Search for food numbs Japan’s nuclear anxiety

March 19, 2011

Five of her relatives are confirmed dead, and others are missing; her leg is battered from a frantic flight to higher ground; her home lies just a few dozen miles from a haywire nuclear power plant burping radiation into the air.

On Saturday, however, Keiko Oikawa could barely contain her joy. “I’m so lucky, really, really lucky,” the ecstatic housewife said. The source of her glee: 10 fresh eggs in a crumpled cardboard box.

“I can’t believe my luck,” said Oikawa, explaining that she’d stumbled on a farmer selling eggs while hunting for somewhere to charge her mobile phone. She doesn’t have any electricity at home.

Eight days after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake sent a merciless wall of water crashing onto Japan’s northeastern coast, a city once noted for its jazz festival and expansive joie de vivre is reduced to foraging for basic necessities.

The descent of a vibrant metropolis toward a state of simple survival has helped numb the population to a further agony. Many here are too preoccupied with day-to-day needs to focus on unseen dangers leaking from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant down the coast.

“Instead of worrying about things I can’t see, I worry about things I can see,” said Oikawa, showing off her newly purchased eggs.

As the major city nearest the crippled power station, Sendai is not blasé about the potential risk, just distracted. Weather reports on television are watched anxiously to see which way the winds will be blowing — and which way radioactive material might travel in the event of Chernobyl-style catastrophe. Saturday was a beautiful sunny day with cloudless skies, but blustery winds kept shifting.

The southern outskirts of Sendai lie within a 50-mile zone that the United States has advised its citizens to avoid because of the radiation risk, but “we worry about food, about getting stuff to put in our mouths,” said Yuji Sugawara, a steelworker who, with his wife, has taken refuge in a shelter providing regular meals.

Japan has declared a more-limited 20-mile evacuation zone, and Sugawara is alarmed by what he sees as his government’s obfuscations. “I can’t trust them anymore. All we need is accurate information,” he said.

But he spends far more energy worrying about when he and his wife will be able to move back into their waterlogged home and what they’ll do for food when they do. Most shops, their stocks exhausted, shut down days ago.

“Batteries, candles, mobile phone chargers, food and anything edible are all sold out,” reads a handwritten sign on the shuttered doors of Sunkus, a Japanese chain of convenience stores.

Without power or gas for trucks, the city’s government-run abattoir, which used to slaughter up to 200 cows and 900 pigs a day, hasn’t killed an animal for eight days. Everyone is “very concerned by what they will have to eat,” said the abattoir’s chief, Jun’ichi Sato, who lost his house to the tsunami and now lives with an uncle, along with his wife and seven other homeless relatives. Sato has two sets of clothes: a suit he was wearing for a business meeting when the tsunami struck and his slaughterhouse uniform.

Trained as a physicist, he described radiation risk as “no big deal” because levels so far are not that high. But, he added, if efforts to regain control of the six-reactor complex south of the city fail, “I’ll be worried too.”

Long lines on Saturday snaked from the Don Quixote supermarket and other stores that still had something to sell. A desperate shortage of gasoline has left the city’s wide, clean boulevards eerily empty of traffic.

But authorities have managed to halt some of the rot, at least in parts of the city pulverized by the tsunami. Crunched cars that earlier in the week lay scattered across a wasteland of flattened buildings have been moved and placed in neat lines by the side of roads swept free of rubble.

Electricity and water supplies are slowly being restored. Phones are mostly back up. To speed deliveries of food and other supplies, a four-lane toll highway leading west to the city of Niigata is closed to all but emergency convoys and the vehicles of Japan’s Self-Defense Force, which has borne the brunt of relief efforts.

Local television, meanwhile, tries to lift spirits by broadcasting the names of people who survived the tsunami and have taken refuge in shelters. But the death toll continues to mount. Nationwide more than 7,000 people are now confirmed dead, and nearly 11,000 have been reported missing. The bulk of these lived in Miyagi prefecture, of which Sendai is the capital.

Oikawa, the woman who managed to buy eggs, said she feared the worst for her own missing relatives, who lived north of Sendai in a coastal town that took a particularly brutal blow. Exhausted by worry and the daily struggle to find food she said: “I wish I were a bird and could fly away from all this.”

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