An escalating nuclear emergency has caused panic among stock traders, triggered evacuation orders from foreign companies and generated a deep sense of unease among millions of residents concerned about radiation exposure.
One catastrophe alone would have been overwhelming. But since Friday, Japan has been hit by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a shoreline-crushing tsunami and an evolving crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. A separate 6.4-magnitude earthquake — not an aftershock, according to the U.S. Geological Survey — struck 55 miles south of Tokyo late Tuesday, shaking buildings, interrupting train service and briefly closing highways.
The pileup of disasters has multiplied the complications. On Tuesday, radiation leakage prompted mass evacuations and a no-fly zone around the Fukushima nuclear facility. Malfunctioning plants have left the country with an energy shortage, leading to power outages at some shelters even as the weather has turned colder. The stock market plunged more than 10 percent Tuesday.
Across the upper half of Japan’s main Honshu Island, life is either in tatters or at a standstill. Energy-cutting efforts by companies and train lines have slowed the pace of business in greater Tokyo, where roughly a quarter of the country’s population is concentrated. Many people are choosing to stay indoors or are leaving only to buy groceries, on the thin chance that there is a stock of milk or rice.
Along the coast, the damage is more acute, and 6,000 people are officially confirmed as dead or missing, according to the police tally. The latest death toll stands at 3,373. Officials in Miyagi prefecture estimate that at least 10,000 of its 2.3 million citizens were killed by the quake and tsunami.
Hospitals, short of medicine and supplies, are struggling to treat seriously injured or ill patients, and overwhelmed local officials have not been able to secure enough space for morgues and coffins. The continuing blackout has made it impossible to create dry ice to pack bodies. About 500,000 people in Japan have been displaced or evacuated.
Amid the turmoil, Prime Minister Naoto Kan has asked for calm, and there has been no mass exodus of Tokyo residents to more western cities such as Osaka and Kyoto. Bullet trains have available seats, and rail platforms are no more crowded than usual.
Still, some foreign companies and embassies have decided that parts of Japan have become too dangerous. Austria relocated its embassy from Tokyo to Osaka. The Chinese Embassy in Tokyo said it was evacuating its citizens from the regions closest to Fukushima. Foreign airlines in China and Taiwan said they will cut back on flights.