ATM glitches, power outages jolt stressed Tokyo

TOKYO Thu Mar 17, 2011 9:33am EDT

Lights are turned off to save energy before rolling blackouts in Tokyo, March 17, 2011. REUTERS/Kyodo

Lights are turned off to save energy before rolling blackouts in Tokyo, March 17, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Kyodo

TOKYO (Reuters)- Malfunctioning bank machines and threats of power outages on Thursday jolted a stressed Tokyo where millions stocked up on rice and other essentials, stayed indoors or crowded into airports during Japan's nuclear crisis.

Flurries of transactions at some Mizuho Bank branches abruptly shut thousands of automated teller machines and the government warned of major blackouts, adding to the disorder of a city that thrives on precision and efficiency.

As authorities struggle to avert catastrophe at a crippled nuclear-power complex 240 km (150 miles) to the north, Tokyo faced a test of nerves almost a week after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck.

Some residents are leaving, some are applying for passports or hoarding what they can -- from food to cash and gold, a safe haven during times of crisis. Premiums for gold bars rose to as much as $2 an ounce in Tokyo.

At the second-floor office of the Tokyo Passport Center in the city's Yurakucho district, queues snaked to the first floor.

"We don't know the reason but suddenly since yesterday we have had 1.5 times more people than usual coming to apply for a passport or to enquire about getting one," said Shigeaki Ohashi, an official at the passport center.

Areas usually packed with office workers crammed into sushi restaurants and noodle shops have gone quiet. Many schools are closed. Companies have allowed workers to stay home and voluntarily cut power usage, submerging parts of the typically neon-lit city in darkness.

Trade Minister Banri Kaieda said unexpected, large-scale power outages were possible but unlikely as an unusually crisp, pink sunset bathed the city.

Mizuho said its troubles were due to a concentration of transactions at some unidentified branches.

The ATMs went down for about two hours in the morning, and failed again in the evening. Customers also could not make foreign currency withdrawals and other transactions.

Outside a Mizuho branch in Tokyo's Akasaka district, six staff stood in the cold winter air apologizing to customers.

"This taught me a lesson that I have to have at least some amount of cash with me," said Hiromi Sugita, a 42-year-old insurance agent as she left the branch.

Mizuho shares closed down 1.46 percent against a 1.8 percent fall in the benchmark Nikkei 225 average.

BUSY AIRPORTS, QUIET STREETS

Many people have stocked up food, milk and rice, emptying some shelves at supermarkets. Thousands have showed up at nearby airports without tickets, hoping to book flights out.

"Life and health are the priority over cost in doing this, so I'm escaping Japan even though I don't feel like it," said La Ha-Na, a South Korean student living in Tokyo.

Television showed busloads of people leaving the city.

On Thursday, the U.S. Embassy urged citizens living within 80 km (50 miles) of the stricken nuclear-power plant to evacuate or remain indoors "as a precaution," while Britain's foreign office urged citizens "to consider leaving the area."

Some countries have gone further, urging their nationals to leave the country. The United States is chartering planes to help Americans get out.

The black letters spelling out "sortie" (exit) at the bottom of a white board at Narita airport near Tokyo summed up the French response to the crisis as thousands of French left in an evacuation organized by the French embassy from Japan's biggest airport.

(Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Nick Macfie)