As it struggles to gain control of a nuclear crisis and feed and shelter the thousands of people left homeless by last week’s devastating tsunami, the Japanese Government is facing a growing chorus of criticism for its handling of the catastrophe.
Amid vociferous unease in the Japanese media at the apparent lack of progress in providing people in the devastated northeast with the bare essentials they need to survive, the Governor of Fukushima prefecture, Yuhei Sato, has voiced frustration at shortages that were slowing evacuations.
“Anxiety and anger felt by people have reached boiling point,” he said.
He warned that evacuation centres did not have enough hot meals, medical supplies or petrol. “We’re lacking everything.”
But the sharpest reproach for the Government was visible in the northeast yesterday. With lines for food stretching six city blocks, temperatures below freezing in many places and snow further hampering relief efforts, people in the region are struggling with shortages of necessities that the Government appears unable to supply.
After the earthquake and tsunami, when the attention of the authorities was focused on rescue efforts and trying to save as many people as possible, it would have been understandable if the supply of basic commodities had been interrupted.
But a week later, and with it still impossible to buy a bottle of water in a city just five hours’ drive from Tokyo, people are beginning to wonder what is happening.
In many cases the absence of fresh water, electricity and gas is adding to the misery. The Government has so far given no explanation.
“It took me 10 hours to queue up to get petrol. And then each person was only allowed 10 litres. Nobody there was able to give me any information,” said Ota, 45, an office worker from Sendai.
He said a friend had told him that when he visited a store and bought some snacks, he was charged “100 times” the usual amount.
The shortage of supplies has not triggered panic. People queuing to get into the few shops that are open do so calmly and efficiently.
“I had to get in line for an hour. Then there was no milk, no bread. People were allowed two snacks each and one tin of food,” said Tsugitaka Chiba, an engineer. “In my neighbourhood, people have been giving food away. There’s just no information about the resupply of the shops.”
But large parts of Sendai do have electricity and water. In towns and villages closer to the coast there is no electricity and often no fresh water.
There is also precious little to eat – a primary school in the town of Higashi Matsushima turned into an emergency shelter for several hundred people had only boxes of instant noodles and a communal kitchen serving miso soup.
How long the supplies would last was unclear. There are similar reports from communities all along the coast.
People are juggling contrasting instincts to flee to somewhere safe and to display a strong spirit and not to show any fear. In Japan, the latter is called ‘Yamato-Damashii’ or Japanese spirit and it has been on people’s lips a lot in recent days.
“It’s a traditional thing in Japan, like Bushido – the Samurai spirit. It’s from ancient times,” said businesswoman Hiroko Yamamoto. “I think it’s in our DNA. It’s an unconscious thing. It’s passed on by our parents.”
Yamamoto said that since the tsunami struck she had been impressed by how her neighbours had reached out to each other. “We have become very friendly.”