Thriving metropolis or ghost town? Crisis transforms Tokyo

TOKYO Wed Mar 16, 2011 7:22am EDT

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

People shop for food from almost empty shelves at a big-box supermarket in Tokyo March 16, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Issei Kato

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, most dynamic 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 hour outside an office tower where he usually finds customers within minutes. "I can't make money today. It's also very windy and that is making people more worried about radiation."

Such worries are misplaced, for now. Wind over the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant is gusting out to sea and even the strongest radiation recorded in Tokyo on Tuesday -- triple the normal levels -- was no threat to human health.

At its worst, radiation in Tokyo reached 0.809 microsieverts per hour on Tuesday after a hydrogen explosion at the plant. That's 10 times below what a person would receive if exposed to a dental x-ray for an entire hour.

And for Wednesday, radiation was barely above average.

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 week'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."

A number of major events have been canceled, including the World Figure Skating Championships, Japan Fashion Week and the Tokyo International Anime Fair whose organizers cited "extreme circumstances" based on uncertainties about power supply and accessibility.

EMPTY RESTAURANTS, SHOPS

Foreign bankers, flush with money, are fleeing fast, scrambling for commercial and charter flights to other major cities in the region. BNP Paribas, Standard Chartered and Morgan Stanley were among banks whose staff have left since Friday's earthquake and tsunami, according to industry sources.

Thousands of people desperate to escape the crisis have inundated private jet companies with requests for evacuation flights, sending prices surging.

"I got a request yesterday to fly 14 people from Tokyo to Hong Kong... they did not care about price," said Jackie Wu, chief operations officer at Hong Kong Jet, a newly established private jet subsidiary of China's HNA Group.

Electronics shops are selling out of small, portable Geiger counters that measure radiation. Strawberry Linux, a Tokyo-based company that sells them, has run out of stock, said its owner, Masahiro Ochiai.

Some areas of Tokyo were hit by rolling blackouts and reduced train services as the nuclear plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co, struggled to offset a drop in power capacity.

At Sony Corp's headquarters in Tokyo's Shinagawa district, only 120 staff of the usual 6,000 were working. Staff were told to stay at home as much as possible due to difficulties with train transportation, said Sony spokeswoman Mami Imada.

In Akasaka, packed with office workers, sushi restaurants and noodle shops, streets were quiet even into the night when the area transforms into a neon-lit entertainment district.

"Akasaka has been dead quiet since the quake. We should be thankful we are alive but if this continues, the economy will be a disaster," said Akihiro Sumitani, owner of a shop that sells kitchen utensils.

"I seriously worry how many shops can survive as basically most shops in this area are small and have difficulty borrowing money from banks."

People stocked up food, milk and other supplies, emptying some shelves at convenience stores and supermarkets. Some residents towed suitcases. Many showed up at nearby airports without tickets, hoping to book flights out of Tokyo.

"I see many female customers who worry about the spread of radiation," said Senichiro Negishi, a 69-year-old taxi driver.

Anthony Blick, an expatriate in Tokyo working from home since the earthquake, said he would prefer to leave.

"I'm worried about the nuclear reactors in Fukushima. There's a lot of information out there but unfortunately a lot of it is conflicting. Ideally, I would like to get out of Japan but that isn't practical at the moment."

Many schools were closed, but one mother interviewed outside an open kindergarten said she preferred her children stayed at school.

"I want them to do everything that we are allowed to do as long as it is safe," she said. "If I show them that I'm nervous, my children will get nervous."

(Writing by Jason Szep; Additional reporting by Ami Miyazaki, Chris Gallagher, Isabel Reynolds, Mayumi Negishi and Elaine Lies)

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