Away from north, much of Japan lives in eerie normalcy

JPOST correspondent: We wonder, amid the nuclear risk: Is the West exaggerating the danger, or is Tokyo underplaying it?

japan charity 311 (photo credit: gil shefler)
japan charity 311
(photo credit: gil shefler)
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 goods.
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 unfold.RELATED:Post-tsunami death toll in Japan rises to nearly 14,000Netanyahu to Japanese PM: Israel stands behind you
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 crisis.
“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 said.
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 away.”
While some might call the Japanese response to the disaster introverted, Westerners inside the country – and their governments – were anything but.
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.”
The hotel where this correspondent is staying in Osaka is fully occupied with a disproportionately large contingent of Western expats who have fled Tokyo.
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 struck.
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 strength.”
“We felt like we were popcorn,” Parnass said. “You can’t imagine its tremendous power – it’s unbelievable.”
Stringent building codes, and a bit of luck – the earthquake’s epicenter was over 200 kilometers away – resulted in relatively little damage to the capital.
However, the transportation system was shut down, bringing the city to a halt.
“You have to hand it to the Japanese, though – not one window was broken,” Ohana said.
That was only the beginning of the trouble for Tokyo’s denizens.
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 after 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.”
The most 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 international media.
“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