Terrified to return to Tokyo

I can't bear to expose my three small children to radiation risks

By Cary Tennis

Published January 24, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I don't know how to write this letter, so I'm going to just lay out the facts. I am American. My husband is Japanese. We have three young children. We were living in Tokyo on March 11, 2011, when the earthquake and tsunami set off a triple meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Of course, we didn't know at the time that there had been even one meltdown. The government announced that there was no risk to people in Tokyo and only admitted the meltdowns months later.

However, I was worried about the situation and took my children to my parents' home in the U.S. for several weeks. In April we returned to Japan for the start of the school year. A huge amount of radioactive fallout was blowing into Tokyo every day, but I had no idea at the time. There was no media information, no one talked about it -- it was a kind of social taboo to bring it up. We found out much later, and I still regret, so much, bringing the children back to that.

Still, we were "lucky," in that we were able to leave that summer. My husband works for a major corporation and was posted abroad for two years. We are now overseas, but the posting ends in the summer of 2013.

Here is the problem: My husband has no other thought than to go back to our home and life in Tokyo. I do not want to live there anymore. Tokyo received a lot of fallout, although the international media barely reported this. There are many hot spots, and basically fallout is everywhere -- in the schools, parks, streets, on the houses, in the dust inside the houses ... granted it is substantially less than the area nearer to Fukushima.

I just don't see how I can live there anymore. Radiation is everywhere. If my children play in the park, they kick up the dust and breathe it in. I cannot have a garden or grow vegetables, since I cannot trust the soil (or the air). We will have to order food from far away. The children will be exposed every single day, to radiation from a variety of sources, including their school lunch, since up to 100 bq/k of radioactive cesium is allowed by the school board.

My husband and I constantly argue about this. It is ruining our life and our marriage. I feel that it is wrong to raise my children in such a place, knowing the extent of the contamination. He argues that it is home, that he has a job and a condo there, all of his family is there, old friends are there, tradition is there ... He also argues that many parts of the world are polluted anyway.

It doesn't help that Japanese people don't talk about this issue with each other. The majority are acting as normal, which is easy actually, since radiation is invisible, and has no smell or taste.

I just don't know what to do. Do I move back to Tokyo this summer and accept a life surrounded by radioactive contamination? Or do I divorce my husband and tear our family apart? Maybe for no good reason, maybe I am overreacting, maybe it's not that dangerous?  I am completely stressed out and agonized. I talk to friends but they don't seem to really understand. I'm writing to you in the hope that you will have something to say, something that makes sense.

Thank you.


Dear Fearful,

Before you return to Japan, you must be ready. You are not ready yet. You may be ready at some point. But you are not ready yet. You must be ready emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.

You were traumatized. Now you are being asked to return to the site of the trauma. You may feel dread and panic. You may feel that your husband does not hear you, nor do the people around you. You may feel alone with your feelings.  You may feel an agonizing lack of control over the care of your children.

On the other hand, you have a marriage relationship. Your husband has needs. He misses his country.

It would be cruel for him to insist you return before you are ready. On the other hand, it would be stubborn of you to refuse to look at the science.

The respected scientific journal Nature says that health risks are minimal.

That does not mean that you should not feel what you feel. You were traumatized. That trauma continues to affect you today. Nor does it mean that these scientists know everything, or that there is no risk. There is a risk. There are unknowns.

Furthermore, the psychological damage from post-traumatic stress disorder, especially for mothers of small children, is clear.

"One of the highest-risk groups," says Evelyn Bromet, a psychiatric epidemiologist at New York’s Stony Brook University, "are women with little kids."

I suggest you contact the National Center for PTSD  for help in finding treatment in your area.

This situation will take thinking, planning, patience and sober assessment. It will take sacrifice and compromise. It may be that when it is time for your husband to return to Japan you are still not ready. He may have to go there for a while without you. He may need to be among his family and friends. You may need to be with your children. That would not be the most terrible thing. This can all be worked out.

You can get through this. What you are experiencing is treatable. Have patience, have faith, take care of yourself, take care of your kids, find common ground with your husband and work this out. There are lives at stake. And ... may I say this? By "work this out" I do not mean sacrifice yourself. Hold your ground. If you're not ready, you're not ready.

Cary Tennis

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