Certainties of Modern Life Upended in Japan
By KEN BELSON
TOKYO — Japan, a country lulled by the reassuring rhythms of order and predictability, has been jolted by earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis into an unsettling new reality: lack of control.
In a nation where you can set your watch by a train’s arrival and a conductor apologizes for even a one-minute delay, rolling blackouts have forced commuters to leave early so they will not be stranded when the trains stop running. Some stores have been stripped bare of essentials like rice and milk, leading the prime minister to publicly call for calm. All the while, aftershocks small and large rattle windows and fray nerves.
While workers struggle to avert nuclear meltdowns at stricken power plants 170 miles to the north, residents of Tokyo are wondering whether to trust the government’s assurances that they are out of harm’s way.
The string of disasters has revived the notion — dormant since Tokyo rose from the firebombed devastation of World War II — that this city is living on borrowed time. Many people are staying inside to avoid radiation that the wind might blow in their direction. Others are weighing whether to leave.
But most Japanese are trying to uphold the ethic that they are taught from childhood: to do their best, persevere and suppress their own feelings for the sake of the group.
“I’ve been checking the news on the Internet, and I really don’t know who to believe, because first they say it’s O.K., and then things get worse,” said Shinya Tokiwa, who lives in Yokohama and works for Fujitsu, the giant electronics maker, in Tokyo’s Shiodome district. “I can’t go anywhere because I have to work my hardest for my customers.”
Those customers, more than 200 miles south of the earthquake’s epicenter, are still grappling with its effects. The computerized systems that Fujitsu sells to banks have crashed under the strain of so many people trying to send money to relatives and friends in stricken areas.
That has kept Mr. Tokiwa busy with repairs and unable to make any sales calls. Just meeting a customer or colleague has become a chore, with trains and subways not running on schedule.
The Japanese are bracing for further losses. The confirmed death toll was 3,676 on Tuesday, with 7,558 people reported missing, but those numbers may well be understated, and bodies continued to wash ashore.
A brief ray of hope pierced the gloom on Tuesday when two people were rescued from collapsed buildings where they had been trapped for more than 90 hours. One of them was a 92-year-old man who was found alive in Ishinomaki City, the other a 70-year-old woman who was pulled from the wreckage of her home in Iwate Prefecture.
In northern Japan’s disaster zone, an estimated 440,000 people were living in makeshift shelters or evacuation centers, officials said. Bitterly cold and windy weather compounded the misery as survivors endured shortages of food, fuel and water.
Rescue teams from 13 nations, some assisted by dogs, continued to search for survivors, and more nations were preparing to send teams. Helicopters shuttled back and forth, part of a mobilization of some 100,000 troops, the largest in Japan since World War II, to assist in the rescue and relief work. A no-flight zone was imposed around the stricken nuclear plants.
Japan’s neighbors watched the crisis anxiously, with urgent meetings among Chinese officials about how to respond should radioactive fallout reach their shores. South Korea and Singapore both said they would step up inspections of food imported from Japan.
The Japanese are no strangers to catastrophe — earthquakes, typhoons, mudslides and other natural disasters routinely batter this archipelago, which is smaller in land area than California but is home to nearly four times as many people.
Japan is also the only nation to have suffered an atomic attack. But by now, most Japanese have only read about the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs in 1945, or have made the pilgrimage to Hiroshima to hang origami cranes and shudder at its museum’s graphic displays.
Many of the most recent natural disasters, including the earthquake in Kobe in 1995, occurred far from the capital. The last major earthquake to hit Tokyo was in 1923.
So for most Japanese, these hardships are entirely new.
“I’m a little scared,” Yuko Ota, 38, an office worker, said as she stood in a long line at Meguro Station in central Tokyo for a ticket to Osaka, her hometown.
“My company told me to go back now because they think the disaster will have an impact in Tokyo, and the earlier we go the better,” she said. “So for one week, to begin with, the whole company is either staying home or going away. I’m lucky because I can go be with my parents.”
Some foreign embassies have suggested that their citizens head south, away from Fukushima Prefecture — which is near the epicenter and home to the worst of the crippled reactors — or leave the country, directives that have led to a rush of departures this week at Narita Airport, Tokyo’s main international gateway. (The United States Embassy has not advised Americans to leave, but it is warning against departing for Japan.)
A number of foreign airlines have suspended flights to Tokyo and have shifted operations to cities farther south, and some expatriates left on Tuesday.
Ben Applegate, 27, an American freelance translator, editor and tour guide, said he and his girlfriend, Winnie Chang, 28, of Taiwan, left Tokyo to stay with a family he knew in the ancient capital, Kyoto.
“I realize that everything is probably going to be fine,” he said, but the forecast of another major quake, which has since been revised, and the nuclear accidents were strong incentives to leave. “Plus, our families were calling once every couple of hours,” he said. “So we thought everyone would feel better if we went to Kyoto.”
For many Japanese, the options were more limited, and excruciating. Even those with second homes or family and friends in safer locations are torn between their deep-rooted loyalty to their families and their employers and their fears that worse is in store.
Experts predicated that despite Japan’s ethos of “gaman,” or endurance, signs of trauma would surface, particularly among those who saw relatives washed away by the tsunami.
“In the tsunami they could see people dying right in front of them,” said Susumu Hirakawa, a clinical psychologist in Tokyo who specializes in post-traumatic stress and has been advising Japan’s Coast Guard.
He said the people of northeast Japan have a reputation as patient, reserved, and stoic, but “now there are too many hardships and struggles for them.”
One taxi driver taking passengers through the largely deserted streets of downtown Tokyo on Tuesday compared the rising uneasiness to the shortages during the OPEC-led oil embargo nearly 40 years ago, when a spike in prices led the Japanese to stockpile essentials like rice and toilet paper.
It has not helped that government officials and executives at the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the nuclear power plants in Fukushima, have offered conflicting reports and often declined to answer hypothetical questions or discuss worst-case scenarios.
“I’m not sure if what they’re saying is true or not, and that makes me nervous,” said Tetsu Ichiura, a life insurance salesman in Tokyo. “I want to know why they won’t provide the answers.”
Like many Japanese, Mr. Ichiura is transfixed by the bad news. At home, he keeps his television tuned to NHK, the national broadcaster. Even his 7-year-old daughter, Hana, has sensed that something unusual is happening, prompted partly by the recurrent aftershocks. She cried, he said, before going to bed the other night.
“She understands that this is serious.”