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Japan: migration to Osaka

Prompted by radiation fears and power outages, many head south.

Japan tsunami osaka migration 2011 03 21Enlarge
Commuters travel on a train on the Yamonote Line on March 20, 2011 in Toyko, Japan. (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

OSAKA, Japan — Inken Trebbin, a German graduate student at a university near Tokyo, paced up and down the Osaka train station. Suitcase in hand, headphones in her ears and a worried look on her face, she pondered whether to head home to Berlin or stay put in Japan.

“I have no clue what to do. I don’t want to leave Japan, really, but my parents are worried,” Trebbin said. She came to Osaka, located 300 miles southwest of Tokyo, after her parents urged her to leave the Japanese capital.

Trebbin is one of the many who have left Tokyo in recent days, due to blackouts, food shortages, continuous quake aftershocks and a fear of radiation from the nuclear reactors in Fukushima, about 150 miles north of Tokyo. New reports of above-limits radiation found in spinach and milk in areas near the nuclear plants also worried many residents.

While some nuclear experts have said radiation levels in Tokyo are not high enough to be harmful to human health, many countries, including the United States, France and Australia, issued official warnings encouraging their citizens to leave Japan. Some countries chartered planes to fly their citizens out of Japan. The U.S. State Department offered flights to nearby Asian countries, and told U.S. citizens they would have to pay back the airfares later.

Trebbin has lived near Tokyo for six months, and she still has another year-and-a-half left in graduate school. “I’m worried that if I go home, I won’t be able to come back here,” she said. She decided to wait it out in Osaka.

“I have no clue what to do. I don’t want to leave Japan, really, but my parents are worried.”
~Inken Trebbin, a German grad student in Tokyo

Osaka hotels fill up, airlines re-route flights

Osaka has become a popular destination for many trying to get out of Tokyo, since it’s the third largest city in Japan and less than a three-hour train ride away. Some major airlines, including Lufthansa and Alitalia, announced the re-routing of flights from Tokyo’s Narita Airport to Osaka, turning the city into a major transportation hub.

Hotels have filled up in Osaka and some major U.S. chains, like the Ritz Carlton Osaka, are completely booked for at least the next week. “Since the earthquake happened, many residents in the Tokyo area are coming here to ask about accommodation for a few days or a week,” said Sadako Hayakawa of the Osaka Tourism Bureau.

A number of foreign embassies shifted operations to Osaka last week. The normally quiet Austrian consulate in a small Osaka office was bustling with activity last Friday evening. Jutta Stefan-Bastl, Austrian ambassador to Japan, said the majority of the embassy’s 30-person staff relocated to Osaka due to logistical reasons. They plan to stay put in Osaka until the end of April, she added.

“Austrian Airlines canceled their flight out of Tokyo Narita airport because the crew didn’t want to stay overnight in Tokyo,” Stefan-Bastl said. “So, we advised Austrians to go through Osaka.”

Electricity shortages in Tokyo and phone line outages also caused problems for embassy workers, who had trouble commuting to the Austrian Embassy in Tokyo. She said the staff felt much more at ease in Osaka, away from the uncertainties of radiation levels and more aftershocks.

However, Stefan-Bastl acknowledged people back home, who seem more worried than people residing in Japan, instigated some of the fear.

“People in Austria are calling their relatives in Japan and telling them to come home, since it’s so dangerous,” she said. “On the ground, we have better information, and we are more relaxed.”

According to Stefan-Bastl, Austrian residents in Japan number about 500 to 600 people, and one-third flew back to Austria after the earthquake. Another one-third left Tokyo for Osaka and cities further south.