Streets of Tokyo, Yokota AB remain quiet two weeks after quake
Stars and Stripes
TOKYO, Japan — Two weeks after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunamis devastated parts of Japan, a calm has settled on the streets of Tokyo and on nearby U.S. military bases.
While emergency workers and military personnel are working around the clock to provide humanitarian relief to the hundreds of thousands left homeless in the aftermath of a disaster in the north, there are few signs of the devastation in regions to the south.
In Tokyo’s Roppongi district, for example, restaurants and grocery stores remain open and taxis continue to drive up and down the roadways. But those streets — normally filled with fashionable shoppers and briefcase-swinging businessmen — are less busy than they were before the quake.
The reason for the eerie silence in Tokyo and at military bases is, most likely, the fear that large amounts of radiation could leak from the badly damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant about 130 miles north of the city. For weeks, there have been reports of contaminated food and milk making its way to store shelves from the region. And in the last two days, Toyko residents have been warned of elevated levels of a radioactive isotope in the drinking water, although on Friday officials announced that the water was safe to drink.
“It’s very quiet,” said Derek Simmons, a lawyer from Chicago, who works in Roppongi.
Simmons said he recently returned to Tokyo after fleeing to a friend’s house in Kobe in southern Japan after the earthquake. But many of the expatriate bankers and hedge fund managers with whom he plays rugby on weekends have been sent to offices in Hong Kong and Singapore by their employers.
The scene was the same at Yokota Air Base, about 35 miles west of the city. There were fewer shoppers than normal at the base exchange Thursday, and the on-base residential neighborhoods were empty. About the only real activity at Yokota was taking place around the Yokota flight line, which has become one of the U.S. military’s way stations for relief efforts.
Like the foreigners who live in Tokyo, many people based at Yokota and other bases in the region have chosen to leave Japan. Officials estimate that more than 7,000 U.S. family members have left for the States under the military’s “voluntary departure” plan.
Trina Jackson, 41, an on-base child-care worker from Wellington, Kan., said more than one-half of the 110 children at her center have left the base. She said her family chose to stay with her two teenage children because leaving would disrupt her 16-year-old son Jake’s high school studies and her 19-year-old daughter Heidi’s college classes.
Steve Jennings, 60, a civilian forward-supply point manager, said his wife, who was visiting family in South Korea when the earthquake struck, decided to wait awhile before returning to Japan.
“It’s quieter (since the earthquake),” he said of life at Yokota. “I work all day so I don’t see a lot of people anyway but I’ll notice it ... when I go to the Enlisted Club.”
Despite the exodus, Shotaro Kobayashi, manager of a grocery shop in Roppongi, said business was getting back to normal levels, as people lined up for fruit and vegetables on Wednesday.
“Some customers are worried about vegetables from those districts (surrounding Fukushima) but signs in the shop say what province the produce comes from,” Kobayashi said, adding that the wholesale market where he buys his groceries has stopped selling produce from the affected provinces.
The Yokota commissary contains similar signs. One in the apple section at the commissary on Thursday read: “Japanese apples sold in the Commissary are safe and there is no danger of radiation.”
U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Matthew Watterson of the Japan District Veterinary Command, which oversees food safety at bases in Japan, said most of the food sold and served in commissaries, restaurants and dining facilities in Japan is imported from the U.S.
“We have a limited number of locally produced products and none of those products originate in the immediate area of the Dai-ichi nuclear power plant,” he said.
Locally sourced products include things like bread, cookies, cakes and pastries and some beverages and beverage mixes, he said, adding that locally sourced milk comes from the island of Hokkaido, well outside the area of concern.
“We get some fresh fruit and vegetables locally but none from the area that is off limits,” he said. “In addition to the area that the Japanese have placed off limits, the U.S. military has created an additional buffer zone.”
According to Kobayashi, the biggest concern for Japanese living in Tokyo is the lack of information from the government.
“We need information,” he said. “We don’t know what we should do.”
Mai Yamamoto, a masseuse working at the Bali Relax 24 parlor in Roppongi, said she constantly monitors reports on the earthquake and nuclear disaster on her mobile phone. While giving massages, she asks her customers if their relatives are safe and where they went after the earthquake, she said.
“Some customers are worried about radiation but they pray,” she said, adding that she’s also concerned about poor communication by the government.
Jackson, the mother of two from Yokota, is a little more trusting of her leaders.
She said there are regular updates from base authorities about the nuclear crisis and that she trusts what they tell her about the health impacts of the radiation — that water and food on the base are safe.
“Somewhere along the line you have to trust what they are doing otherwise you will never trust anybody,” she said.