Four days ago, Japan was hit by a disastrous earthquake. Residents in the Kanto and Tohoku regions are now in the middle of two very different crises. Up north in Tohoku, the area most affected by the earthquake, tsunami and aftershocks, people are in mortal danger. Around me, in Kanto – particularly the Greater Tokyo area (Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Saitama) – we are facing a crisis of consumerism and routine.

Map of Japanese Electricity Grid

Map of Japanese Electricity Grid (Source: GENI)

Following my previous post on the day after the earthquake, both situations could be said to have worsened. Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima have faced countless aftershocks, and Nagano and Niigata prefectures have been experiencing their own large aftershocks (in absolute terms), sometimes with tsunami warnings.

Supplies are an issue too as the affected regions have apparently lost their water and/or energy supplies, and food and everyday essentials are in limited supply. It doesn’t help that the Tohoku region drops to sub-zero temperatures at night.

On the positive side, however, Japanese rescue workers and their foreign counterparts have begun working through the rubble. Major airborne evacuations were already underway on the 12th, but were hindered in some areas by smoke – they appear to be not only continuing but growing in scope as more and more rescuers arrive. People are emerging from the dirt and debris, even out at sea, with their own stories to tell – tales broadcast to the nation.

The 24hr disaster reporting began to subside on the 13th. Some channels began to run wide show-format (think US breakfast TV-style) programming, and NHK ran a documentary about the quake detailing everything we knew to date. It was during this time that the most breathtakingly tragic accounts began to emerge – journalists interviewing grieving mothers weeping as they hear that the body of their loved one has been found. It is solemn and disheartening, but such is the nature of the reality at these sites. Japan is in national mourning, trying to manage its catharsis while keeping vigilant for a possible major aftershock.

The Fukushima Daiichi, Daini, and Onagawa nuclear power plants have been a source of constant worry. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the surrounding areas and the fear of a radioactive leak has led to off-the-shelf iodine shortages even as far away as Kanagawa prefecture. The problem lies with the cooling process of the shutdown reactors and the build-up of hydrogen (causing the spectacular explosions reported from Daiichi reactors 1 and 2) – and there has been a lot of analysis of this elsewhere. I will leave that to them.

In addition to the nuclear power problems, six oil refineries have been shut down, typically accounting for more than a quarter of the country’s total processing capacity. A seventh refinery is still in partial operation and there were reports of a shut down at a geothermal plant on the 14th.

Needless to say, Eastern Japan’s power network is running at a greatly reduced capacity. The government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) are faced with the difficult task of balancing the energy needs of the capital to maintain economic stability – essential for the recovery effort – and the need to supply the affected areas in the North.

It became quickly clear after the quake that we would need to reduce our energy consumption (particularly in the east – Japan’s national grid is split between 50Hz in the east and 60Hz in the west, see right). The government has urged us to consider our power usage: my iMac has mostly remained off, as did our panel heater (thankfully temperatures have risen to more spring-like conditions recently) in an effort to keep usage to a minimum. Apparently, the same is true in households throughout the country.

By the evening of the 13th, however, Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced that the Tohoku and Tokyo electric power regions would be subject to rolling blackouts in order to allow supply to meet reduced demand. There was confusion and panic as people tried to find out when their power would be cut. Media reporting on which areas could expect cuts at what time didn’t entirely match the intricacy of the TEPCO’s internet-based documentation (and TEPCO’s site came down due to the high traffic that followed the announcement) and we entered the 14th with trepidation: would we lose power for two consecutive 3 hour blocks? What would happen to transportation? Would we be expected to work? Would Tokyo be affected?

Shoppers queue outside Maruetsu supermarket in Motosumiyoshi, Kawasaki

Shoppers queue outside Maruetsu supermarket in Motosumiyoshi, Kawasaki

The answers came the next morning. I awoke at 7am after 2 hours sleep and turned on the TV: the trains were useless – only running in central Tokyo – with limited connection to the Greater Tokyo Area. As my wife received a phone call from her boss telling her to stay at home, my friends and acquaintances discussed their own journeys into work: some walked hours to try to catch a train only to find the station closed, others managed to get trains in the most horrendous crowds Tokyo’s rail network has ever seen, and some of these people then discovered that they couldn’t get their connections and had to make their way back home. Bicycles and cars became the main mode of transport with rural areas subject to gridlock.

