Exodus: It's women and children first on the trains out of Tokyo

On a weekday afternoon the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka is normally full of dark-suited businessmen, the in-carriage sound a mix of tapping laptop keys and the outside air rushing by at 300km per hour. But last Friday, the men appeared to have been elbowed aside by a small army of harried housewives ferrying infants and children, their cries and horse-play turning the train into a speeding kindergarten.

Among the thousands of women who have fled west, south or out of Japan altogether over the past week was my pregnant partner. On Wednesday, after two days of mounting alarm about the state of the Fukushima nuclear complex 250km north-west of Tokyo, I persuaded her to get on the south-west bound Osaka train. She didn't want to go. Like millions of others, she faces a bitter choice. Staying means exposing herself and our unborn child to low-level contamination, with the threat of worse to come; abandoning the city means leaving behind her family and friends.

But how much radiation is bad for you? This is the daily topic of conversation for millions of people in the world's largest metropolis. Most fear the worst after half a century of cover-ups, lies and bad science-fiction movies, but while contamination in the Tokyo area is elevated, few experts suggest it is truly harmful to human health – at least not yet.

A government spokesman sought to calm fears during the week with his widely disbelieved claim that even life within the 20km evacuation zone around the irradiated Fukushima complex is not that dangerous, saying: "The radiation is not high enough to affect the human body over several hours or even days." He is not the only one who believes the media is scaremongering. One of Japan's best-known foreign TV personalities posted a video on YouTube last week pleading with overseas media to "stop stirring up hysteria". "You're freaking out the foreign community, and it is taking people's efforts from where they need to be ... up north," said Daniel Kahl. Possibly he had in mind The Sun, which this week quoted British ex-pats saying Tokyo had become a ghost town resembling a zombie movie, with no food, fuel or water.

This was news to most residents of the city, where, despite power cuts and shortages, millions have been going to work, shopping for food and drinking in bars.

Whatever the truth, thousands of foreigners have put their families on trains to the west or south, or on planes to Europe, Asia or America. Many have quietly taken holidays from work and run for the airport. Even those who believe, perhaps foolishly, that Tokyo's air is still harmless and that the Fukushima crisis will be resolved, have succumbed to relentless, sometimes hysterical pressure from relatives at home.

Most of us have little confidence in the firm running the plant, or in Japanese media reassurances. But how to judge? When I joined my partner in Osaka on Friday, she was feeling abandoned: "How can I stay here, with you and my family in Tokyo?" So we will head back to the capital and its dark cloud of uncertainty.

The exodus of foreigners is in stark contrast to the stoic resignation of the Japanese. Suited salarymen go to work as normal. Housewives queue for bread, water and petrol. Many foreign commentators have already noted this admirable Japanese ability to carry on as the scenery collapses around them.

Yesterday our jangled nerves were rattled by another quake, more rumours of a radiation spike and the news that efforts to cool Fukushima's reactors were failing. In the midst of all this came a call from the young woman at my local video rental store reminding me I had forgotten to return a DVD borrowed before the world shifted on its axis last Friday.

It was surreal but oddly reassuring that someone is worrying about fines for overdue movies even as the world goes to hell in a handbasket.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
News
people
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones