The “Flyjin” Phenomenon. And Some People Not Like Them.

I can’t think of when I’ve posted anything “controversial” on this blog.  I keep politics out and emphasize culture, the arts, food, sights to see, personal reminiscences and the lighter side of things.  For the most part.  This isn’t like those.  The Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami has altered some things.  See more, below the happy photograph of me, back in the day, living the Expat life.

Flyjin (フライ人)

First a little language & idiom lesson for those who don’t read or speak any Japanese.

The word for “foreigner” in Japanese is “Gaijin” (more politely, “Gaikokujin,” 外国人).  Gai (外) means “outside,” and Jin (人) means “person.”  So Gaijin literally means “Outside Person,” or “Foreigner.”  The “koku” part (国) means “country” and saying “Outside/Foreign Country Person” just sounds a lot more polite to the ear.  But “Gaijin” is o.k. in informal speech.

The “gai” in “Gaijin” rhymes with, “eye,” “pie” or, well, “fly.”  Since March 11, the day of the Great Tohoku Earthquake, a number of foreigners have skedaddled from Japan.  I’m not talking about tourists or people on business trips who left earlier than scheduled.  Likewise, I’m not talking about Westerners who were living along or near the northeast coast of Japan where the earthquake and tsunami actually hit and devastated so many towns and killed so many people.  I’m also not talking about the “Ordered-Back-by-the-Home-Office Flyjin.”  Many of these people had no choice and did not want to return to the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Europe, etc.  No, I’m talking about Expatriots (“Expats”), foreigners who were living in Japan for extended, even indefinite, periods who live(d) way south of the devastation.  They high-tailed it out while the getting was good, so to speak.  These Gaijin who flew out, leaving behind other Expats and, of course, Japanese neighbors and community members, have become known, derisively, as . . . “Flyjin.”

To say that I’m ashamed of and embarrassed by them puts it mildly.  In fact, I find their actions reprehensible and contemptible.


For you who are reading this, either as subscriber to this blog, or as someone who just came upon it, but who don’t otherwise keep up with what’s going on in Japan, or who’ve never lived there, or who aren’t part of any other online Japan-related communities (via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.), I’ll tell you that this is a Big Deal and is being discussed, debated, argued about and relations are being strained over it, over the Flyjin Phenomenon.  The blog just linked-to ( says:

Flyjin: A foreigner or expat in Japan (gaijin) who heads for Narita (or Kansai) at the first sign of a nuclear holocaust. Alternately fly-jin, fly jin, #flyjin, flykokujin, フライ人.  Not a Japanese word and not familiar to or used by Japanese, flyjin was coined by English-speaking Twitter users.

I dare say that soon, if not already, many Japanese will certainly be familiar with this term.  But, yes, it’s not a term that Japanese have been using to scold skedaddling foreigners with; it’s a term Gaijin have been using towards and about their fellow countrymen and countrywomen.  I’m not ambivalent about the issue.  As said, I find the Flyins’ actions somewhere between disgusting and loathsome.


Then there are These People

Of course not every foreigner has fled Japan.  To those who stayed, who remain in Japan here and now, Japan is home and their neighbors are their neighbors and the thought of running out on them is just, well, it’s not even a consideration.  I have many foreign friends and colleagues in the Tokyo area who are not only staying put, but are going about with their lives and work.

+  Example 1: “Uptick in Business.”

The substantive part of an email I received one week ago from a colleague who works in downtown Tokyo (note:  “GW” is Golden Week):

Happy to have people come to Japan, we need the uptick in business.  Mid to late April should be fine for everyone.  I am already getting busy again and things are getting back to normal.  Just need to avoid GW and you will be all set.

Another living-in-Tokyo friend, a recent one e-met via LinkedIn, says on his blog, Marketing Japan:

At the least  [reporters and bloggers] .  .  . do something positive by doing the minimum and placing information on how to donate and help relieve the suffering of those people somewhere on your blog or in your article.

This continuation of the sensationalism, scare mongering and fear – along with an attitude of sorrow is doing no one any good. We need to get our lives back together. We need to be positive and grow.

Making excuses for why you ran away, scaring people, living in fear and anxiety are not the symptoms of a healthy mind. For the good of those who have suffered and lost loved ones and for our own good and the good of our families, we must return to our daily lives – and not feel guilty about it. We must laugh again and go out and have fun. We must get back to normal. We must be positive. We’ve got to get the economy rolling again.

