No home. No help. No hope: Now Japan's despair turns to anger

Tempers fray as the homeless wait for food and medicine

As it struggles to gain control of a nuclear crisis and to feed and shelter the thousands of people left homeless by last week's devastating tsunami, the Japanese government is facing a growing chorus of criticism for its handling of the catastrophe.

Amid vociferous unease in the Japanese media at the apparent lack of progress in providing people in the country's stricken north-east with the bare essentials they need to survive, the governor of Fukushima prefecture, Yuhei Sato, has voiced frustration at shortages that were slowing evacuations. "Anxiety and anger felt by people have reached boiling point," he said. He warned evacuation centres did not have enough hot meals, medicine or petrol.

Meanwhile, in the first sign that international frustration at the Japanese government's reticence on the status of the stricken Fukushima power plant has reached a critical moment, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a thinly-veiled rebuke to Prime Minister Naoto Kan's administration.

"We do not have all the details of the information, so what we can do is limited," said Yukiya Amano, who is Japanese himself. "I am trying to further improve the communication."

The UK government was sufficiently alarmed by the situation, especially the radioactive leaks, that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office announced: "British nationals currently in Tokyo and to the north of Tokyo should consider leaving the area."

Since the news of difficulties at the plant first emerged, many analysts say the government in Tokyo has underplayed the situation. There was a hint that unease was reaching the very highest levels of the government when reports emerged that Mr Kan had lost his temper with executives from the plant operator, Tepco. "What the hell is going on?" he is said to have demanded, according to the Kyodo news agency. Tepco has been responsible for most of the information coming out of the plant.

But the sharpest reproach for the government was visible in the country's north-east yesterday. With lines for food stretching six city blocks, temperatures below freezing in many places and snow further hampering relief efforts, people in the region are struggling with shortages of necessities that the government appears unable to supply.

In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, when the attention of the authorities was focused on rescue efforts and trying to save as many people as possible, it would have been understandable if the supply of basic commodities had been interrupted.

But six days later, and with it still impossible to buy a bottle of water in a city located just five hours' drive from Tokyo, people are beginning to wonder what is happening. In many cases the absence of fresh water, electricity and gas is adding to the misery. The government has offered no explanation.

"It took me 10 hours to queue up to get petrol," said Ota, a 45-year-old office worker from Sendai. "And then each person was only allowed 10 litres. Nobody there was able to give me any information." Ota, who declined to give his second name, said a friend had told him that when he visited a store and bought some snacks, he was charged "100 times" the usual amount. "My friend had to buy the food," he added. "He has to live."

The shortage of supplies has not triggered panic. People queuing to get into the few shops that are open do so calmly and efficiently, even though the line could wait for more than an hour. Many of the shops have employed officials with flags to direct the queues.

"I had to get in line for an hour. Then there was no milk, no bread. People were allowed two snacks each and one tin of food," said Tsugitaka Chiba. "In my neighbourhood, people have been giving food away. There's just no information about the resupply of the shops."

However difficult things may be for people in Sendai, where large parts of the city have electricity and water, a far more pressing situation exists in those towns and villages closer to the coast. There, there is no electricity and often no fresh water. There is also precious little to eat; at an elementary school in the town of Higashi Matsushima that had been turned into an emergency shelter for several hundred people who were homeless, there were boxes of instant noodles and a communal kitchen serving miso soup.

How long the supplies would last was unclear. There are similar reports from communities all along the coast. Officials believe 440,000 have been evacuated, either from the area struck by the tsunami or else from the proximity to the nuclear reactors. There are hundreds of shelters set up for those with nowhere else to go, but large numbers of people in isolated areas are still waiting for assistance and food. The government has sent 100,000 troops to assist in the aid effort and delivered 120,000 blankets, 120,000 bottles of water and 110,000 litres of petrol to the worst-hit areas. But these can only be temporary measures. Officials warn it could take many days to restore supplies of power and water.