Editors’ note: This is the sixth and final piece of the series “In and Out of Japan.”
On March 11, 2011, the great Tohoku earthquake shook Japan. A few days later, nuclear reactors on the northeastern coast experienced meltdowns. Since then, a growing number of so-called houshanou nanmin (“radiation refugees”) have fled their homes to live in the countryside or overseas. Their activities and challenges once in their new homes are seldom discussed in public reports or the media. Here, I write about a gendered aspect of the experiences faced by those who have fled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
I met a woman in her mid-30s in Kuala Lumpur in May 2014. She ran a web design company in Tokyo when the radiation crisis hit Fukushima in 2011. She and her husband immediately evacuated with their two children to her natal home in Kumamoto Prefecture in Southern Japan. But in Japan, she told me, it was difficult to obtain accurate information about the levels of nuclear pollution. The explicit discussion and publication of such material was considered taboo in the context of a national campaign emphasizing solidarity in times of national crisis. Any anxious voices were considered insensitive, if not, hikokumin (unpatriotic). She felt that it was no longer safe to live in Japan. After living in Kumamoto for only half a year, her family decided to move to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
While this woman relocated to Kuala Lumpur with her husband and their children, most radiation refugees in Malaysia were young mothers and their children. Their husbands typically stayed in Japan to work. These husbands tended to keep their jobs in the Kanto or the Tohoku area for issues of financial stability. They sent monthly allowances and visited their wives and their children occasionally during the holiday seasons.
Sometimes when both parents could not leave their jobs in Japan, the grandparents relocated to Malaysia. One couple in their mid-50s with doubts about the accuracy of Japanese reports regarding radiation decided to take an early retirement and move to Kuala Lumpur. They were ready to host their children and grandchildren in Malaysia if another natural disaster hits Japan. “By living in Kuala Lumpur, we are creating a safe haven for our children and their family,” they said.
Most radiation refugees I met regarded their move as a permanent one. Although they had moved there initially to escape the effects of radiation, many were hopeful about the educational opportunities for their children in Malaysia. One of the young Japanese mothers I met in Penang decided to enroll her daughter in a Chinese-medium school. She told me, “In Japan, children would grow up monolingual. But here in Malaysia, my daughter would grow up to speak Japanese, Chinese and English.”
In a nation that prizes productive labor, housewives and retirees were typically seen as belonging to the domains of the household. It was men who used to be mobile. But the narratives of radiation refugees suggest that when the state fails to protect its own citizens, the opposite becomes the case. It is the fathers who stay in Japan to work while the supposedly “unproductive” are transformed into valuable mobile subjects. In and beyond Japan, women and the elderly have emerged as critically-thinking members of the global community for guarding the safety and future of their own families. They shed lights on the emerging forms and possibilities of reproductive labor in the increasingly connected Asian countries.
Shiori Shakuto has just completed her PhD program in Anthropology at the Australian National University. Her interests focus on the emerging forms of labor and gender relations among Japanese people who move in and out of Japan. Her PhD thesis was on the Japanese retirement migrants in Malaysia.