In Sendai, long lines of quiet desperation

March 15, 2011

Outside the Rigoletto Tapas Lounge, an eatery that normally offers fine wines and Spanish delicacies, the bourgeoisie of this quake-crippled northern Japanese city lined up for hours Monday.

The joint is now an upscale — and expensive — soup kitchen.

There were no beggars or homeless refugees here — just well-heeled, but still hungry, Japanese willing to pay nearly $20 for a paper cup of soup and a slice of tepid pizza.

In a city of 1 million that now has little electricity or gasoline and where nearly all restaurants and shops are closed, survival is ruled not by the law of the jungle but by the orderly rhythms of long lines.

There has been no surge of lawlessness in Sendai, the Japanese city hit hardest by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake on Friday, as there was in already crime-ridden Haiti after an earthquake last year. There was no exodus of terrified residents, as happened in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami.

But with roads blocked, supplies depleted and power scarce, even the most basic quest for food or supplies can turn into an hours-long odyssey.

The devastation along Sendai’s waterfront  — a narrow band of coastal territory that was leveled by a quake-generated tsunami — is catastrophic. Across an expanse of what used to be residences and factories stretches a smoke-covered vista of crunched cars, uprooted houses and shredded roads — all dotted with the debris of destroyed lives and businesses: a pink inflatable clothing dummy, a security guard’s blue hat with a gold badge, waterlogged school textbooks, mangled bicycles and mud-clogged stereo systems.

But, aside from the shattered plate-glass windows of a few auto showrooms, there is little evidence of physical damage in the center of Sendai. Nonetheless, the city is slowly seizing up.

One line on the subway system is still running, but trains to Tokyo and elsewhere have stopped. Green-uniformed railway employees stand in a neat line outside the now-sealed central station entrance, bowing politely to would-be passengers and explaining that “because of obstacles, there is no service. Very sorry. Please forgive us.”

It used to take just two hours to get to Tokyo on a fast train. It now requires a tortuous car journey that can last anywhere from 10 hours to twice the time.

The biggest problem with driving, however, is a crippling shortage of gasoline. Most of Sendai’s gas stations have closed. The few that are open have hundreds of cars waiting or are restricted to serving disaster ­relief vehicles. A Washington Post reporter had to drive for more than two hours Monday to find a station with gasoline, and even that one had a long line of waiting cars.

Early Tuesday, long lines of cars formed outside gas stations hours before opening. At Maeyachi, north of Sendai, one station said it had plenty of fuel - but couldn’t pump it because the electricity didn’t work.

With most food shops closed and others left with little more than bottles of vodka and whiskey on the shelves, ever-expanding lines are forming outside whichever markets do get fresh deliveries. At a 7-Eleven in eastern Sendai, staff members admitted customers into the store in small groups to avoid a crush, carefully counting the number leaving and entering. No one tried to jump the line.

Authorities, preoccupied with the radiation leaking from a nuclear plant down the coast and the suffering of people whose houses have been washed away, have brought little obvious relief to a city that is withering away even though it was largely spared physical mayhem.

“This may look normal but I can tell you it definitely isn’t,” said Masayoshi Funabasama, a civil engineer. With no electricity at home, he charges his phone from the cigarette lighter in his car. To keep the car running, he got up before dawn Tuesday to hunt for gas with his daughter.

He faulted the government for not doing enough to restore basic service but is not about to vent his anger: “We know we must be patient.”

On the road into Sendai on Monday morning, there were no convoys of trucks carrying supplies or tankers bearing gasoline — only a long cavalcade of ambulances and firetrucks racing south, their sirens blaring, out of the area.

A fashionable young man waiting for soup and pizza Monday said he spends much of his day lining up. “We do nothing but wait,” he said.

Even charging his mobile phone, that indispensable accessory of modern life, requires standing in a long line reminiscent of bread queues in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

The center of Sendai is now dotted with specially designated charging areas — tables equipped with power cables and electrical sockets.

Again, no one ever seems to cut in line.

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