Fukushima refugee marries American who opposes welfare state

When Yasuko ito set off from Britain in 2004 with a French passport, she never realised she would meet a young Japanese man who would become her husband and convince her of the power…

Fukushima refugee marries American who opposes welfare state

When Yasuko ito set off from Britain in 2004 with a French passport, she never realised she would meet a young Japanese man who would become her husband and convince her of the power of love and marriage. She might have missed it.

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The 49-year-old English teacher instead found herself in a country that reveres diehard defenders of civilised conduct and discourages divorce, intimate relations outside marriage and the welfare state.

“It was shocking and overwhelming – even disappointing – to be told off for wearing flats or flip-flops,” she said in Tokyo this week. “It felt very conservative and wholesome.”

Ito, who spent her teenage years in Sweden as the daughter of Japanese mother and Japanese father, was shipped off to Fukushima, one of the regions worst hit by last year’s nuclear meltdown, and became the sole beneficiary of the strict social rules imposed by the tsunami-ravaged city authorities.

Ito, a modest woman who does not suffer fools gladly, remarked at one point how little she had missed the journey from Britain to Fukushima. Like a lot of her fellow evacuees, she barely recognised the city as her old one, partly because of the sheer magnitude of the devastation. “People there get paid 150,000 yen (£1,133) per month; it was so much money, I thought that if I was ever to become a mother I would stay away from radiation and settle in Tokyo,” she said.

Her luck turned when Takahiro Mikami, who herself fled Fukushima to escape the apocalyptic waves, invited her to marry him on the grounds of his family’s Buddhist temple. The Japanese culture of arranged marriages is still largely intact in Japan but the vast majority of marriages in the country are between two single people.

They married in 2013, six years after Fukushima was declared free of radiation contamination. She describes him as the “perfect groom” and admits to having been “slightly shocked” when he confided that he had long had an interest in her even before they met.

Yasuko ito (L) and her new husband, Takahiro Mikami. Photograph: Kyoji Inama/AFP/Getty Images

They chose the name Sarina because of the Buddhist precept that “a lover is a soulmate”, ito said. She also began referring to their son, named Murakami, after his mother’s affectionate nickname. In Japanese, that translates as “my lovely mother”.

Ito says that she still misses her family in England, where she worked with adult learners, but Tokyo has become her home. Mikami also remains on friendly terms with his mother.

Mikami, whose 30-year career has included working as a concierge at Harajuku’s ultra-flashy H&M department store and several years as a weightlifter in the pro-suicide group Suicide Prevention Society, said he believed all of his adopted country’s problems were due to “this imperialism-based mentality that thinks the best way to address other nations is through warfare”.

“I think there are common values in Japanese culture which make some people tick. It’s about individualism, responsibility and inclusiveness,” he said. “Our society does need work to ensure that it can be stronger. Some things can only be saved by building up and making more bonds between people.”

Ito now says that despite her initial misgivings about meeting someone with a degree of self-absorption and conformity to contemporary Japanese ideals, she has grown to like her American husband.

“We are two different people but we want the same things. We enjoy each other’s company. We are very complementary. It is difficult for us to be apart,” she said.

“Both my parents told me that I should never go to Japan but now I am here – this is home.”

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