OSAKA, Japan – Television stations here on Thursday were broadcasting golf
tournaments and game shows, supermarket shelves were packed with products and
department stores buzzed with content customers carrying bags of purchased
This port city in the heart of Japan’s second largest metropolitan
area of Kansai – 400 kilometers southwest of Tokyo – seems little affected by
what’s going on in the northeast of the country, where the drama at the
critically damaged Fukushima nuclear power facility continues to
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Rabbi David Gingold, head of Congregation Ohel Shelomoh, located
in nearby Kobe, spoke about the difference between this part of Japan and that
hit hard by the combination of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear
“I have to say… that there is no feeling of worry amongst the
masses here in Kobe or Osaka, and there is definitely a disconnect,” he
Eric Altman, a Jewish Canadian living just outside Osaka, wrote in
an e-mail that he believed foreign media may have exaggerated conditions in its coverage of events in the country.
“Here in the western part of
Japan there really has been no problem at all,” he said. “The foreign media
seems to be painting the picture of a country in a state of emergency and that
‘swaths of Japan’ (a quote from a Yahoo news story I saw) have been destroyed.
It isn’t true. You have to search pretty hard to find the chaos. Even the
stories of food shortages in Tokyo are not very widespread and getting better as
transportation systems are getting more stable.”
The one exception to the
lack of any obvious signs that this country is in the midst of a deep crisis are
the groups of youths and young adults dressed in white who ask for donations at
public facilities to help victims of the disaster.
Madoka Fujita, 22, an
English major at a university in Osaka, requested that commuters at Namba train
station give to those in need. I asked her whether she worried about the
prospects of radiation reaching her hometown. “It depends on the day – sometimes
I don’t feel worried, and others I do,” she said.
Was she worried on this
day – the day the US said radiation levels were “extremely high,” seemingly
contradicting official Japan? “No, today I don’t think there is reason to be
worried that the radiation will come to Osaka,” she said. “We are far
While some might call the Japanese response to the disaster
introverted, Westerners inside the country – and their governments – were
Rabbi Gingold, who bought a ticket for his wife to leave,
but said he was staying, warned that airliners were price-gouging Westerners in a
hurry to leave.
“When I looked at online ticket offers, I found that
there would be no tickets on sale until March 23 – and even then they would cost
in the thousands per ticket,” he said. “I saw prices from $3,000 – twice the
regular price – all the way to $9,000. Prices never seen in Japan.”
hotel where this correspondent is staying in Osaka is fully occupied with a
disproportionately large contingent of Western expats who have fled
Anat Parnass and Ronen Ohana – two Israelis living in Tokyo who
took refuge here on Tuesday – spoke of an ordeal that seems a million miles away
from the comforts of the Kansai metropolitan area.
Both were going about
their daily routines in Tokyo last Friday when the 9 magnitude earthquake
Ohana was closing Falafel King (Tokyo’s only kosher falafel
restaurant) a little earlier than usual, as he does every weekend to respect the
Sabbath, when suddenly he felt his head start to spin.
“All of a sudden I
was dizzy and I had to hold onto the sink not to fall,” he said. “But then I
looked outside and I saw all the Japanese standing stricken in the street. It
was the earthquake. It started weak, and then it grew and grew in
“We felt like we were popcorn,” Parnass said. “You can’t
imagine its tremendous power – it’s unbelievable.”
codes, and a bit of luck – the earthquake’s epicenter was over 200 kilometers
away – resulted in relatively little damage to the capital.
transportation system was shut down, bringing the city to a halt.
have to hand it to the Japanese, though – not one window was broken,” Ohana
That was only the beginning of the trouble for Tokyo’s
While the city was spared the ravages of the tsunami – which
leveled towns and villages to its north, killing tens of thousands – it was
struck by a series of aftershocks on nearly an hourly basis.
tremor, some over 7 on the Richter scale, rattled the capital and the nerves of
its 30 million people.
“After the first [tremor] you aren’t immune,”
Ohana recalled. “You know what’s coming, but it’s still terrifying. I would just
focus on a street lamp, or any other object, until it passed.”
troubling development was concern over exposure to radiation from the leaky
reactors in Fukushima, 200 kilometers to the north.
Friends and family
reading alarming reports about radiation in Tokyo kept calling their loved ones,
begging them to leave. At the same time expats in Tokyo were hearing conflicting
reports from the Japanese media – whose tone is markedly calmer than that of the
“That’s the most difficult thing – we were trying to
understand what’s happening,” Parnass said. “We would read one headline in
Israel that ‘Fukushima is the next Hiroshima,’ then read a contradictory report
in the local news. Meanwhile, many of our friends, including many expats, are
still in Tokyo and are not going anywhere.”
The question on many people’s
minds is whether Western media and governments are exaggerating the seriousness
of the nuclear leaks in Fukushima, or the Japanese are downplaying their
severity? The debate on that matter wages on.
“We couldn’t sleep at
nights because of the uncertainty,” said Parnass, who after much soul-searching
and torment, decided to leave for Israel today.
“We’d say ‘tomorrow we’ll
wake up and have a better idea of what’s happening’ – then we’d wake up in the
morning, read the news and feel more confident. But then by nighttime the news
would change, and again, we were unsure what to think.”
Follow Gil Shefler on Twitter at @gilshefler