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Hungry victims fend for themselves in humiliatingly grim battle to survive

In the sludge-filled gutters of their ravaged towns, families are forced to scavenge for vital supplies as Japan's renowned social fabric begins to break down. Peter Foster reports from Ichinomaki

Published 19/03/2011 | 08:45

The unshaven man in a tracksuit stops his bicycle on the roadside and glances over his shoulder to check that he is unobserved. Satisfied, he reaches quickly into the sludge-filled gutter, picks up a discarded ready-meal and stuffs it into a plastic carrier bag.

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In another time, another place, Kazuhiro Takahashi could be taken for a tramp, out scavenging for food after a long night on the bottle. In fact, he is just another hungry victim of Japan's tsunami trying to find food for his family.

"I am so ashamed," says the 43-year-old construction worker after he realises he has been spotted. "But for three days we don't have enough food. I've no money because my house was washed away by the tsunami and the cash machine is not working."

If his haul wasn't so pitiful -- his bag had two packets of defrosted prawn dumplings and a handful of vacuum-packed seafood sticks inside -- Mr Takahashi might be taken for a looter. But in the port town of Ichinomaki, 200 miles north of Tokyo, his story is disturbingly common.

Japan might be a rich country, but a week after the tsunami struck it is struggling to feed and house the victims adequately.

"I have a place in a rescue centre in the Aka'i Elementary School, but the food they are giving us is not enough," Mr Takahashi says.

"My parents are in their 70s and we receive a tiny bowl of plain rice twice a day, with nothing else, just a pinch of salt. We are hungry, so I have come to look for food."

Mr Takahashi is not alone. Over his shoulder, a small legion of 'tramps', their feet wrapped in plastic bags, can be seen trawling the sludge-filled aisles of a smashed-up supermarket.

"Don't take my photograph," barks a man in blue overalls. "This is so shaming, but I have given up on the government. We have to help ourselves."

Shame plays an important role in Japanese society, forcing people to maintain the outward norms of life even when faced with the most extreme of circumstances.

But in Ichinomaki, and countless other stricken towns along the country's north-east coast, raw necessity is starting to fray even Japan's super-taut social fabric. "They are no longer Japanese," says one woman bystander. "I don't feel like this is Japan."

Natural disasters have a cruel power to strip the dignity from both the living and dead, but in a country as polite and fastidious as Japan the process seems all the more brutal.

"They are desperate, they have no other food to eat," says a policeman. "You could call it stealing, but we understand that at these times there is perhaps no other choice."

There are some signs of stealing in Ichinomaki -- the supermarket cash-machine has been smashed open -- but broadly it feels as if law and order still hold sway.

The frustration is that Ichinomaki does have at least one working supermarket, but shoppers must queue for two or three hours, can buy only 10 items or less and must pay cash -- not possible if your house has been washed away.

Amazingly, many residents in Ichinomaki refuse to criticise the local or national authorities, excusing any shortcomings by blaming them on the sheer scale and breadth of the destruction that has made delivering aid such a mammoth task.

Perhaps that too is hiding Japan's shame, but they might be less sanguine if they could see the empty highways that remain closed to all but emergency vehicles, yet still connect Tokyo to Ichinomaki in just four-and-a-half hours drive and could, surely, be used to carry some emergency food and fuel.

Finding petrol remains impossible, leading many to take to their bikes.

Down in the docks, which were almost obliterated by the tsunami, people could be found climbing through the wreckage, trying to pull out usable bicycles and siphoning petrol from cars.

"There's no food, tell people there is no food," says a man filching petrol, who declined to be named. "They say on the television that aid is being delivered, that food is coming, but you can see for yourself it is not. You must tell people what is happening here because the Japanese media is too frightened to tell the truth."

It is true that coverage of the quake in Japan tends to show the brighter side of the relief efforts, while in reality for many the experience is humiliatingly grim.

In one of Ichinomaki's rescue shelters, Kinniko Ishikawa, a deaf but indomitable 70 year old, and about 30 other pensioners sleep on the floor of a single room in an old government building opposite Ichinomaki's city hall. The place is warm but has no water for the lavatories and is a far cry from the brightly-lit sports halls that feature on Japan's television news.

"Yes, it's true, there is no food from the government," she says. "But we are lucky. We receive at least one bowl of rice each day from a local charity, and yesterday they bought us some snacks.

"Of course we feel hungry, but we must try to ignore it." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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