I left Tokyo a week ago amidst growing uncertainty, with a single pair of clothes and a small pack of personal items. It’s hard leaving a city you love, even temporarily; but I was fortunate to be able to depart on my own terms.
After a week in Osaka watching events unfold from afar, I decided to catch a bus back to Tokyo on Tuesday night. Despite assurances from friends who had remained in the capital, I was uncertain what version of Tokyo I was returning to.
As we entered greater Tokyo, the bus bounced as a brief earthquake threatened to buck us all from our seats. Thankfully we arrived in Shinagawa without receiving further aftershocks, and upon a damp sidewalk I walked towards home. Passing through the train station, I heard announcements of service disruptions, as workers, in waves of black and grey, swept past.
In the street, the world buzzed and hummed with all its usual life, and further beyond in my quiet pocket of neighbourhood; tiny streets fluttered with morning activity.
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As work at the Fukushima Power Plant progresses, much focus has shifted to the possibility of widespread contamination to Japan’s food and water supplies. Recent announcements of test results showing increased levels of radioactivity have caused concern and although the government have placed emphasis on “no immediate health risks”, the constant repetition of this phrase has provided little reassurance.
As I observed activity within my local supermarket, uncertainty could be seen influencing consumer behaviour. Early last week, a combination of panic buying and the diversion of resources to Tohoku left many shelves abruptly bare. Since that time, stocks have been at least partially replenished, with the intermittent gaps on the shelves marked with various messages including apologies for shortages, reassurances of refrigeration and restrictions for individual persons. Even as night fell, there appeared to be at least sparse quantities of essential items, with the exception of bottled water.
In the drinks section, only a shadow remained where bottles of water had been on sale just that morning. The earlier announcement by the government that radioactive iodine had been detected in the city’s water supply had resulted in people rushing to purchase what they could. In the absence of bottled water, I watched several people consider alternatives, as a lady closely inspected the cap seal, and expiry date of an oversized bottle of tea before placing it in her basket.
Similar to last week, customers baskets were filled with instant noodle bowls, packaged bakery goods and pre-made meals, although people were now refraining from bulk purchases. Those that I saw in the fresh food section were thorough, and slow in their inspection of fruit and vegetables, checking their origin before deciding to purchase.
The earthquake of March 11, subsequent aftershocks and uncertainty relating to the power, gas and water supply has forced many people to reconsider their dependence on readily available food. Previously, I had the luxury of keeping minimal food at home, and shopping for produce daily at one of the stores within walking distance from my house. I’ve now joined a growing number of Tokyo people who are keeping a mix of fresh and preserved produce, as well as water at home, in quantities that allow a small surplus to be kept in case of emergency.
Whilst selecting some canned vegetables, I noticed near the far corner of the supermarket a small stereo playing the children’s song Medaka no Gakkou (“a school of killifish”) loudly. The three simple verses played over and over from the speakers, young voices telling the story of a group of fish playing happily together in a stream. As people rushed about, and staff hustled past with boxes of new stock; the soft, hymn-like verses provided some warmth, some hope to the evening.
In Tokyo, uncertainty remains, and challenges continue to arise, but there is an underlying feeling of collective hope amongst those who remain.