'It's not like the Third World, but it's not like Tokyo'
AT the Akasaka Family Mart in downtown Tokyo, manager Zhang Zhang stared forlornly at the long row of empty shelves. As he did so, his store was shaken for five seconds by yet another aftershock, which knocked his last packet of cocktail sausages off its perch.
"It was great to start with, people came in and bought everything. We had never had so many customers," said Mr Zhang (26). "But now we have nothing left. First, they bought all the water, then the rice balls, the bento boxes and the cup of noodles.
"The people in the offices couldn't get home because there were no trains and had to sleep at their work. They just bought everything because they were hungry."
Down the road at the Maruetsu supermarket, Sayata Sato perused the empty aisles in vain looking for milk. Ms Sato, a kindergarten teacher, said: "I can't find any anywhere, I have to use powdered milk and that's running out. Tokyo used to be the kind of place where we had everything. I can't believe it could be like this, it's suddenly like a different country. It's not like the Third World, but it's not like Tokyo."
As with many of the 13 million people in Japan's hi-tech, uber-modern metropolis, Ms Sato was worried about relatives living closer to the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, 155 miles to the north. Her grandparents Shiro (87) and Tsugiko (84) live in Fukushima City.
"I'm worried because if it rains the radioactive dust will fall down on them," she said. "But the television said the wind is going toward the ocean, so I hope they will be okay."
Akasaka, a normally bustling cluster of office blocks, noodle restaurants and bars, is typical of the malaise that has descended on Tokyo as potential nuclear meltdown looms.
In the usually packed stretch called Hitotsugi Dori, with its Blade Runner-style neon signs, restaurants were shut and only a smattering of straggling office workers scuttled determinedly by on their way home.
At the Sanzoku noodle restaurant, which was still open, manager Sachiko Miyata (31) said: "I'm worried about the radiation getting into the food. They're saying it will get into the vegetables and fish and cause cancer, and it might take years to find out. The only thing that is being eaten here is tofu -- you can't get any of it in Akasaka now."
The denizens of Tokyo have been guzzling as much tofu as they can because it is widely believed the iodine content will help fend off the effects of radiation. As the tofu runs out, many are turning to iodine pills and they are now selling for more than $500 (€357) a packet on eBay. American suppliers said they had run out of stock to ship and would take weeks to resupply.
The stampede for iodine pills also spread to other countries including Malaysia and Taiwan, and prompted the World Health Organisation to issue a warning that they are "not an antidote to radiation".
As signs of panic spread across Japan there were also shortages of food and batteries hundreds of miles to the west in Hiroshima, which was untouched by the earthquake and tsunami. One Hiroshima-based scientist, who treats radiation victims, said: "The main lasting effect will probably be in milk because the cows go around like vacuum cleaners and absorb the radiation, which is in turn easily absorbed by babies and children."
In the devastated town of Otsuchi, on the north-east coast of Japan, one aid worker said yesterday that food was now in such short supply that people had been reduced to scavenging in the debris for anything edible, and hypothermia has become a major problem as temperatures plunge to minus 5C.
Patrick Fuller, of the Red Cross's International Federation, said Japan was facing a "monumental" task to get life-saving supplies of food, water and medicines to survivors of the tsunami.
"It's a monumental task," Mr Fuller said from Otsuchi. "People can't live in these conditions for long -- people are sleeping on strips of cardboard in temperatures of minus five.
"We are seeing people with hypothermia." (© Daily Telegraph, London)