Empty shelves at a supermarket in Kawasaki

Empty shelves at a supermarket in Kawasaki

Five days on from the Great Tohoku Earthquake, the aftershocks in Tokyo keep coming, both seismic and mental. Last night, Shizuoka prefecture (to Tokyo’s west) shook under the power of a M6.4 quake, and earlier today Chiba and Ibaraki (both affected by the March 11th earthquake) were rattled by a M6.0 aftershock. All the while major aftershocks, enough to be considered major earthquakes in their own rights, continue to hit the regions most affected by Friday’s quake. Physically, Tokyo and Kanagawa remain largely unaffected, but the mental repercussions are taking their toll.

The panic buying continues – while supplies are coming in and there remains plenty of food on the table, the basic essentials and stocks useful for surviving are in short supply. Different areas are affected to varying degrees, the central Tokyo area seems to be better off than the suburbs. The list of affected products is quite long, but includes: rice, toilet paper, sausages, ham, instant noodles, bottled water, baked goods, batteries and chargers, among many others.

My wife returned from our small local supermarket last night to report that it was empty. The shop staff told her that they kept getting supplies, but they would be snapped up within the hour. It made the plans for dinner that night all the more difficult: I chose to half the portion of meat and try to conserve what we have. It’s good for my health, but it also reminds me that no matter how difficult it makes life, it is nothing compared to Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi prefectures where people are queuing many blocks over in order to get day-to-day food.

Consumerism isn’t the only area where panic is manifesting as concerns over radiation leaks from the troubled nuclear reactors in Fukushima. Many, particularly among the foreign community, decided that they wouldn’t take any chances and made the decision to flee their prefectures, the Kanto region, and even Japan.

People queue for express tickets, presumably to leave Kanto, at Musashi Nakahara station in Kawasaki

People queue for express tickets, presumably to leave Kanto, at Musashi Nakahara station in Kawasaki

Yesterday I had to visit immigration to apply for a renewal of my visa, and I was greeted by about 70 people stood in a queue to apply for their reentry permits (allowing those with a visa to return once they leave the country). That line grew to perhaps as many as 250 people by time I left. The office struggled to cope with the load, telling those in line to bear with them. Of three counters, two immigration officials were devoted to these reentry permit applicants, only one for regular immigration concerns. Most of these foreign residents seemed to be hedging their bets – preparing to flee – but many seemed to have concrete plans, flights booked, and arrangements made. Some of the talk was focused on why anyone would want to stay.

With the English language media’s overwhelmingly hysterical approach to the problems at the nuclear reactor, it is unsurprising that many decided they had had enough, particularly for those with children. Many Japanese too felt that they should make their way west too. There is a retail shortage of potassium iodine tablets, which can be used to reduce radiation exposure in the event of an emergency. There are also queues at ticket offices supplying tickets for the Shinkansen, the bullet train.

For me, this is my home – I have my wife, my hamster, my computer, electricity, water, food, everything I need. We are a long way from Fukushima and as Hilary Walker of the British Department of Health told the British Embassy:

I just wanted to emphasise what we’ve just been talking is about outside the area it’s not a health problem.  Those of you who are living in Tokyo, you are a long way away from the reactor, and although there have been reports that there have been slightly increased levels of radiation, this is trivial in terms of a health effect.  So we would like to reassure people that well away from the reactor there is not an issue for people living around there.

It’s a personal choice for all of us, but for me there is little reason to flee. I am not any more worried than I was two days ago. The majority of level-headed Japanese are not about to run either. For those in Fukushima though, the situation is still bleak with heavy snow adding to the disaster, radiation and supply crisis. Even more so for the TEPCO workers who are battling to save the people of Fukushima from an even worse fate. If you are able to help, please do – you’ll find a list of reputable organizations here.

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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