Tokyo Locals Keep Calm as Foreigners Panic

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The city carries on stoically, with one eye on Twitter


TOKYO, Japan -- After Friday's massive earthquake, there are two Tokyos. One, as shown on international network news, is a city under siege, downstream from the imminent threat of nuclear wind; the other, as seen from its streets, is a capital putting on a convincing display of dispassionate normality.

Scratching the surface reveals confusion and anxiety -- in both locals and foreigners -- about which Tokyo to believe.

On Monday, I traveled to the historic Ueno district of Tokyo in search of one of the rolling blackouts scheduled to ease the national power grid, strained by nuclear plant shutdowns. I expected fear, possibly panic, or at least anxiety. Instead, I found game parlors, computer stores and restaurants in full swing, and ongoing speculation about when, and how, blackouts would occur. Would they be voluntary? Or would the government pull the plug? Whatever the case, nothing was stopping the shopping and the eating, though the district was more quiet than usual.

Maki Kato, a 23-year-old flight crew member on a Chinese airline, was among those patiently waiting for train service. "I just wanted to get the train home to Narita to see my family," she said, wheelie bag in tow, about to join a growing line of around 2000 people snaking through Ueno park to board a fast train service out of Tokyo -- the most orderly and quiet queue I've ever seen.

Maki, like other people I spoke to, doubted the accuracy of information broadcast on TV, suspecting that the government isn't telling her everything about the nuclear threat. "I feel like I don't know enough about Fukishima. We want more information. They have to be more clear, they're so changeable every time they present information," she said. "I think the government has made some changes to the information before telling us."

Kohei Onishi, 21, a political science student from Tokyo, watched new coverage on a big-screen TV screen playing at Ueno station. He said he took the government's word at face value. "I think the government is reporting the situation as well as they can," he said. "So I trust the government."

Even so, he's following more than just press conferences and official information. "I rely on Twitter. Twitter is now a very good information source," he said, pulling out his mobile to show me the steady stream of tweets. It's rare to see anyone on the street in Tokyo who is not staring into the small screen of a phone, seeking news, then sending it around like a commodity in high demand, low supply.

Kohei, like Maki, worried about another earthquake's impact on an already faltering city. "Trains will stop, and it will be harder to bring food and water to victims north in Miyagi," he said.

He claimed he'd already seen shortages of bottled water in stores, though I personally found store shelves to be plentiful. He warned, "we should buy water as soon as possible".

The foreigners I spoke to were unanimously worried -- far more so than the natives -- and making plans to get out, A 46-year-old Australian medical technician from Melbourne named Pauline Clarkson, traveling with her 18-year-old daughter Madison, had moved up their flight out of the country.

"The news here has been denying, denying, denying," she said. "Locals, they've been really calm but I don't think they know what's going on. Seriously. There's been absolutely no reaction at all out in the street," she said, pointing around her to the busy stalls under the trainline.

The locals' curiously calm behavior at Ueno and elsewhere in Tokyo has given foreigners like Clarkson the understandable, but ultimately wrong, impression that Japanese people are cold, even indifferent. There are all the expected moments of laughter, nervousness, and helpfulness. But whether or not there's any truth to the stereotype of Tokyoites as civilized, techno-centrist stoics, it's a useful shield for getting through the day.

"I don't think the Japanese are letting on the extent of the damage. We're getting better reports from you journalists back home," Clarkson said. "My main concern is a meltdown, an explosion, and you just don't want to be here, you know? Even though we're at a distance away, they're saying a breeze can bring it across Tokyo, and for my kids' sake I feel like it's time to go home".

Some are fed up with the confusion. Alberto Suarez De Buga Hulser, a 28-year-old from Spain, was waiting for the fast train to Narita after an all-day scramble to arrange travel out of Tokyo. He looked tired.

"I don't feel really safe here," he said, despairingly. "Here, the information isn't very clear." He said that international and local news reports often contradict; he's annoyed with having to guess which is accurate. The only safe answer, he said, is to leave. As for where to, he's on several waiting lists to several destinations. Anywhere but here.

Geri Bills, a broad-smiling mother from North Carolina, travelling with her two college-aged boys, had one positive spin. She said: "I think about the reaction to Katrina, compared to here. During an earthquake, we'd rather be here than in America."

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James West is the editor and producer of The Climate Desk, a collaboration among The Atlantic, the Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, Mother Jones, Slate, Wired, and PBS. He is the author of Beijing Blur.

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