+  Example 2: “Foreign English Teachers Say They Won’t Leave.”

I’m an alum of the “Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) Program.”  In fact, several of my tales told (via the “Read the Stories” tab atop this and all pages here) occurred when I was doing my stint as a JET teacher in Hyogo Prefecture, far away from the Tohoku Region. That photo at the top of this post, that was taken in my town during an autumn Matsuri (祭り or festival) when I was a JET teacher.  That was me, that was some time ago.

The JET Program continues.  About 70 JET teachers were living and working in Miyagi Prefecture, up in Tohoku (again, the northeast), whose coastal cities and towns were ravaged horrifically by the tsunami of March 11.  Here’s some post-tsunami video footage from the town of Ishinomaki, situated on the Miyagi Prefecture coast:

Many of the Tohoku Region JET teachers left.  This is understandable as this part of Japan has become a disaster area (contrasted with Tokyo, let alone points south of Tokyo).  We now know that at least one JET teacher, Richmond, Virginia, native Taylor Anderson, lost her life in the tsunami in neighboring Iwate Prefecture.  But according to at least one report, around one-third of JET teachers have decided to stay in Miyagi Prefecture.  Here’s the article.  And here’s an excerpt from it:

”It is overwhelming, mentally and physically to stay here but I want to stay,” said Katherine Sheu, 25, from Los Angeles, who has taught English at five elementary and junior high schools in the devastated city of Ishinomaki for the past three years. . .

”I love it here. I have many connections with my students, the teachers and the neighbors. I wouldn’t just leave,” Sheu said.

. . . Sheu had been touched by the way her neighbors in Ishinomaki welcomed her.  At a time when she was sick, they had checked on her and come to her aid.

”Just the way people cared about me and worried about me made me feel good. It changed everything.” Some gave her strawberries and tomatoes from their farms. ”You will never get that in Los Angeles.”

Yes, that’s the same Ishinomaki as the Ishinomaki featured in the video above.


+  Example 3:  The “Reverse Flyjin”

My friend, Amya, is an American who grew up in Japan.  She’s as bi-lingual as a Westerner can be.  She lives just outside of Boston.  This is her U.S.-Japan business consulting company.  I was one of her many friends she called and told that she just couldn’t take it, that she just couldn’t bear to see so many people in Japan along the Tohoku coast trying to deal with the shock and grief of their unreal situation, and not do something about it.  She had to be with them.  So Amya’s volunteered her time and skills as a fluent English-Japanese speaker to help as she can . . . in Japan.  I write this on the morning of March 31, 2011.  Amya should be in the air by now, on her way to Japan this very morning.  She’s volunteering by and through this commendable organization, All Hands Voluteers.  One of the two towns she’s been told she’ll be stationed (for about 2 months) is Rikuzentakata in the aforementioned Iwate Prefecture.  This was the scene in Rikuzentakata after the tsunami hit less than three weeks ago:

Safe travels, Amyaーさん

I’ll close this part with this video I found.  See just below.  It’s from last August (2010).  It gives the viewer a window into a happy Rikuzentakata, archiving a Matsuri, Festival Day, there from last year.  The floats are made by various communities and neighborhoods.  At the 4-minute mark, at sundown, that’s when the festivities really begin.  Rikuzentakata, and its people, should be remembered smiling, even as the survivors struggle to put their lives back together.

.       .       .

How Dare You!

I live in the U.S.  I’ve lived in Japan twice, once as a college student and once through the JET Program, as mentioned above.  It’s been years since I lived in Japan.  However, for the past dozen years I’ve made it to Japan at least once a year, sometimes twice, sometimes three times a year.  I had a business trip set for mid-April (3 weeks from now) to which I was looking forward.  My U.S.-based client chose to put it off until July.  So it goes.

However, to anyone who would say, “Aha!  You’re not there now!  How dare you wag your finger at those who left skid marks in the days or first week or two of the Tohoku Quake!” I respond thusly:

While I don’t really have the means to make the trip out of my own pocket right now and  keep up with my work and bills back here, if you want to sponsor me, simply pay my expenses (plane ticket, take care of my rent & utility bills back home while I’m away) I’ll get on a plane within 5 days and make my way to one of the several hardest hit Northeast Japan coastlines to lend a hand (presuming I’m wanted).  Japan’s given me so very much over the course of my adult life, I’d be rather inhuman not to at least want to give something back to her during challenging times.

