Thriving metropolis or ghost town? Crisis transforms Tokyo

Wed Mar 16, 2011 9:33am EDT
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By Jason Szep and Mariko Katsumura

TOKYO (Reuters) - Areas of Tokyo usually packed with office workers crammed into sushi restaurants and noodle shops were eerily quiet. Many schools were closed. Companies allowed workers to stay home. Long queues formed at airports.

As Japanese authorities struggled to avert disaster at an earthquake-battered nuclear complex 240 km (150 miles) to the north, parts of Tokyo resembled a ghost town.

Many stocked up on food and stayed indoors or simply left, transforming one of the world's biggest and densely populated cities into a shell of its usual self.

"Look, it's like Sunday -- no cars in town," said Kazushi Arisawa, a 62-year-old taxi driver as he waited for more than an hour outside an office tower where he usually finds customers within minutes. "I can't make money today."

Radiation in Tokyo has been negligible, briefly touching three times the normal rate Tuesday, smaller than a dental x-ray. Wednesday, winds over the Fukushima nuclear-power plant gusted out to sea, keeping levels close to normal.

But that does little to allay public anxiety about an ailing 40-year-old nuclear complex with three reactors in partial meltdown and a fourth with spent atomic fuel exposed to the atmosphere after last Friday's earthquake and tsunami.

"Radiation moves faster than we do," said Steven Swanson, a 43-year-old American who moved to Tokyo in December with his Japanese wife to help with her family business.

He is staying indoors but is tempted to leave. "It's scary. It's a triple threat with the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear radiation leaks. It makes you wonder what's next."   Continued...

<p>People shop for food from almost empty shelves at a big-box supermarket in Tokyo March 16, 2011. REUTERS/Issei Kato</p>