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Fear of the unknown grips post-quake Tokyo
Al Jazeera reports from Japan's capital on stress and potential nuclear fallout from the earthquake.
Last Modified: 16 Mar 2011 13:00
Emergency workers, including the Red Cross and MSF, have been scrambling to help victims [GALLO/GETTY]

Tokyo – In situations fraught with unknown factors, there’s always the cold, certain relief of numbers. But for those living in Japan, the numbers have yielded little comfort.

6,000: The projected number of those currently dead or missing and presumed to be dead.

20- 32 km:  The radius around the leaking No.2 Fukushima (Daiichi) nuclear plant where the government has recommended that people stay indoors.

10-12 km: The radius around the plants from which about 200,000 people have already been evacuated.

160 km: The distance from which the US aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan had detected low levels of radiation.

4: Number of officials from Tokyo Electric Power Co. nuclear plant bowing in apology on television after Tuesday morning’s blast at the No. 2 plant.

Still, life continues in Japan’s bustling capital, albeit in a muted fashion.

Anxiety and stress

Depending on who you talk to, the situation is either bad or not so bad. Either way, it''s not great. There may be another big earthquake hitting Japan, or there may not.

There may be a threat of a nuclear meltdown, or there may not. Radiation might reach Tokyo or, well, you get the picture.

The reports of an explosion and then leaks at a nuclear plant 241km north of Tokyo on Tuesday were a jarring way to start the day.

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"I am very afraid," said Mieh Tanaka, 24, a waitress in the Shibuya neighbourhood.

"But I don’t know to do. Japan is a very small country, so … if big accident happens, I don''t think we can leave fast."

The situation is changing too rapidly for most to absorb, said Tanaka’s friend, Hiro Kuni, also 24.

"First, earthquake. Very scary, but daijobu (meaning) okay, we have many of those. And then also tsunami. Okay, [those] we also have," he said.

He said he can even manage with the rolling, scheduled blackouts that they typically do not have to deal with after an earthquake. But this time, water, electrical and gas outages have hampered recovery efforts in the days since the magnitude 9.0 quake.

"The radiation now also. It''s too much stress."

He has avoided going online to check the news, relying on catching the headlines on television instead, but his friends keep forwarding newsfeeds of the earthquake – which trains lines are disrupted, which neighbourhoods will be affected by the power outages, how to save power, to avoid stocking up on too many supplies in order to prevent food shortages, etc. – to his mobile.

With unsettling reports of a leak from one of the plants, worries of the potential threat of radiation spreading south prompt dubious precautions – masks and hand sanitisers are sold out in many stores. People are advising each other to wear long sleeves.

Some carry umbrellas even on a dry day. The streets of the ordinarily crowded city seem emptier than usual as many businesses allowed employees to stay home, in part due to the fact that train lines still aren''t running, making traffic on Tokyo''s freeways unmanageable at times.

'All gone'

Still, comparatively, Tokyo is fairly easy going for those evacuated from Sendai, which was hit hard by both the quake and the tsunami.

One of the survivors, Eissa Samani, 19, of Doha, Qatar, was on his way back home on Tuesday.

Samani, the only Qatari student in Japan, was studying at the Sendai Language School and had been in the country for seven months.

He said he was in school when the earthquake hit, and that having spent roughly five hours outdoors in the snow, he and others took shelter in a shrine nearby for about 10 hours - and then, the relative comfort of an elementary school turned into an emergency shelter.

"My friend gave me a blanket and I slept on the floor," said Samani. He said he wasn’t so much scared as he was confused.

"It was like a movie … I thought, maybe 50 per cent, I would not make it," he said of his odds of survival.

He was contacted by his embassy, and arrangements were made to transport him to Tokyo and then Doha. He said he worries about his friends but hopes to be able to keep in touch with them. He also wants to return to Japan as soon as possible.

The slim teenager had in his possession a near-empty backpack (from which he produced bottles of oud as gifts upon being retrieved by the embassy van) and no more. When asked where the rest of his belongings were he smiled, waved one hand and said, "all gone".                    

Harsh reality                                                                      

While expats seem to be leaving as soon as possible, the locals are staying put.

Earthquakes are a part of life here, and the Japanese population, which is not one generally prone to hyperbole and panic, is accustomed to dealing with them.

Earthquake kits - which typically include water, helmets and first-aid materials – are common fixtures in many Japanese homes.

As Masao Terasawa, an assistant store manager at a supermarket put it, "We Japanese, we have to live here. We have to accept the situation."

Then, taking a moment to consider what that meant, he followed with, "What can we do?"

He said that while foreigners are panicking, Japanese are watching the news, concerned, but not so much so that they’re ready to leave.

Store shelves, he said, have grown spare of some basics –water (Tokyo tap water is safe to drink, but many prefer bottled or filtered water), bread, milk as well as household paper products.  

This is only partly due to panic-buying, said Terasawa, but also because of damage done to transportation routes as well as factories that have been affected by water and electricity outages.

He is somewhat confident that the government will keep him informed on the radiation level, and said he trusts the government, "at the moment – because right now, that’s the only way to know."

A volatile catastrophe

Responding to a catastrophe is never easy work – not for a community, not for government officials and certainly not for rescue and medical emergency personnel on the scene.

Eric Ouannes, general director of Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) in Japan, told Al Jazeera that the volatility of the situation makes it very difficult to gage the degree of response needed.

"What is really difficult is that we have mixed messages from the field – sometimes we feel that there is a lot need, and sometimes, we’re hearing that everything is covered," said Ouannes, who said that MSF has already deployed teams in north Miyagi prefecture, which includes the city of Sendai.

So far, he said the teams are "identifying gaps in the relief effort in the massive operation that the Japanese government launched three days ago" but that they’re also moving up further north to determine if there’s a need for providing help outside the evacuation centres.

At this point, due to both communication issues  - there’s no electricity and little in the way of telephone service in the area – as well as transportation challenges, even getting to Sendai to distribute the basics – food, water, blankets, etc. – is a challenge. The shortage of petrol makes the drive north far more questionable, and helicopters can only take so much.

Ouannes emphasizes that at the moment, what’s required in Japan is "not a large-scale intervention, as we’ve done in Haiti, but something more modest - trying to complement the government intervention".

In sending the teams up north, he is also worried about the risk of exposing them to harmful levels of radioactivity.

"We are extremely concerned with the nuclear and radioactive risk," said Ouannes, adding that MSF has "done as much as possible" to minimise risk to the staff.  And, in the event of the very worst, an evacuation route has already been planned, said Ouannes.

"We even have a plan for the Tokyo office."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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