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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Jittery Tokyo residents trickle back

Many leaving safety of Kansai with trepidation

Staff writer

OSAKA — Tokyo residents who fled the capital for the Kansai region last week over fears of radiation leaking from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant were returning home as another week started — but with plenty of headaches.

News photo
Safe distance: A man at an Osaka electronics store watches a Self-Defense Forces helicopter drop water on the No. 3 reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station Thursday. KYODO PHOTO

Worries about more aftershocks or another big temblor, long-term effects of even slight rises in radiation levels, and the thought of getting through the summer with limited or no air conditioning due to continued rolling blackouts had some wondering if they might be back in Kansai soon.

At JR Shin-Osaka Station on Monday and Tuesday morning, large numbers of people with backpacks and suitcases were seen getting on Tokyo-bound bullet trains.

Last week, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe hotels were jammed with Tokyoites and people from the Tohoku region who evacuated in the wake of the quake, tsunami and damaged nuclear plant.

Several said they were uneasy returning home, but their lives were in Tokyo and they were not yet prepared to move away permanently.

"Our jobs are in Tokyo and both of us need to return. We took some time off, but I really can't stay away much longer," said Susumu Ono, 46, a Tokyo resident who with his wife stayed with friends in Kobe. "We're not thinking of relocating to the Kansai region, although if my company decides to send people down, I'll probably volunteer."

While some said their Kansai trip was for the three-day holiday weekend and had planned to return to Tokyo anyway, others said they had fled to Kansai last week but were going home because they felt the situation had become safer.

"Some of our friends who were staying in Osaka returned home last night. Our friends and relatives all want us to come back. I think the danger of high radiation levels affecting Tokyo seems to have passed," said Miki Inagaki, 31, of Chiba Prefecture, traveling with her husband Toshio, 32.

Although the radiation panic appears to be much less than it was late last week, the destruction wrought by the quake and tsunami, as well concerns in Tokyo about what life will be like in the coming weeks and months, had some, especially foreign residents, saying they'll think seriously about their future.

"The thought of having to live in Kanto this summer without air conditioning, or with greatly reduced air conditioning, due to continued rolling blackouts and the pressure to conserve electricity is not something I want to think about," said Dennis Simard, a Canadian English teacher who lives in Yokohama and works in Tokyo.

Hawaii trips off

HONOLULU (AP) A tsunami spawned by the March 11 Tohoku region temblor caused enormous damage to homes, businesses and boats in Hawaii after the waves roared ashore that day.

Now the islands are bracing for another hit — a loss in travelers from Japan.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie predicted the economic consequences will be severe for this tourism-dependent state that is already dealing with a projected shortfall of nearly $1 billion over the next two years.

"It's going to be terrible. It's going to be rough," he said earlier this week. "It's something that we have to come to grips with."

Hawaii is the top U.S. destination for Japanese, hosting more than 1.2 million of the 16.6 million total outbound tourists last year. Visitors from Japan poured about $1.9 billion into Hawaii in 2010, or about 17 percent of the $11.4 billion overall visitor revenue.

The Japanese are treasured in the Aloha State for their love of shopping and dining. They also embrace Hawaiian culture and outspend American visitors nearly 2-to-1 on a per-person, per-day average. Each day, there are 13 direct flights from Japan to Hawaii, bringing in anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 tourists.

The tragedy is being followed closely here and has prompted residents, businesses and government leaders to respond with widespread fundraising efforts in this state, which has close ties with Japan.

The first Japanese immigrants arrived here more than a century ago to work the sugar cane fields with their children and grandchildren rising to prominence and power. Today, about a quarter of the state's population, or 296,674 residents, identified themselves as being part or full Japanese descent, according to the 2000 Census.

The fundraising efforts include concerts to donations accepted at most banks in a new statewide campaign called "Aloha for Japan." Telephone service providers are offering free phone calls to Japan, and the Hawaii-based U.S. Pacific Fleet is helping in relief and rescue operations.

"This market is very important to us," said Mike McCartney, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority. "(But) for us, first of all, we're most concerned about their well-being. More than dollars and cents, that's No. 1."

Hawaii has already experienced the cancellation of several groups from Japan, resulting in the loss of thousands of visitor arrivals.

H.I.S. Hawaii, a travel agency that handles about a fifth of all Japanese travel to Hawaii, saw new bookings plummet by half and cancellations tripling in the first three days after the March 11 disaster hit, Naomi Hashizume, the company's assistant general manager.

However, the cancellation rate dropped to less than 10 percent starting Wednesday and Hashizume is hopeful the market will bounce back soon.

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