SINGAPORE/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Unnoticed in the crush of foreigners scrambling to leave Tokyo on extra flights is a trickle of Japanese workers, foreign contractors and students returning on half-empty planes to an altered homeland.
At departure terminals in Asia and Europe, travelers waited for flights to Japan on Thursday with a mixture of fear about the radiation seeping from quake-damaged nuclear plants in the devastated northeast and the routine concerns of everyday life.
“I was terrified when I saw pictures (of the quake and tsunami) on TV. I feel very bad. I don’t know what is happening there,” Kenji Iwahara, 58, president and chief executive of Japan Optics Ltd, told Reuters at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
“My wife told me she had to wait two hours in line to get 20 liters of gasoline yesterday. My main concern is recovery. I run the company and I’m concerned how people will be able to come to the office,” said Iwahara, who lives and works in Tokyo.
He and his colleague Hajime Nagatsuna were on a business trip when the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami struck Japan.
Neither had immediate plans to evacuate his family, their main concerns being about the long lines in supermarkets and power cuts, mingled with the specter of Japan’s history.
“My main concern is how I’m going to get home tonight because I heard that trains and public transport are not working,” Nagatsuna said.
“I always have in mind Hiroshima and Nagasaki that destroyed two towns but didn’t affect other towns in Japan. No one knows what might happen in the case of a meltdown of a nuclear plant and how much bigger than Hiroshima and Nagasaki it will be.”
Nuclear radiation is an especially sensitive issue for Japanese following the country’s worst human catastrophe — the U.S. atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Situated on the “Ring of Fire” arc of volcanoes and oceanic trenches, Japan also has a long history of violent earthquakes.
Ryo Nakakoshi, 22 was going back to Kyoto with his friend.
“It is very difficult for me to speak. I feel as if Japan will disappear one day, being an island and with a lot of earthquakes,” he said on his way home from Amsterdam.
“My family moved to the south of Japan because of many earthquakes in the north.”
“Of course we are afraid,” Yuki Katagiri, a 20-year-old Japanese student returning from vacation, said at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
“Maybe we’ll stay home and we’ll stop going to the restaurant. School starts again in April. I hope the situation will be ok by then. We’re worried about Japan’s future. We never thought this situation could happen.”
Toshiaki Kikuchi, a student at London Metropolitan University, said he was going back because term was over. “I am very scared about that,” he said when asked how he felt.
But Yuki Mibayas, a 31-year-old engineer returning to Japan after a month-and-a-half in France, was less concerned.
“There is no reason to be worried. My parents are there and when I called them they told me nothing, just that they were safe. But I wish the situation was better.”
In Singapore, a handful of foreign workers mixed with Japanese families and professionals taking the evening flight.
“I’m going back to Tokyo for work at the Osaka Securities Exchange. I will be there for about three days to sort things out. After that, I will return to Singapore where my family is,” said Matthias Rietig, a German citizen from Frankfurt.
Flights to Japan were 50-60 percent full while airlines sent planes to help a flood of people wanting to leave Tokyo in the wake of radiation fears and travel warnings.
A British Airways lunchtime flight from London to Tokyo had 177 passengers out of a maximum 337, an airline source said. A Japan Airlines flight later had 184 out of 272 seats occupied.
Airline staff said they had seen a drop in the number of people flying to Japan since the crisis began a week ago, but some expressed surprise at the determination of many to travel to the country, despite the harrowing images being shown abroad.
“I haven’t had that many passengers to Japan today,” said a check-in representative in Amsterdam. “But yesterday I saw families with little children traveling back and I couldn’t believe it. I understand they want to see the family, but why take kids there, when there is a danger of radiation.”
Many, however, said this was a time to be with their families, and for one couple the journey was a cause for celebration.
“We’re going to get married and I’m going to meet the parents. Earthquake, meet the parents, tsunami...” said Brazilian Humbertot Blanc, who was traveling to Tokyo from London with his Japanese girlfriend, Ayami Murakami.
She said she was going to help her father, an electrician in Chiba, who had been very busy since the earthquake struck.
Additional reporting by Isabel Coles, Abdoul-Karim Cisse, Sara Webb, Kevin Lim, Saeed Hasan; Writing by Tim Hepher; Editing by Sophie Hares