View From Tokyo: Japanese Try to Go on With Daily Life ‘as Best They Can’

BY Larisa Epatko  March 17, 2011 at 1:15 PM EST


Checking radiation levels of an evacuee of the Fukushima vicinity in Japan (Ken Shimizu/AFP/Getty Images)

In Japan, foreign governments are evacuating their citizens from the area of the Fukushima nuclear plant, as the Japanese military works to douse the facility with tons of water to prevent a nuclear reactor meltdown.

Faced with the growing nuclear threat and continuing aftershocks from a massive March 11 earthquake, people in Japan are continuing to go about their daily routines, said Justin McCurry, GlobalPost correspondent in Tokyo.

“I’ve lived here for a long time and I’m impressed by the way in which people are trying to go about their ordinary business,” he told us by phone. “They’re not panicking; they’re being very stoic about it. They’re putting as much trust in the authorities as you can reasonably expect. Nobody wants to believe that Tokyo Electric Power and the government are running out of ideas, though to some it seems that it’s heading that way.”

At the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, all six of the reactors damaged by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami have problems in their cooling systems. About 200 workers inside the complex are taking shifts of about 50 people at a time to keep pumping seawater to the reactors. In addition, military helicopters have dumped tons of seawater on top of one reactor to cool it down and start to refill the storage pool.

The Japanese government has evacuated about 70,000 people who live in a 12-mile perimeter of the plant, and told those in a 19-mile radius to stay indoors. The United States, Britain and France have advised their citizens living in a much larger radius — 50 miles — to evacuate the area, sending aircraft to help them leave.

Japanese citizens view their government’s actions with a mixture of approval and frustration at how long it takes to get accurate information to the public, said McCurry, but some also are criticizing the foreign governments for overreacting.

“I’ve spoken to people who seem to have confidence in the ability of the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Co. and now the Defense Ministry to bring the situation under control,” he said. “But there are others who have expressed frustration that sometimes the information coming from the government and from Tokyo Electric Power is contradictory or late in getting through to the public. People don’t know what to do unless they have all the facts at their disposal.”

Meanwhile, a steady stream of foreign nationals is departing Japan for Singapore, Australia and other parts of Asia. Japanese families are traveling to other parts of the country they deem safer, but it’s more because of a sense of weariness, rather than panic — at least for now, said McCurry.

“I think people’s nerves are frayed, and that’s probably part of the reason why quite a few people are leaving Tokyo — not because they fear nuclear meltdown, but because life in the city isn’t much fun at the moment and they need a break. And if they’ve got relatives elsewhere in Japan, what’s wrong with going and spending a few days with them?”

In the tsunami-hit area of northeastern Japan, however, the situation is more dire. Electricity and telecommunications are still down in many places, and there’s an acute shortage of certain types of food, including rice, milk, other staples and water, McCurry said.

Medical workers on the ground are complaining of a shortage of essential medical items, such as painkillers and prescription drugs, he continued. Many of the hundreds of thousands of people who are living in evacuation centers are elderly, and if they managed to take their prescription drugs with them at all, they’re now beginning to run out.

Residents in the Tokyo area are being asked to conserve energy because of the damaged power plants, oil refineries and closed ports, making importing fuel difficult. Rolling blackouts are expected through April.

People have one eye on the television watching developments from the northeast and Fukushima, McCurry said. They’re physically tired and psychologically exhausted from the relentless bad news and continued aftershocks — but still no panic.

“There is a certain mindset that I think develops naturally among people who live in a country that’s — although it’s never seen anything on this scale in modern times — is used to natural disasters, typhoons, earthquakes, volcanoes. And they just try to get on with life as best they can.”

McCurry has been reporting on the government response and scope of the disaster.

His colleague, Michael Condon, also is reporting on Tokyo residents’ concern over the nuclear threat. Watch his narrated slide show:

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