With city hall under water, phones dead and his superiors tending to their own private agonies, Chikara Abe faced a bureaucrat’s nightmare: “Everything is in chaos. I don’t get any orders,” said the local government official.
Fed up with waiting for instructions, Abe offered his services to a group of teachers who have stepped in to help fill a void left by the breakdown of one of the world’s most capable and usually omnipresent government bureaucracies.
Since a 9.0-magnitude quake Friday, Japan’s machinery of state has been swamped by a cascade of crises: a tsunami that wiped towns and village off the map; an out-of-control nuclear power plant that has put the entire country on edge; and shortages of food, power and gasoline that have left the northern part of one of Asia’s richest nations with the miseries of the world’s paupers.
Authorities have hardly been idle. But in places such as Ishinomaki , a town on Japan’s northeast coast now half-submerged in water, many are asking what happened to the country’s much-vaunted flair for organization.
Unlike victims of earthquakes in Haiti, Indonesia or China, those suffering in Japan expect their government to work and can’t understand why a country as affluent as theirs can’t keep gasoline, the lifeblood of a modern economy, flowing and why towns across the northeast have been plunged into frigid darkness for five days.
“I never expected anything like this in modern Japan. It is like fiction,” said Yutaka Iwasawa, a 25-year-old forklift operator. With the first floor of his house under water, he and his family huddle on the second floor. They go to bed as soon as the sun goes down because it is too cold and damp to do anything else.
The military, which has mobilized 100,000 troops for relief work, delivers water in stricken areas, hunts for bodies and has flown risky missions to dump water on a nuclear power plant belching radioactive smoke. In Ishinomaki, soldiers operate from a baseball stadium on dry land.
But the state, overwhelmed by problems, has abdicated some of its most basic duties, some say. “The government is not doing anything. They are not present here,” said Akase Hiroyuki, the principal of Ishinomaki’s Nakazato Primary School. Along with 20 of his teaching staff, he runs a shelter for 1,200 people left homeless and hungry by the tsunami. Classrooms serve as dormitories, and the school’s gymnasium has become a food-distribution center.
When Emperor Akihito made a rare television address on Wednesday, his soothing words were not heard in Ishinomaki: No one has watched TV since power failed Friday.
Foreign governments and charities have pledged money and sent a few rescue teams to Japan, but fear of exposure to radiation and uncertainty over what they can accomplish has limited their role. A German medical aid group pulled out after barely 24 hours in Japan.
China has trumpeted the work of a 15-man rescue team it sent Sunday to assist its former archenemy and current rival. The U.S. Marine Corps made its own highly publicized but minuscule contribution Wednesday: It delivered a few pallets of bottled water.
What riles Japanese, though, is the seeming inability of their government to get a grip on the scale of a disaster that has left about 450,000 people without homes, left thousands still uncounted for and snatched away the certainties by which tens of millions had lived their lives.
Masayoshi Funabasama, a civil engineer who lives near Ishinomaki in an area not damaged by the tsunami, fumed at official assurances that there is no need for alarm. He got up before dawn to go hunting for gasoline. “Things may look normal, but I can assure you nothing is normal,” he said. “We have no fuel, no water, no food, and we have children to take care of.”
At the refugee center at Ishinomaki’s primary school, Abe, the government worker in search of orders and order, has been put to work at a registration desk for survivors seeking shelter. It posts their names on blackboards — a vital service for people who are looking for lost family members and friends.
“To be honest, I don’t do much,” he said.“The teachers are doing most of the work.”
Katsuyoshi Hiyasaka, a scrap-metal worker, took shelter at the school with his wife, a cleaner, after their house was flooded. He is still wearing the work uniform he had on when he fled. His workplace has vanished beneath the muddy lake that covers the town center.
Asked what officials are doing to help, he laughed and said: “I’ve been looking for them, but I haven’t seen them yet.”
The food provided by the teachers comes mostly from private donors, although the local government provided a now-exhausted supply of instant noodles. No one here is starving, but reliance on random gifts from shops and local farmers has produced a bizarre menu that mixes strawberries and sugared crackers, bananas and bars of chocolate.
Supplies are running low, and daily rations have been cut. Hiyasaka, the scrap worker, said he used to watch TV coverage of natural disasters in Haiti and other impoverished countries and was shocked by the chaos.
Even Japanese order has a breaking point, he said. “The less food there is and the more strain there is, patience will run out. I don’t know what will happen.”