How a traumatised Tokyo kept calm and carried on

Touring his adopted city, David McNeill finds a people slowly adjusting to a new reality of power cuts and food shortages

Not every city boasts thousands of citizens ready to converse about safe iodine levels. But then, not every city is Tokyo.

"Your drinking water is fine," shouts Ryosuke Shibato to commuters emerging from Shibuya station, one of the capital's busiest. Beside him, his friend and fellow science student Takamasa Imai holds a handmade cardboard sign with daily radiation readings written on it in marker. "Iodine is higher than normal, but still well below danger levels," he says, smiling. "We just want people to stop panic-buying."

A few metres away, a trumpet player tunes up for the Salvation Army. "I'm too old to worry about radiation," she laughs. "I'm more worried about the refugees in the north-east. They need our help."

Two and a half weeks after Japan's strongest-ever earthquake triggered a profound, even existential crisis, Tokyo is slowly righting itself. During its darkest days, some feared that the world's most populous city would become a radioactive wasteland after the Fukushima nuclear plant, 250km away, began overheating, releasing unknown quantities of radiation. Apocalyptic headlines around the world predicted nuclear clouds would descend on the metropolis's 28 million people, sending huge numbers fleeing to the west and south.

Throughout the crisis, when power cuts and petrol queues revived memories of the Second World War, thousands did briefly run away and panic bubbled under the surface. At one point, according to a Japanese newspaper, the Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, warned his cabinet advisor Kiyoshi Sasamori: "In the worst case scenario, we have to assume that all of eastern Japan would be wrecked." And yet the city's remarkable cohesiveness was not entirely stripped away. The human core of the capital – its vast army of salarymen and office-women – stayed in their posts.

Still, signs of Tokyo's traumatic fortnight linger everywhere. Many people have stopped the daily ritual of airing futons in the sun, spooked by stories of contaminated air. Restaurants in the suburbs conduct business in candlelight amid ongoing, sometimes unpredictable power cuts. There are still empty shelves where the water and milk should be in most of the city's thousands of supermarkets and convenience stores, after the governor, Shintaro Ishihara, warned that radioactive iodine has made the tap water unsafe for babies. Notices politely ask customers to refrain from panic-buying.

"Every morning, people come in and buy up all the water, milk and eggs," says Hidehiro Toda, an assistant at the 7-Eleven store in the upmarket Yoyogi Uehara district. "They're still worried that something is going to happen." Aftershocks occur almost daily, strong enough to rattle walls – and nerves. Many people talk about "phantom" quakes. "Sometimes I'm sitting with my friends and I tense up and say, 'Do you feel that?'" says Wakana Oyamada, a Shibuya office worker. "And they haven't because it was in my imagination."

The damage to Tokyo – hundreds of kilometres from the churned coastline, floating corpses and freezing refugee centres nearer the quake epicentre in the northeast – is as much psychological as physical. Restaurants, clubs and theatres struggle to fill seats because people simply do not feel comfortable enjoying themselves, explains policeman Masaru Kobayashi, who stands watch on the Omote-sando shopping boulevard. "They don't think it's right to go out when others are suffering," he says. "It will take time for that to pass." Andy Sharp, a British ex-pat married to a Japanese national, says: "I think the overriding feeling is one of uncertainty."

In the back of people's minds – like the buzzing of a dangerous old household appliance – is the constant, ambient dread of what might happen in the Fukushima plant, where engineers have been frantically working to prevent a catastrophic release of radiation. The media has been sending out a largely soothing message for the past week, saying that the worst may be over, which has convinced many – but not all. "I can't think too hard about what's happening because, if I do, I'll just start to panic," says Yuko Kobayashi, who has a one-year-old child.

Around the streets, hundreds of people have been collecting money for refugees. Many are high-school students, temporarily released from schools still concerned about aftershocks and radiation. "My view of life has changed," says Wataru Sugiyama, 17, sharing an embarrassed look with his friends Kan Saso and Kentaro Minamoto, who rattle collection boxes on Omote-sando. "I mean, I'm probably too young to think about this stuff, but I used to read about big earthquakes in our past and think, 'What has that got to do with me?' Now I understand what those people went through." "I think we've learnt that people in trouble should help others," agrees Saso.

