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Aftershocks keep Japanese in fear that another ‘Big One’ is coming

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TOKYO — This modern city stands improbably intact 10 days after the largest earthquake in Japan’s history, but many residents are still deeply rattled.

It’s hard to forget. The shaking hasn’t stopped. More than 250 aftershocks larger than magnitude 5.0 were recorded in the region in the seven days after the March 11 temblor, including three above magnitude 7.0. In tea houses and on Twitter, many worry that another “big one” is coming.

“We can never quite relax,” said Keisuke Okayasu, a systems engineer who spent Sunday afternoon at a hardware store with his girlfriend sorting through a ravaged table of disaster supplies so they could update their emergency kit.

For those who grew up in the Pacific Ring of Fire, atop colliding continental plates, the Earth’s shudders and shifts are intimately familiar. “Earthquakes are like rain,” Okayasu said.

But the quake that bent skyscrapers and sent people bolting into stairwells was different. It was scarier. And for many, the earthquake safety tips taught from elementary school on have suddenly taken on a new relevance as they prepare mentally and physically for another major quake.

Okayasu went to the hardware store to buy a flashlight and a radio, but they were sold out. He left with a $90 water filter that can make “even muddy water drinkable,” he said.

Around the world, news of the quake was overshadowed by the resulting 23-foot tsunami and a mounting nuclear crisis. In Tokyo, too, anxieties are not isolated to earthquakes: Millions of people have logged on to monitor Geiger counter radiation readings from across the city that are posted daily on news sites and streamed in real time. But 150 miles south of quake-crippled nuclear reactors, radiation levels have been low, while the repeated jolts from the Earth’s shifting crust have been a vivid reminder of mortality.

Across Tokyo, people are emptying store shelves of batteries and rice and storing gallons of water in their bathrooms, just in case. More people are commuting by bicycle instead of taking the subway, which stalled March 11. Some are carrying helmets to protect against falling objects.

Okayasu’s shoe-designer girlfriend, Chihiro Osada, stopped wearing high heels, in case she needs to walk miles to get home. The couple now sleeps with the bedroom door ajar, so it doesn’t jam if the walls shift. And they downloaded a free iPhone application called Yure Kuru — which means “tremor coming” — that is supposed to sound an alarm in advance of a quake. They said service has been spotty. The application’s Web site attributes the irregularities to an increase in users.

Seismologists say it’s impossible to predict where earthquakes will occur. But rumors and speculation abound about where the big temblor will occur and whether the massive shift in the Pacific plate could incite an earthquake along a fault directly under Tokyo. The epicenter for the March 11 quake was 230 miles northeast of the city.

Dark predictions have even spawned a twisted kind of humor. Friends at restaurants urge one another: “Enjoy your sashimi. It may be your last!” They part ways with: “This may be the last time we see each other.”

During the day, Hiromi Yaku, 27, a saleswoman at an interior decorating store, carries a backpack filled with food and water, as well as her cellphone charger and an umbrella. At night, while the city’s blazing billboards are turned off to save energy, she sleeps with her lights on. In the dark, her body and mind automatically search for the slightest hint of a movement.

“I feel quake-drunk,” she said. “There are so many now that I feel it even when they are not happening.”

The anticipation is more tiring than terrifying, said Sara Falchi, a teacher from Italy and a scholar of Japanese culture who has lived in Tokyo for more than a decade. She watched in dismay as many foreign residents left at their embassy’s urging and said she did not want to be driven out by panic. “I’m trying to be cool,” she said from a cafe table where she had settled in to read. “But I still feel the pressure.”

Fashion stylist Fukazawa Yata, 27, said he also tries to remain calm. He hasn’t rushed to stock the perfect earthquake-preparedness kit, and he doesn’t think you can control something that’s out of control.

“If the big one comes, then it’s the end of the world. That’s my thinking. Rather than living with fear, I say, ‘So be it,’ ” he said.

Still, he can’t avoid every nagging fear.

As he sat down for sake with his friend Sunday night, the thought of his dog alone in his apartment crossed his mind. If the big one comes now, what will happen to him?

“I know it’s a risk,” he said.

Special correspondent Tetsuya Kato contributed to this report.

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