Scenes from science fiction in world's largest metropolis


Reassurances from nuclear experts have not calmed residents’ fears of disaster, writes DAVID McNEILLin Tokyo 

SHIBUYA SQUARE is normally the buzzing, youthful heart of Tokyo, its giant neon signs and TV screens towering over an intersection permanently clogged with pedestrians and cars.

Today, the screens are blank and the neon has been switched off to save power. The crowds have thinned and many of the people hurrying through the square are carrying cases and overnight bags.

“We’re being sent west by our company to Osaka,” says Ryousuke Sanada (25), who works for a food distributor and is standing with half a dozen colleagues, using mobile phones to watch the news.

“They say it’s just a normal transfer but they’re worried about the radiation.

“Of course I’m scared, but I don’t think the worst will happen as long as people pull together.”

Hundreds of other companies are making similar decisions, as the stuff of science fiction novels and bad disaster movies arrives in the world’s largest metropolis.

Radioactivity has been detected in the city centre, the possible prelude to a disaster forewarned but never really expected: the meltdown of a nuclear power plant and the showering of fallout over 28 million people.

Experts have appeared nightly on TV to caution against overreaction, saying that a Chernobyl-style catastrophe is unlikely. Modern nuclear plants are built better, they say, and the Fukushima complex has been shut down since last Friday.

Such reassurances however have not quelled the sense of impending doom in the capital or the steady stream of rumours and apocalyptic headlines.

“Radioactivity in greater Tokyo at 100 times normal levels,” screamed the Sponichi tabloid newspaper last night.

Some have heard that the emperor has abandoned the city for Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, although there is no evidence this is true.

“That’s not what concerns me,” said Yutaka Aoki, a taxi driver who works the area around Shibuya station.

“My biggest problem is getting petrol. They sold me just 20 litres today. How am I supposed to work on that?”

A scratchy TV broadcast from a dashboard TV in his car keeps spitting out the latest dreadful news from Fukushima. “If it blows what can we do? We’re finished,” he says.

Some shops are running short of water, toilet roll and rice as the city’s beleaguered citizens panic- buy and supplies get clogged in the country’s transport arteries. Candles, face masks and umbrellas have sold out, too, after government officials advised using them to protect from nuclear fallout.

“Leave the umbrellas outside your door when you come back home,” said one.

Many convenience stores have shut their doors after ending up with nothing to sell, a minor but telling sign of the disintegration of normal life in a city where the stores light up almost every street.

Around Shibuya, small groups of young people could be seen last night wearing masks and carrying umbrellas, although the skies were clear.

“My mother told me it would protect me,” explained Ryo Umebayashi (15), a secondary school student. “I don’t know if it’s going to work but I guess it’s better than nothing.”

And if the radiation worsens? “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “We’re talking about going to Okinawa [in Japan’s deep south] but none of us has enough money.”

The symbolism of youngsters sheltering from radioactive precipitation in a country that gave the world Black Rain, the term used by survivors of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to describe nuclear fallout, is not lost on the city’s older citizens.

“It’s like the situation after the [second World] War has returned,” one told state broadcaster NHK this week. “It’s frightening but we rebuilt then and we were far poorer.”

The faces on trains from Shibuya are sombre, the carriages filled with the pensive energy of a normally stoic people wondering what tomorrow will bring.

Added to history’s strongest earthquake; a tsunami that washed away towns, villages and thousands of people in its muddy embrace; a string of nerve-racking aftershocks and 400,000 people stranded is the constant dread that the Frankenstein monster that once helped keep Shibuya Square lit like Christmas will have its revenge.