A city slowly emerging from the shadow of disaster


Despite power outages and water shortages, some confidence is returning to Tokyo

NOT EVERY city boasts thousands of citizens ready to converse about safe iodine levels, but then not every city is Tokyo. “Your drinking water is fine,” shouts Ryosuke Shibato to commuters emerging from Shibuya Station, one of the capital’s busiest.

Beside him, his friend and fellow science student Takamasa Imai holds a handmade cardboard sign with daily radiation readings written in marker. “Iodine is higher than normal, but still well below danger levels,” he says, smiling. “We just want people to stop panic buying.”

A few metres up, a trumpet player tunes up for the Salvation Army. “I’m too old to worry about radiation,” she quips. “I’m more worried about the refugees in the northeast. They need our help.”

Tokyo is slowly righting itself two weeks after Japan’s strongest earthquake triggered a profound, even existential crisis. During its darkest days, many feared that that the world’s most populous city would be a radioactive waste dump after the Fukushima nuclear plant 250km away began overheating, releasing unknown quantities of radiation.

Apocalyptic headlines around the world predicted nuclear clouds descending on the capital’s 28 million people, sending huge numbers of them fleeing to the west and south.

Throughout the crisis, when power cuts and petrol queues revived memories of the second World War, thousands did briefly run away and panic flicked at the edges of life, the human core of the capital – its vast army of salary-men and office-women – stayed in their posts.

At one point during the crisis, according to a Japanese newspaper, prime minister Naoto Kan warned cabinet adviser Kiyoshi Sasamori: “In the worst- case scenario, we have to assume that all of eastern Japan would be wrecked.”

However, signs of Tokyo’s traumatic fortnight linger everywhere. Many people have stopped airing futons in the sun, spooked by talk of contaminated air. Restaurants in the suburbs conduct business in candlelight amid rolling, sometimes unpredictable, power outages.

There are empty shelves in most of the city’s thousands of supermarkets and convenience stores where the water and milk should be, after governor Shintaro Ishihara warned that radioactive iodine made tap water unsafe for babies. Notices ask customers to refrain from panic buying.

“Every morning people come in and buy up all the water, milk and eggs,” says Hidehiro Toda, an assistant at the 7-Eleven store in the upmarket Yoyogi Uehara district. “They’re still worried that something is going to happen.”

Aftershocks still arrive almost daily, strong enough to rattle walls. Many people talk about “phantom” quakes. “Sometimes I’m sitting with my friends and I tense up and say, ‘Do you feel that’?” says Wakana Oyamada, a Shibuya office worker, “and they haven’t because it was in my imagination.”

The damage to Tokyo, hundreds of kilometres from the churned coastlines, floating corpses and freezing refugee centres nearer the quake epicentre in the northeast, is as much psychological as physical.

Restaurants, clubs and theatres struggle to fill seats, because people simply don’t feel comfortable enjoying themselves, says policeman Masaru Kobayashi, who stands watch near the top of the Omote-sando shopping boulevard.

“They don’t think it’s right to go out when others are suffering. It will take time for that to pass.”

Andy Sharp, a British ex-pat married to a Japanese national, says: “I think the overriding feeling is one of uncertainty.”

In the back of the city’s mind, like the buzzing of a dangerous old household appliance, is the constant, ambient dread of what might happen in the Fukushima plant, where engineers have been frantically working to prevent a catastrophic release of radiation.

The media has been sending out a largely soothing message for the last week, saying that the worst may be over, convincing many but not all. “I can’t think too hard about what’s happening because if I do I’ll just start to panic,” says Yuko Kobayashi, who has a one-year-old child.

Around the streets, hundreds of people have been collecting money for refugees. Many are high school students, temporarily released from schools still concerned about aftershocks and radiation.

“My view of life has changed,” says Wataru Sugiyama (17), sharing an embarrassed look with his friends Kan Saso and Kentaro Minamoto, who rattle collection boxes on Omote-sando.

“I mean, I’m probably too young to think about this stuff, but I used to read about big earthquakes in our past and think, ‘What has that go to do with me?’ Now I understand what those people went through.”

“I think we’ve learned that people in trouble should help others,” agrees Saso.

Many Tokyoites talk about how the quake has, perhaps temporarily, brought them closer – in ways reminiscent of post- September 11th New York. Teenage children who used to retreat to separate rooms now huddle with their parents around televisions to save electricity. Normally harried train commuters in this traditionally buttoned-up, taciturn city, exchange smiles or even small talk.

A foreign friend notes the change in attitudes from his neighbours. “Other parents at my son’s school who rarely spoke to me seem to have forgotten their prejudices. I’ve been asked out for beers at least three times since the earthquake – compared to zero times in three years previously!”

Not everyone is as friendly to foreigners, known in Japan as gaijin. Thousands have taken leave from jobs in companies and schools and fled, spooked by the Fukushima crisis and pulled by worried relatives at home.

The decision to leave, particularly those with young children, was almost always agonising. Dubbed “fly-jins” or “bye-jins” by local wags, some may never return. Others, like Roberto De Vido, who wrote an opinion piece in this week’s Japan Timesdefending his decision, have moved west, to Osaka or Kyoto, hundreds of kilometres away.

“Although the invective I have seen levelled at those who have ‘fled’ has been aimed at foreigners by foreigners, I know many Japanese who have left the Tokyo area,” said De Vido. “They’ve left for the same reasons foreigners have, their circumstances permit it or their companies have enabled it. Why? Why not, if you can do it?”

Tokyo-based magazines speculate this week whether foreign firms that have shifted west or overseas will ever come back. Another casualty of the crisis may be the city’s famed disaster preparedness.

Millions of schoolchildren and workers have been drilled to survive natural disasters but most were clueless as they watched a series of explosions wrack the Fukushima plant. “Anything I learned about nuclear stuff was in school, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Chernobyl,” says one student, Sugiyama. “We need to be taught about radiation.”

The nightmare scenario, covered in science magazines and on TV this week, is that the March 11th quake was simply a rehearsal for the Tokyo Big One; that the restless Pacific plates under the city are still grinding against each other in preparation for another lethal release of seismic energy.

It’s not a scenario that overly concerns Shibato, standing outside Shibuya station. “We’ll be okay,” he says. “After all this, at least we know what to expect.”