Vibrant city reduced to shell of former self as fearful exodus gathers pace
Published 17/03/2011 | 05:00
As she bundled her three young children on to a bullet train out of the Japanese capital, Hitomi Nakayama had no doubt it was time to leave.
"We are evacuating Tokyo," she said. "We are going to Hiroshima because it will be much safer there." She and husband Toshi (40) had packed a huge suitcase full of clothes for their daughters Kathy (7) Karen (2) and Noa (1) and didn't plan to return for at least 10 days.
"The government is hiding what's really happened," Mrs Nakayama said angrily. "It is windy today, and if the wind comes south the fallout will reach Tokyo. We have to get out. My friends are all worried too and many of them are also leaving."
As she spoke, an exodus of women clutching small children and large bags was taking shape around her. "We are adults, and maybe we would be okay, but for the children the nuclear effects will be terrible," Mrs Nakayama said.
At the city's Narita Airport, a queue for departures snaked for 200 yards with people lining up three abreast.
Huddled nearby beneath a blanket on the cold, tiled floor was Sasha Li, a 21-year-old Chinese student. She said: "I heard a report that a nuclear rain was going to reach Tokyo in 10 hours so I just came straight here.
"But now I'm worried because I left my iodine medicine at home and my flight isn't for another 18 hours. I hope I will be safe."
As Ms Li waited for her flight to Shanghai, she nervously checked her phone, monitoring updates on the direction of the wind and checking Tokyo radiation levels. A few days ago she had never even heard of microsieverts.
Alex Glover (21), a British student on a gap year in Tokyo, was less jittery as he departed for Manila on a long-planned rugby tour. He said his parents in London were "freaking out a bit", but if it wasn't for the tour he would be staying put.
"I heard a reactor's exploded and there's been radiation but I don't know the details," he said.
Mr Glover reflected a general lack of panic among the British community.
Stefan Huber, the head of the European Union delegation in Japan, said the British appeared to be showing their usual stiff upper lip. "The British are very calm," he said. "For them, there is no danger."
That contrasted with Tokyo's German community, which he said was undergoing a "veritable exodus", including the families of executives at Bosch, BMW and Daimler. Alberto Zaccheroni, the Italian who coaches the Japanese football team, and his entire staff flew home to Italy. Austria said it was moving its embassy out of Tokyo to the western city of Osaka.
Among those scrambling to leave Tokyo were foreign bankers, some of whom fled by private jet. Operators were inundated with requests for luxury escape flights to Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul. "I got a request yesterday to fly 14 people from Tokyo to Hong Kong," said Jackie Wu, who runs Hong Kong Jet. "They did not care about price." The cost was more than $160,000 (€115,000).
As the exodus gathered pace parts of the Japanese capital were left eerily quiet, and one of the world's biggest and most densely populated cities in the world was a shell of its usual, vibrant self.
Much of the edginess being felt in Tokyo, and the impetus for many thousands to leave, is traceable to an announcement on the French Embassy website that a "radioactive wind" was heading for the metropolis following explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
The statement was widely cited by people rushing for train stations and airports.
The Japanese Red Cross, and the World Health Organisation, sought to dispel that notion, but their reassurances were no match for the fear-mongering capabilities of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
Wildly exaggerated reports about the number of microsieverts of radiation detected have also spread like wildfire via mobile phones, infecting the city's 12 million people like a virus. Each new rumour sets phones buzzing in coffee shops and sushi restaurants, where customers are now fully conversant in the workings of nuclear reactors. (© Daily Telegraph, London)