Dark and quiet Tokyo tests locals' resilience


LIFE IN CAPITAL:THE DIMMED lights in the normally effervescent neighbourhood of Tokyo were eerily appropriate given the mood yesterday, three days into the greatest test of Japan’s resilience as a nation since the second World War.

Darkened streets, petrol rationing, a crippled public transport system and empty supermarket shelves are uncharted territory for a city usually teeming with people accustomed to convenience and abundance. While rescue teams in the Tohoku region uncover hundreds of bodies and officials struggle to cool down a third malfunctioning nuclear reactor 240km to the north, all the capital can do is sit tight.

After the gridlock that followed the violent shaking in the city on Friday afternoon, for a moment it seemed that Tokyo would endure little more than momentary inconvenience.

Now though, nerves are beginning to fray after the killer tsunami and the start of the worst nuclear crisis in the country’s postwar history.

“I’m very worried,” said Banshu Yoshida, owner of a restaurant in Shiba, a bayside district. “I think the nuclear problem will be sorted out; it’s the earthquakes that worry me most, particularly because we’re so near the sea.”

The most immediate concern for the city’s authorities is its voracious appetite for power. The government has urged residents to save electricity by staying at home if at all possible and curbing their use. The advice appears to have worked, as residents and businesses join forces in an ad hoc energy-saving drive.

Some railway companies cancelled many trains yesterday, while others ran infrequent services. Many companies closed their doors to save energy and because they knew few employees would attempt to travel to work.

Public broadcaster NHK, the first point of call for millions gripped by live coverage from Tohoku, is to take its education channel off the air between midnight and 5am.

Some stores cut or dimmed display lighting and others were shut; pedestrians in neighbourhoods usually ablaze with neon found themselves in unfamiliar darkness.

The impact was immediate. Tokyo Electric Power said it had scaled back plans for rolling power cuts in Tokyo and several other areas to avoid prolonged blackouts in areas farther north that are now the centre of a huge rescue and relief effort.

“It’s a very severe situation, but there are a number of plans in place, people are co-operating and we’re able to turn to thermal and other energy sources in increase supply,” said Mitsuharu Kawabata of the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan.

For the time being, hope is trumping fears that the fight to secure the safety of Fukushima Daiichi atomic plant is being lost. An exodus to the southwest and overseas is a future no one here wants to contemplate.

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of foreign residents heading to all air and rail routes leading west and beyond, but the expatriate community, like its Japanese host, is for the most part prepared to sit it out.

“From what I gather, the threat from the nuclear reactor is minimal, so I have no plans to leave,” said William Swinton, director of international business studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus. “Tokyo is sober and there’s a feeling that it dodged the bullet, but I’m not lying awake at night worrying.

“We shouldn’t be the focus of this. There are people in the quake zone who have no food or resources at all. The shops here lack certain items, but there is always orange juice and yoghurt.”

His nonchalance wasn’t shared by Ryuichi Suzuki, a taxi driver taking a cigarette break on a near-deserted central Tokyo street.

“I went to the supermarket this morning, but by the time I got inside, everything I wanted had gone,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Across the city, streets normally teeming with office workers were strangely subdued, although far from empty.

Journeys on the few trains operating were punctuated by multiple mobile phone jingles announcing the arrival of yet another powerful aftershock. Handsets were checked and glances exchanged – and then Tokyo got on with its business as best it could.

In the morning, orderly supermarket queues quickly descended into panic as soon as the doors were opened, triggering a rush for the must-have items: bread, milk, toilet rolls, masking tape, batteries and, because of its iodine content, tofu.