I’ll be more than happy doing an 6-8 week stint in the worst hit areas.  I’m in good health (as far as I know)and more than willing to help out where I may.   So.  There.

But rather than paying my bills in the U.S. and buying me a plane ticket, I think the money would go to more use going directly to the survivors and their communities in Japan.  Here’s just one way you can help.


Update.  April 1, 2011.  One of many possible upshots.

I paraphrase what one British friend and colleague, living in Tokyo, married to a Japanese woman, related to me by email after he read this.  According to my friend’s wife, a recent topic of conversation that has been circulating among the Japanese involves the prospects of Gaijin getting the vote.  Whereas before the crisis most people appeared broadly in favor of permanent residents getting a vote, many now appear to have completely changed their mind as a result of the widespread exodus of foreigners, arguing (as my friend says, “convincingly, in my book”) that their actions have revealed that the depth of their commitment to society is perhaps not all it should be  to warrant full permanent residents’ rights, enfranchisement.


Update 2.  April 3, 2011.  How the Japanese Perceive the Flyjin.

This is part of an e-discussion regarding this that I’m having with a colleague in Japan, part of what I wrote to him yesterday.

Let me tell you something I know about most Japanese people I know, at least in the “Community of Japan” sense: when one of their family does a shameful thing, the family (a) apologizes profusely to the community and (b) stares in disbelief at such relative, aghast that they could be so self-centered and boneheaded to have done this or that shameful thing. The community in general is usually rather forgiving of the family when it sees that the family has, in fact, publicly expressed its disgust with and shame felt by the acts of their wayward son/brother/cousin/etc. On the other hand, if the family made excuses for their selfish relative, if the family told the community to just “chill out,” if the family acted like nothing was wrong, then the community (neighborhood, town, country) would think rather ill of the family in general.  Frankly, I don’t think that this is a uniquely Japanese trait.  I believe examples of such things, family contrition and public expressions of remorse for the acts of their one family member and the corresponding forgiveness of the community, can be found all over the world.

Thus I believe that the MORE it can “get around” that foreigners, both those living in Japan and even those living back in the “home country” are embarrassed by and ashamed of the Flyjin, the better relations will be between those foreign lands (and their citizenry living and working and studying in Japan) and the people of Japan.  I think it would behoove those Flyjin who slink back into Japan (and have been, beginning week or two ago) to apologize to their colleagues and neighbors, show contrition and ask to be forgiven.  I think such neighbors and colleagues would not only not bear a grudge, but would, indeed, say, “Think nothing of it,” and appreciate the prodigal Fly/Gaijin all the more.


Update 3.  April 12, 2011.  You think I’ve been harsh?  You want to see some real abuse?

So, one week ago this article appears in The Telegraph, a sappy, maudlin, wince-making rationalization by this British teacher — who lived 130 miles South of Fukushima — for his scurrying back to the U.K., to wit:   “A Tearful ‘Sayonara’…” I invite you, dear readers, to click on that link and try to get through the piece without throwing up.  But, even more, read the comments below it.  Whatever scorn I’ve heaped on the Flyjin pales in comparison to the no-holds-barred abuse heaped on this guy by his fellow Brits.

One of the milder jabs:

“Flying the coop is a personal decision, but surely you could have kept it to yourself rather than advertise your lack of backbone and moral fibre….”

You may want to also note (as pointed out by friend A.J., a Britisher living in Tokyo) the possibility that the one defender of this guy, in the Comments under the article-proper, may be the author himself, mounting a sockpuppet defense.  A defense which crashes and burns against a wall of even more abuse.  It’s something rather discomforting to behold, but the fellow brought it on himself.

.         .         .


    • Mark Brafford
    • March 31st, 2011

    I spent the night with teachers from a junior high school that I teach at on Tuesdays, and there is an American woman that also teaches there. She really wants to leave Japan, and honestly, maybe she needs to leave. She is falling apart. Who do I blame? I blame the media and these rapid evacuees, flyjin. There are fragile people in this world and when the less fragile more selfish folks bolt, they inflict unnecessary stress on children and nervous/delicate people. So I too share the feelings that you have about the flyjins, but now after seeing this woman’s tears, I am no longer annoyed by her fear and ridiculous questions. Many expats may be caught in a fast moving river heading towards the falls, like in an old movie, I hope that I and others can be the rock, then the rope that keeps them from going over the edge. It is after all the delicate people and the children that write the love songs, and tend the flowers. So, if one is going to flee, just go, no comment, no fear, and go pretend to be part of someone elses community.

