Expats in Japan face hard choices

Oregonians living in Japan like me have taken a hard look at our futures since the March 11 earthquake, tsunami and the unfolding nuclear and economic crises. Radiation leaks, contaminated crops and water, plutonium released into the air and ocean, have made expats in Japan question whether to stay or head back home, especially in the face of pressure from family and loved ones.

Relatively few Americans live in Japan, fewer still from Oregon. Through work, I’ve become friends with a few Oregonians who share the same circumstances and tough choices.

I’m from Portland, 42, and live in Inuyama. I’ve been in Japan for 10 years, mostly teaching English, but also freelancing as a photographer, writer and video producer.

My two friends and I have a number of things in common. We enjoyed our lives in Oregon, but things weren’t panning out as well as we had hoped and we sought a new adventure, which America-friendly Japan provided. Living here has been a series of trade-offs, exchanging one set of headaches and concerns for different ones.

The question is, in the face of health concerns and financial hardship, is it time to trade them back again?

Stay or go?

Keary Doyle of Florence, 57, lives by himself in the rural town of Yamagata. He has been in Japan since 2000, and while he’s mulled a return home in recent years, the unemployment rate stops him. He worked as a logger and in the mills, but those jobs dried up.

“I don’t see the prospects of me going back being very economically viable,” he says.

Even though Japan’s job market is challenging as well, there are always teaching positions for native English speakers like Doyle. But going back to America expecting to teach English, especially without a college degree in education, is almost impossible. Like me, he wonders, “If I went back, what would I do for work?”

Keary lives approximately 300 miles from the reactors, a relatively safe distance, but it’s difficult to feel at ease. Simply because the nuclear crisis isn’t in the daily headlines doesn’t mean the radiation danger is any less real for those living near it.

Jeff Kreuger of Gladstone, 34, has greater reason to worry. He lives in Nagano prefecture, 200 miles from the reactors, and has a wife and 1-year-old daughter.

“A lot of family and friends were saying ‘Get out of there quick,'” he says about the beginning of the crisis. “I wanted solid information on how dangerous it was here in Nagano.”

He found a Japanese website with real-time monitoring of radiation and another showing winds blowing airborne radiation to sea.

“I haven’t found evidence yet that would lead me to think we should evacuate,” he says. “And if we did go to Oregon, how would we live? Would I be able to find a job and support my family?”

He wonders if things would pan out because when he returned to Oregon in 2004, before he was married, he only managed to get a part-time job at a coffee shop, which came without health care and other benefits.

“For me, it was a hardscrabble existence,” he says. “I was living from paycheck to paycheck,” and found it difficult to pay for rent, food, car repairs and general living expenses.

When his previous employer in Nagano wanted him back to continue teaching English at the junior high school, tempting him with a rent-free apartment, car and no taxes on his generous salary, the decision was easy. Three years later, he married his Japanese girlfriend, Miho.

Whether it’s career, love life or vacation and employment benefits, we all have far greater potential to have those things here than in Oregon, which has brought us all to the same conclusion: The relatively minimal danger here while the disaster is brought under control, compounded by the grim economic forecast, is far less risky than a permanent move back to Oregon in the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, we all pine for the Northwest: the absence of sweltering summer humidity and the friendliness of everybody everywhere. Instead, we visit our loved ones and friends as often as we can.

We have to settle for the sight of the Cascade Range when flying in, the Columbia River and all those green trees and grass, and wide open spaces.