Business, Economics and Jobs

Northeastern Japan struggles to regain footing


A woman holds a child in a long queue as people rush to get out of the city in Yamagata, Yamagata prefecture on March 15, 2011.


Mike Clarke

YAMAGATA, Japan — The people of the Tohoku, or Japan's northeastern region, which was badly affected by Friday's earthquake and subsequent tsunami, are trying now, however they can, to carry on with their lives.

Dozens of daily aftershocks bring back memories of Friday’s double-whammy disaster for the people of Yamagata, and evoke fears about what's going to happen to unstable nuclear reactors in the next prefecture over, Fukushima.

Yamagata City is located just over the mountains from Sendai, which is in Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan. Sendai was the largest city near the quake's epicenter.

A shell-shocked population is put on edge by every tremor that would, under normal circumstances, barely register with the northeast's quake-hardened people.

This morning there was an explosion at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant’s No. 2 reactor and a fire at the No. 4 reactor, located in Fukushima, the neighboring prefecture to Yamagata. Then in the evening a 4.0-magnitude aftershock struck nearby Miyagi Prefecture.

A restaurant in the center of Yamagata city was empty save for two customers today. The waitress said people were scared to leave their homes because of the quake and the fear of radiation, which has been detected as far away as Vladivostock in Russia.

In Yamagata, a sports center is being prepared for evacuees from around the Fukushima plant, even as snow fell heavily Tuesday evening and the city prepared for power outages starting Wednesday.

And yet, despite the stress and hardships, the unfailing civility of Japan’s people remains unshaken.

At long lines for rationed gasoline and limited foodstuffs across the region, there was no cutting in line and no raised voices; gaps were left for people and cars to pass through.

At a small family-run hotel in the port town of Hitachi, its harbor destroyed, refugees from the devastated areas to the north arrived late into the night Tuesday. Rather than gouge their weary customers who would likely pay any price for a dry place to lay their head, the owners give discounts for the lack of running water and apologized profusely for the inconvenience.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) says it has now safely disabled the operations of the four reactors in Fukushima, though problems of overheating remain.

To add to people’s doubts, TEPCO has a history of coverups, including an episode after a quake near the world’s largest power plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, in 2007. After disaster was averted there, the company faced criticism for building a nuclear facility almost directly over a fault line, and then deliberately playing-down the severity of the situation when it was damaged.