Those who didn’t work but decided to go shopping to stock up found supermarkets low on the essentials (e.g. bottled water, rice, milk, bread, instant noodles, toilet paper) and with queues outside. This was certainly true in my area where convenience stores looked rather bare and supermarkets were restricting the number of people allowed into the building at any one time. This was panic buying, pure and simple. Those of us who had stocked up on some supplies before the earthquake could feel some vindication.

The panic buying has three main causes. Firstly, and most immediately, is the worry that the power situation could get worse. No power means no refrigeration, no refrigeration leads to low fish, meat and dairy stocks. This was also the source of the complete lack of candles and batteries (which were already in short supply with people trying to charge their mobile phones on Friday night). These power cuts largely failed to occur – early in the day it became clear that supply was meeting demand and the first four blocks of cuts were cancelled and the rest happened on a reduced basis.

Secondly, people are worried about the supply chains. Tohoku is known as the granary of Japan – people are worried that rice and flour will run short. A lot of fruit and vegetables have also disappeared from the shelves. With Hokkaido, Tohoku also accounts for the bulk of dairy farms too, meaning possible milk shortages too. Japanese people are often aware of the kind of farming in each region as a result of their popular obsession with food on TV – this is undoubtedly in the minds of those standing in line.

Finally, but perhaps the least immediately compelling motivation, is the fear of a large devastating aftershock. On the 13th, the Japan Meteorological Agency warned the public of a 70% chance of a magnitude 7 or larger aftershock before the 16th. With the shifting epicenters of the aftershocks, there is a possibility such an earthquake could hit Tokyo proper. People who previously hadn’t seriously considered that they could be the victim of such an event are now looking to prepare themselves. Luckily, thus far the aftershocks have been reducing in frequency (in my region only the largest are noticeable now) leading to a revision of the 70% figure:

Estimating from the occurrence of aftershocks so far, the possibility of aftershocks with maximum JMA Seismic Intensity of 5+ or higher is 40% for the 3-day period from 2 p.m., 14 March, followed by 20% for the 3-day period from 2 p.m., 17 March to 2 p.m., 20 March.

This is a welcome development suggesting that things are going the right way, although there is no reason to believe we’re in the clear. Before the Tohoku earthquake, the most worrying prospect for a major disaster seemed to be the so-called Tokai 20XX Earthquake predicted to occur to Tokyo’s south-west in the near future. It remains entirely possible:

An earthquake doesn’t always relieve stress – sometimes it redistributes it, he said. “Places that have not failed during a quake can actually be more stressed by the earthquake happening beside them. But we can’t tell at this stage whether it has made the next earthquake more or less likely.”

For Jerome Vergne, a seismologist at Strasbourg University in eastern France, “the risk for Tokyo cannot have diminished”.

Only in the region north of the quake’s epicentre – some 400 km northeast of Tokyo – would stress levels have relaxed, he said. “An increase in loading” – added pressure – “could advance the date of a future quake near Tokyo”, he added.

Let’s hope that that is a long way off. People are beginning to show signs of mental fatigue and stress – in my own house there is a tension between my survivalist instinct and my wife’s fatalism, others report spouses acting strangely, while others are becoming depressed by the barrage of tragedy. For many, returning to work will be cathartic – it will be the ultimate sign of normality, a sign that the worst is over. It’s for this reason that the blackouts have caused such concern. They are a reminder that all is not right, that we are still affected by what is happening 100 km away – even more so that the aftershocks. The tsunami warnings may have gone from our TV screens and almost-normal programming may have resumed, but people are still tense and nervous about the future.

It is now time for the day’s commuters to rise for Day 5 of the disaster. With the train network seeming to be looking at more widespread operation today (albeit at about 40-50% normal capacity), no doubt many more people will head into their offices. But with each and everything jolt of the office windows and shelves will have them looking towards the exit. This is a metropolis scarred by events on its borders – this mental burden will take a long time to shed.

UPDATE: Just as I finished writing the first draft, a Shindo 3 (Japanese scale) earthquake occured in Tokyo Bay jolting the house. I dashed for the door – I honestly thought that that was it. Just goes to show where our heads are at.


Earthquake’s visible motion [h/t Glen Malley]


The most chilling footage of the tsunami [h/t Mutantfrog Travelogue]

GD Star Rating

Related posts:

A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
James Simpson has 254 post(s) on Japan Security Watch