      • letsjapan
      • March 31st, 2011


      Thank you. You bring up a couple of excellent points and bring back some memories. The points and my memories are intertwined.

      I’m thinking that the woman you’re talking about had her “issues” with Japan, living in Japan, a long time before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. This was just the last emotional straw that broke her mental health back. I remember, both from my days as a college student and as a middle school teacher, foreigners who entered Japan all enthused, but who lasted only a few weeks until they jetted home.

      Assuming this woman has lived in Japan for several years, it’s not exactly the same, but I don’t think I’d be too off the mark in thinking that she’s been ready to “go home” for some time and that this was just the catalyst for it, to bring it all to the surface.

      I think that we’ve hit upon yet another species of the Flyjin Phenomenon: there’s the Flyjin, the Stayjin (just regular ol’ Gaijin who call Japan “home” and wouldn’t leave), the Reverse Flyjin (my friend noted above), and then there’s your colleague. What should we call it? The “Last Strawjin?”

      Anyway, thanks for speaking your mind here. Very interesting.


        • Mark Brafford
        • April 1st, 2011

        She has 2 college age kids, and one in the same Junior High School, she has Japanese husband. She likely expected a life of plum wine and cherry blossoms. Anything remotely stressful is very stressful for her, and this is knocking at her door thanks to the media and the flyjin posse.

  1. 😦

    • Liz
    • March 31st, 2011

    As I read the local paper for Harrisonburg, VA, I can’t help but to think of you. The article is about the first reported American fatality from the Japanese disaster. Her name is Taylor Anderson, from Richmond, Virginia. Her memorial service has been scheduled for this Saturday in Chesterfield County at St. Edward Church. She was 24 years old and taught English to students in kindergarten through ninth grade for more than 2 years in Ishinomaki, Japan. She was last seen alive riding her bike from an elementary school after the earthquake struck on March 11. Her body was found last week. As quoted from the newspaper article. ” Her family said she developed a love for the nation, its culture and its people.” May she rest in peace.

      • letsjapan
      • March 31st, 2011

      Dear Liz,

      If you read my piece (again) carefully, you’ll see that, indeed, I mention Taylor and link to an article about her. She was on the JET Program, same as the one I was on, all those years ago. My heart really goes out to her family because, in a way, it wasn’t “years ago,” it was yesterday, like yesterday, that I was a middle school teacher in Japan. So I know a lot about what Taylor’s life in Japan was like. At least the day-to-day things. So I feel like a good friend was killed, even though I never knew her. As I also mention in this piece, above, several of my short stories take place against the backdrop of my JET experience.

      Anyway, I’m very glad you wrote what you just wrote, as it highlights the joys of Taylor’s life in Japan as well as the sadness of her passing.

      Thanks again, Liz. Affectionately,


    • David
    • March 31st, 2011

    I wish I had something interesting to add, but apart from “I agree 100% with you”, I don’t. I still wanted to say that though.

      • letsjapan
      • March 31st, 2011

      Thank you, David. Maybe not everyone will agree. Over at one of the LinkedIn groups I’m on it’s running about 2/3 to 1/3 scorn towards the Flyjin. Mark B raises a very interesting & worth while points in his comment. In a way he mildly, sort of tongue in cheek sort of disagrees, saying, in essence, “Good riddance” to them. I think it’s a bit more complex than that, and I’m sure I’ve oversimplified what Mark’s saying.

      Well, at any rate, thanks for stopping by.


        • David
        • April 1st, 2011

        Well, I also tend to think “good riddance.” The one thing that worries me is that I know how the reputation of an entire nation can be tainted by just a few. Now, I worry about how the Japanese will see foreigners (just when they were starting to realize that the world was well, global). I guess time will tell.

    • letsjapan
    • April 1st, 2011

    Writes Mark:

    Mark Brafford :

    She has 2 college age kids, and one in the same Junior High School, she has Japanese husband. She likely expected a life of plum wine and cherry blossoms. Anything remotely stressful is very stressful for her, and this is knocking at her door thanks to the media and the flyjin posse.

