A darker, quieter Tokyo begins its return to normalcy

Most of the capital’s 30m. residents weren’t fazed by the slight increase in radiation. It was the foreigners, who watch int'l news outlets, who fled.

tokyo japan_311 (photo credit: GIL SHEFLER)
tokyo japan_311
(photo credit: GIL SHEFLER)
TOKYO – As usual, early on Sunday evening, the intersection at Hachiko Square, the local equivalent of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, teemed with people eating, drinking, socializing and shopping. But Hachiko is a very different place than it was just over a week ago, before an earthquake and tsunami laid waste to large swaths of the northeast and created a severe crisis at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima some 120 miles north of here.
The urban landmark’s massive neon signs and video screens, which used to cast their bright light on locals emerging from the busy train station, have given way to semi-darkness. Bidding to conserve electricity, the authorities have turned off about 60 percent of the street lights and all the lighting above street level.
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“They’re trying to save power because they lost power from the nuclear reactors,” Lindsey Sartoris, a Canadian expat who teaches English to children, explained. “It’s hard to keep things running so they’ve been doing a lot of blackouts and they’ve asked companies not to use up power.”
To be fair, there’s still no need to bring a flashlight from home, but the usually dazzling square now looks much like any other.
Several other noticeable austerity measures are in place around town to help prevent power shortages. A few railway lines are canceled, while others have reduced their services; a large number of cash and ticket machines are switched off, and the city’s stores and restaurants, which used to stay open until the last train at 1 a.m., now close at around 6 or 7 p.m. By 9, the streets of Tokyo are largely empty.
Other aspects of life, however, are returning to normal. Work resumed at the start of last week. The supermarkets, which were raided by customers fearing shortages, are now packed with every kind of food imaginable, and boast full shelves of meat, dairy and vegetable products. Only a few rows of non-perishable foodstuffs that can be stored for an emergency remain empty.
“My wife asked me to bring home a sack of rice,” Takeshi Koga, a Japanese executive who works in Osaka but returns to his family in Tokyo for the weekends, told The Jerusalem Post on the bullet train to the capital on Saturday. “She said there were lines for some foods in Tokyo at the time, so I brought rice and eggs.”
The Shinkansen bullet train, which shot through the serene Japanese countryside en route to Tokyo, was almost full that day, despite the slight increase in radiation levels detected in the city last week. The vast majority of Tokyo’s 30 million residents have stayed put throughout the crisis, and do not appear to be very worried.
Those that did leave were mostly foreigners and expatriates. They had followed reports in the international media that differed in tone from the more subdued coverage appearing in the local press.
Hotels in the southern Japanese city of Hiroshima, which was destroyed by an atomic bomb at the end of World War II, were, ironically, fully occupied by tourists and expats and a few locals who went there to avoid the nuclear crisis in Tokyo, a Western expat in Osaka told me.
“I think the Japanese government did not tell the exact truth to the Japanese people,” said Sartoris, who chose to remain in Tokyo. “They lied in a couple of cases in the past. Some people are worried that they aren’t telling them the severity of the situation to avoid a mass panic, but no one left.
“The Japanese trust the government and listen to them,” Sartoris added. “This is a country where everyone depends on each other. I think the West is making it too big of a crisis, but the Japanese aren’t telling us everything either.”
Even before the disaster, which Prime Minister Naoto Kan has called the worst to hit the country since World War II, Japan already had its fair share of woes. The economy, which has stagnated for the better part of two decades, was recently overtaken by China, relegating it to the world’s third largest by size. In addition, the population is aging rapidly and has been sharply decreasing since 2005.
The precarious situation at Fukushima adds another, potentially much more hazardous element into the mix. As long as one cannot rule out the possibility of a meltdown, the Japanese government will likely be unable to divert its attention and resources toward the wider economic rebuilding process, and the once bright lights of Hachiko Square will have to remain dim.