Nuclear crisis casts dark shadow on Tokyo

Trying to save power, Japan turns off nearly 60 percent of street lights, all lighting above street level are turned off.

Japan grocery stock 311 (photo credit: Gil Shefler)
Japan grocery stock 311
(photo credit: Gil Shefler)
TOKYO – The busy intersection at Hachiko Square, the local equivalent of Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, teemed with people early Sunday evening who came to this famous urban landmark to eat, drink, socialize and shop. 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. 
Whereas the square’s massive neon signs and video screens once cast a dazzling bright light on those who emerged from the train station servicing the many lines which converge here, gatherers now meet in semi-darkness. In a bid to conserve electricity about 60 percent of the street lights –two out of three by my count- and all the lighting above street level are turned off.
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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 ostentatious square now looks like any other. Several other noticeable austerity measures are in place around town to help prevent power shortages. A few railway lines are cancelled while others have reduced their services; a large number of cash and ticket machines switched off, and the city’s stores and restaurants, which once stayed open until the last train at 1 AM, now close early at around six or seven. By 9 PM the streets of Tokyo are largely empty.
Other aspects of life, however, have returned to normal. Work resumed the first day of the week after the quake took place the Friday before last. The supermarkets, which were raided by customers fearing shortages, are now packed with every kind of food imaginable displaying and rows of meat, dairy and vegetable products. Only a few shelves of non-perishable foodstuffs which can be stored for an emergency remain empty.
“My wife asked me to bring a sack of rice,” Takeshi Koga, a Japanese executive who works in Osaka but returns to his family in Tokyo for the weekends, told me on the bullet train to the capital on Saturday. “She said you have to stand in line if you want to buy some foods in Tokyo so I have brought with me rice and eggs from Osaka.” 
The Shinkansen bullet train which shot through the serene Japanese countryside en route to Tokyo was almost full that day, and there was plenty of room on the trains back for me to pick the exact time of my return. The vast majority of Tokyo’s 30 million residents have stayed put throughout the crisis despite the slight increase in radiation levels detected in the city last week and do not appear to be very worried. Those that did leave were mostly foreigners and expatriates who followed news reports in the international media which differed in tone from the more subdued coverage appearing in the local press.
Hotels in the southern Japanese city of Hiroshima, which was utterly destroyed by an atomic bomb at the end of World War II, were, ironically, fully occupied by tourists and expats and a 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 to tell the exact truth to the Japanese people,” Sartoris, who chose to remain in Tokyo, said. “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. 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 Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has called its worst since World War II it 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 with certainty the Japanese government will likely be unable to divert its attention and resources towards the rebuilding process and until that happens, the once bright lights of Hachiko Square will remain dim.