hit Japan on March 11, Karasawa met a Toronto businessman who insisted Karasawa's family come to stay with him until Japan recovered from the disaster.

"He decided to invite me to come here on the last day [of the conference]," said Karasawa. "I told him I had to talk to my wife, of course."

The Torontonian, who doesn't want to be identified, persisted with his offer, chatting with Karasawa via Skype and email in the following days, until finally Karasawa agreed.

"He strongly suggested to me to come to Toronto to escape from Japan for certain time," said Karasawa. "He wanted to help somebody from Japan from the bottom of his heart."

Last Friday, Karasawa, his wife, Nahomi, and their two sons — Leo, 12, and Dan, 8 — arrived in Toronto for what they hope will be a six-month stay. For now, they are staying at a downtown hotel while the Toronto man readies several free rooms in his home in the city's west end.

Though his Tokyo home is far from the hard-hit Tohoku region and considered safe, Karasawa found the leaking radiation from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant and the hundreds of aftershocks nerve-wracking. Small amounts of radiation were detected in the air and water supply even as far as Tokyo.

"In my opinion, there is no area to be safe in Japan," he said.

'Rushing to learn English'

Serving as a reminder, one of the largest aftershocks to hit Japan struck the day the Karasawas left Japan for Canada on April 8.

Karasawa said he felt like he and his wife could handle the ongoing crisis, but it was a "very bad mood for the kids." 

The family faces an uphill battle as they adjust to Canada. Karasawa is the only one who speaks conversational English and he's leaving on April 17 to return to work. As CEO of Tokyo-based Spectra Co-op, he can't stay outside the country for too long.

Naoto Karasawa grabs a hot dog for his son. ((Amber Hildebrandt/CBC))

"[My wife is] rushing to learn English," said Karasawa.

He's most worried about his elder son, Leo, adjusting to Canadian society. "He's 12 years old and he's getting to that difficult era," said Karasawa.

Karasawa and Leo, have both travelled abroad before, but his wife and the youngest child have not.

That hasn't hampered Dan's eagerness to explore his new world. Asked if he liked his temporary home city, Dan was quick to profess his appreciation, if only "because I get to eat hot dogs."

He scarfed down his first Canadian hot dog by Yonge-Dundas Square, uttering an appreciative "Yummy!" between mouthfuls.

It's unlikely the Karasawas are the only Japanese family to temporarily seek refuge on solid Canadian soil, but the situation is hard to track.

Neither Ottawa's Japanese Embassy nor the four Japanese consulate generals located across the country had encountered similar cases.

Offers of homes abound

In the days following the quake and tsunami, websites sprang up offering Japanese refugees accommodation in other parts of Japan and around the world.

Among them was, a website where people can offer free housing to those in need. The organization's co-founder, Eli Hayes, said it has nearly 300 listings of accommodation on its Japan site, but about 60 per cent of places offered are abroad. The agency hasn't tracked how many offers have been accepted.

Hayes says at first the website intended to limit offers to Japan, but found there was interest in accommodation abroad.

"What I realized is that there are some people who have expressed interest and have actually been moving abroad due to concerns about radiation," said Hayes. "Some of the people have the financial ability and are flying themselves out of the country."

But as Karasawa is learning, the flight is the easy part.

Among the challenges he now faces is setting up a bank account and figuring out how to continue school for the two boys.

The new school year has just begun in Japan. Karasawa promised the children's teachers he would visit their schools on a monthly basis to pick up assignments to send to the boys. He is also looking into possible Japanese schools in the city.

Longer-term financial worries also plague Karasawa. Though he has the money to support his family now, the Japanese economy took a big hit from the disaster.

"I'm not sure for the future," he says. "I worry about how the economics around us is going." 

For the next few days, however, Karasawa plans to spend them with his family, visiting tourist attractions in Toronto and travelling to Niagara Falls.

One place he won't be visiting, though, is the CN Tower.

"We don't want to go to any high places," he says.