Fear-stricken, Tokyo Is Teetering Between Horror and Calm

Smoke billowed upward from the crippled nuclear plant, prompting the unavoidable question of whether Fukushima would turn into Hiroshima

TOKYO - Yesterday started out terribly. At 6:40 A.M. a powerful explosion rocked reactor number 2 in Fukushima. Smoke billowed upward, prompting the unavoidable question of whether Fukushima would turn into Hiroshima. The wind was blowing southwest, right toward the largest metropolis in the world. Since then, Tokyo has been teetering between deep anxiety and restrained relief. The latter came only just before midnight, when Japanese television announced that the danger of radiation spreading had slightly diminished.

Yesterday morning, the Japanese news agency had reported that the level of radiation was 400 times more than the permissible rate, by evening it was "only" four times more.

Japan radiation - EPA - 15.3.2011

Meanwhile, there was another earthquake, again on the eastern coast, measuring 6.0 on the Richter Scale. Japanese TV broadcast it live from the scene as the earth shook for what seemed like forever, and the news anchor quickly donned his hard hat.

At the Hadaya sushi restaurant in Shibuya, Tokyo's entertainment district, diners merely glanced at the screen and went back to their meals. Not far away, in the villages of the north, hundreds of bodies were still being collected and half a million people were homeless, spending another night in a rescue facility, while the radioactive cloud threatened. But here, in Tokyo, they sit eating squid on a bed of rice. An outsider cannot understand it.

Still, Tokyo trembled yesterday, almost as much as during the huge quake, and great sadness ran through the relatively empty streets. Older residents said they could not remember ever seeing Shibuya so empty and dark at night; young people said they'd never seen so little traffic in the business district during the day.

The government's efforts to calm people down did not impress everyone. In the first few days after the disaster, they said there was no leak and no danger; yesterday every TV channel broadcast color-coded maps indicating danger zones, amazingly similar to Israel's Scud maps. Northern Japan was bright red and orange.

Still, people approached us in the street and asked if we needed anything. One kind lady took two cloth face masks out of her bag, the kind the Japanese wear even on ordinary days, and offered them to us.

We tucked them into our bags with a bow of thanks. If a mask won't help, it certainly won't hurt. Meanwhile, our cell phones rang constantly with worried and frightening calls and text messages from home. Another Japanese lady suggested we wear long sleeves to protect our skin, and yet another said we should stay inside our hotel, just in case.

What can the prime minister say?

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who has appeared daily on television wearing the same blue-gray earthquake uniform he has worn from the very start, also called on people to stay home, but only those within 30 kilometers of the reactors.

And what is a prime minister, whose face grows more grim with every press briefing, supposed to say? The thought of evacuating the capital of its tens of millions of inhabitants is one no horror film could ever imagine.

We noticed less passengers than usual on the subway, and at the Shinagawa central train station the lines were not especially long for the fast train to Osaka, the big city in southern Japan that could become a refuge for many.

At the airport, there were still some tickets available to get out of the country. One elderly Japanese man told my colleague Alex Levac, "there is no panic in Japan," while aggressively preventing him from snapping any photos that would libel his country. But people's faces as they watched the news broadcasts said it all - anxiety, albeit restrained.

Supermarket shelves emptied yesterday of fresh stock even more quickly, and at the few gas stations that were open, drivers who waited hours in line were limited to a purchase of 10 liters per car.

The head of Japan's central bank said he would gradually channel $60 billion into the economy to help it recover, as the Hang Seng Index continued to plummet - although it, too, was restrained.

Officials are now talking about $51 billion of direct damage and another $99 billion in indirect damage to the economy.

All the major industries, Sony, Canon, Nissan and Toyota, sharply curtailed their activities starting yesterday, either because employees cannot get to work or in an effort to save electricity.

Saving electricity

Japan, which built its first nuclear reactor as far back as 1966, now has to save electricity. Controlled blackouts have been shelved for the time being, when it was seen that electricity consumption decreased even without them.

The huge TV monitor in Shibuya's main square has been dark for the past few days now. Everyone knows that Japan's energy, one third of which is produced in nuclear reactors, will be scarce for many months, at least.

On the subway, as announcements rolled across the electronic message board about trains canceled because of blackouts or because of another little tremor, Lavida Fujiura, a Filipina married to a Japanese man who has lived in Tokyo for 18 years, asks us if we're not afraid. She says she prays every day that the tremors will end, and hopes that America will help Japan overcome the danger of radiation.

If the radiation grows worse, Fujiura says she and her taxi-driver husband will flee to Osaka. If it gets even worse, they'll go to the Philippines.

She also tells us that some 1,000 fellow Filipinos live in Sendai, the heart of the disaster, and have lost their homes.

One reactor has exploded during each of the past three days, and now everyone is looking at the reactors' steel flooring. If the flooring melts, nuclear fuel will spread in all directions - carrying with it with much more fear and danger than the day before. Tokyo went to bed last night more worried than at any time since World War II, since that nuclear explosion; a story whose end everyone already knows.