Fleeing

Mari Kano, age 33, holds her young son's hand as she and her two children flee their home in Fukushima. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

To stay or go. To trust government reassurances or heed more alarmist warnings on the Internet of radioactive clouds wafting over Tokyo. These are among the potentially life-altering questions being pondered by millions of Japanese in range of the crippled nuclear reactors at Fukushima.

Authorities have evacuated more than 170,000 residents within 12 miles of the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) nuclear plant and warned those up to 20 miles away to stay in their homes, with the Japanese government insisting that those farther away are not at great risk.

But with each new report of a fire or explosion at the plant, some people who live beyond the evacuation zone, including some in Tokyo about 150 miles to the south or in Sendai about 50 miles north, have decided to leave.

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"The first few days I wasn't that worried about the nuclear situation, but now I'm getting worried. It's more serious," said Rotaro Sakai, a 24-year-old engineering student in Sendai, who joined a line at 6 a.m. to snag a coveted bus ticket to Yamagata, to the west.

People seem to be basing their decisions on a combination of technical assessments and emotion, leavened with a healthy dose of skepticism concerning the government.

They pore over weather reports to determine which direction the wind is likely to blow. And they intently study diagrams of fuel rod cooling systems, weighing the staggeringly technical information against the assurances of authorities.

"It is difficult to make an objective decision," said Masatoshi Onodera, 67, a retiree from Sendai who was squinting at a complicated diagram of a containment vessel on the front page of a newspaper. "As far as what the government is telling us, well, I guess 80 to 90% of it is true."

Within families, there are debates about what to do. Yumi Matsuya, a Sendai homemaker, said she wasn't much worried about radiation, but her teenage daughters wanted to leave.

"I'm scared," said 16-year-old Haruka. "I worry about the effect on my body, about getting cancer later. And I don't believe the government. I think they're lying about something."

The distrust stems from a long history of alleged lies and coverups by Tokyo Electric Power Co., owner of the Fukushima plant. Yukio Edano, Japan's chief Cabinet secretary, has been holding news conferences several times a day, at each one advising the public to "stay calm," what might be the national mantra these days.

The government is deciding which information to release, balancing the public's right to know against prevention of panic, said Richard Tanter, a senior research associate with the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in Australia.

In downtown Sendai, there were long lines at the bus station. The city is still largely without water, electricity and gasoline, making it difficult for people to leave by car.

Other governments have taken different approaches to the threat. France has advised its citizens in Tokyo to leave if possible. The United States has said that Americans should follow the same procedures Japan has suggested for its own people: in the event of a larger nuclear contagion, wearing masks, staying indoors and covering skin.

Even many normally patient Japanese are expressing deep irritation.

"We're worried, and the government attitude toward this accident has been very inadequate," said Hitomi Yamashita, 40, a railway service desk worker in Sendai who grew up in Onagawa, about 15 miles closer to the stricken reactors. "They don't tell us what we should do, don't provide good advice.

"At school, there's very little explanation for our children. This is our children's health we're talking about. I'm very, very, very angry and very concerned about getting through the next little while."

Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, may seem an unlikely refuge, but if you're in the shadow of a nuclear reactor in danger of melting down, everything is relative.

"My husband is a bus driver," said Toshiko Tsuzuki, 55. "We'd like to leave Sendai, go anyplace. We'd love to go back to Karachi where I went as a child. Everyone's afraid of the nuclear situation."