Many Tokyoites talk about how the quake has, even if only temporarily, brought them closer in ways reminiscent of post-9/11 New York. Teenagers who used to retreat to separate rooms now huddle with their parents around televisions to save electricity. Usually harried train commuters in this normally buttoned-up, taciturn city exchange smiles or even small talk. A foreign friend notes the change in attitudes from his neighbours. "Other parents at my son's school who rarely spoke to me ('Hey, he's not like us, therefore can't possibly understand Japanese') seem to have forgotten their prejudices. I've been asked out for beers at least three times since the earthquake, compared with zero times in three years previously."

Not everyone is as friendly to foreigners, known in Japan as "gaijin". Thousands have taken leave from jobs and schools and fled abroad, spooked by the Fukushima crisis and urged to safety by worried relatives at home. The decision to leave, particularly for those with young children, was almost always agonising. Dubbed "fly-jins" or "bye-jins" by local wags, some may never return. Others, such as Roberto De Vido, who wrote an opinion piece in this week's The Japan Times defending his decision, have moved west, to Osaka or Kyoto, hundreds of kilometres away.

"Though the invective I have seen levelled at those who have 'fled' has been aimed at foreigners by foreigners, I know many Japanese who have left the Tokyo area," said De Vido. "They've left for the same reasons foreigners have – their circumstances permit it, or their companies have enabled it. Why? Why not, if you can do it?"

Tokyo-based magazines have speculated this week about whether foreign companies that have shifted west or overseas will ever return. Another casualty of the crisis may be the city's reputation for disaster preparedness. Millions of schoolchildren and workers have been drilled to survive natural disasters, but most were clueless as they watched a series of explosions rack the Fukushima plant. "Anything I learnt about nuclear stuff was in school, about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Chernobyl," said Sugiyama. "We need to be taught about radiation."

The nightmare scenario, much talked about in the media this week, is that the 11 March quake may simply be a rehearsal for the Tokyo Big One; that the restless Pacific plates under the city are still grinding against each other in preparation for another lethal release of seismic energy. It's not a scenario that overly concerns Shibato, standing outside Shibuya Station. "We'll be OK," he says. "After all this history, at least we know what to expect."

The heroes who gave everything

Over the past fortnight, remarkable stories of individual bravery have emerged from Japan's tragedy. Here are some of the people who have become heroes, often posthumously.



* Miki Ando, 25, was a clerk in the crisis management department of the local government office in the ruined town of Minamsanriku, Miyagi Prefecture. In the minutes between the quake and the arrival of the 10-metre wave of water, she repeatedly told people over the town's PA system to flee, reportedly saving hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives, before her building was engulfed by the tsunami. All that remains of the city office is the metal red framework. Ms Ando was washed out to sea.



* Shigeru Yokosuka, 60, was a manager at a hospital in Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate Prefecture. Hundreds of people sought shelter in the four-storey building after the quake. When the tsunami hit they rushed to the rooftop, but Mr Yokosuka ran down to get the satellite phone – the only means of communication with the outside world. He managed to hand it to a colleague on the third floor before being taken by the water. The phone saved the surviving patients.



* Motoko Onodera, 29, was a high school teacher in Rikuzen-Takata on 11 March. After checking to make sure her students were safe, she sped to the shore in her car to look for dozens of swimming club members practising near the sea. She and the swimmers are still missing. She had got married only a year ago with Hiroshi, who teaches at another school and had told the school principal that they might soon have a baby.



* Michi Kon, 32, was a housewife expecting her first child in Hachinone, Aomori, on 11 March. A few hours after the quake, she went into labour. Her husband, Hirohito, drove her to a local clinic. With no power, the hospital was cold and dark, while aftershocks shook the building. The delivery began with one flashlight and a pillow to support her back. 90 minutes later, the boy was safely born.



* Mitsuru Sato was managing director of a processed seafood company in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture. When he saw the tsunami approaching, he led his 20 Chinese trainees up to a shrine on high ground. The trainees had no knowledge of Japan's evacuation policy. Mr Sato was swept into the sea. The story was picked up by the Chinese media, giving two nations often at loggerheads a much-needed joint hero.

David McNeill & Nanako Otani

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