    I’m getting an image of Alice Ghostley (R.I.P.) as Aunt Esmeralda (

      • Mark Brafford
      • April 1st, 2011

      Long brown hair, frizzy, glasses, no make up, always in ankle length dresses. Yep, Auntie Esmeralda. Been wondering why she was so familiar looking since the day we met.

        • letsjapan
        • April 1st, 2011

        And then there are the tales I’ve heard — and a few righteously indignant comments I’ve read on one particular LinkedIn Group — of very well-heeled American Executive-types in Tokyo, tough-as-nails, steely-eyed businessmen, who left skedaddling skid marks on the Narita Airport runway (not to mention elsewhere) in the 24-72 hours following March 11.

  2. Whoa.. Richard I have to say that I did not see this one coming, not from you, but I am happy it did to be honest. To run away like that if you ahve jsut survived the tsunami I can understand with all the mental pressure it will put on you and if you ahve some other place to go to, to get away from it all and try to heal yoru mental wounds…BUT to run away from a country when you did not even live CLOSE by the disaster area… I do not get it, I simple do not get it!

    Amya, that you wrote about…. That part got my eyes tearing straight away. Ever since the Quake and tsunami my eyes have been getting infectied due o to much tears…an I am a martial artist in soul and body. So to read about sttel eyed cold blooded high executives running away gets me pissed as hell. The world woudl do a lot greater with more people like Amya. Then again, I guess social media such as Twitter has showed us and Japan as well that most of humanity still has a heart, beating strongly and ready to react when a disaster happens, no matter how small the reaction is, still reacting within a blink of an eye.

    Great article, thank you Richard,

      • letsjapan
      • April 1st, 2011


      Thank you for your heartfelt comment (joining the sincere comments of others here). And I’m glad that you can see that I have, certainly, made the distinction between those who either got away from the actual disaster area, those who were ordered (by their North American, European, etc.) home offices to “come back,” . . . and those who just left, abandoning community and country.

      Thank you also for noting what I mentioned about Amya. My admiration — and to a degree, envy — of her knows no limits. When I say “envy,” I don’t mean that I envy the awful situation she’s going to soon be in the middle of, I mean that I envy the role she’s decided to play in that awful situation and for the people struggling to put their lives back on track after such loss. I cannot imagine how emotionally (and physically) draining her work, along with that of all the other volunteers, will be. But I so admire her and their conviction to do what they can.

      That all said, I have no doubt that along with all the sadness and difficulties she and all the thousands and thousands of volunteers (and Japanese SDF, and U.S. troops and sailors, etc.) will see, they will also witness hope, courage, resoluteness and so many other positive and inspiring and life-affirming things.


    • Just Ashamed
    • April 15th, 2011

    I lived in Japan for many years and left a few years ago. When I heard some of my foreign friends in Japan were fleeing the country, I felt disgust, contempt and shame. For the first time of my life, I felt completely as one with the Japanese community – and took some holidays and flew to Japan. Thankfully the remaining foreign friends in Japan helped me overcome the shame, so I could meet up with Japanese friends, tearfully express my solidarity and apologize for the flyjin.

    What has become of their sense of community? How did they get so self-centered? Why are they such cowards? By contrast, the beauty of Japanese stoicism and compassion makes me want to cry. So much beauty in people who look after each other and calmly face danger together! Japan is much better off without the flyjin – stay home!

    Like Boban I’m also a martial artist. I think that’s precisely why we cry over such things!

      • letsjapan
      • April 15th, 2011

      Thanks very much for this comment.

      As I’ve noted, I, too, am an “ex Expat,” but for the past 10+ years have traveled to Japan quite often. In fact, I was due to leave to return to Japan on a business trip today, moments from right now as I write this. The U.S. company who had retained me, and whose officials I was going to accompany and guide, decided to postpone the trip. I’m bitterly disappointed about this. So it will be the summer before I get back over.

      My point is that I agree with you and know the feeling: I want to fly to Japan and be there with the community as it recovers, and to help in my small way with that recovery. Of course we all can help — with donations. Hmmm . . . this raises an interesting question: I wonder how much the Flyjin are donating/have donated to the relief effort in Japan? One would think (or at least hope) that their guilt over abandoning Japan would motivate them to donate generously.


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