More than 20,000 people are confirmed dead or missing in Japan. This is now the biggest disaster here—natural or otherwise—since the Second World War.
The devastation is monstrous. Thousands are crammed into temporary shelters across northern Japan. They are struggling without adequate supplies of food, clothing, heating, fuel and medical aid.
A battle is being waged to cool the spent fuel pool and reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant to stop highly toxic radiation from being released.
Many people remain trapped inside the 30-kilometre exclusion zone around the nuclear plant.
Chief cabinet secretary Yukio Edano has told them to “stay indoors”.
“They talk about us as if we’re contaminated lepers,” some residents raged. “We’re angry. The government is not trying to protect human life.”
Many people, contrary to the stereotype of the Japanese as “stoic” and “polite”, are losing patience with the government.
There is a sense of unease about nuclear power. The majority of people living in Fukushima would gladly see the closure of the ageing plant.
Most people say they only believe about 50 percent of what the government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which owns the plant, tell them.
Yoshiko, an office worker in Tokyo, compared the government to the “three wise monkeys”—they see, hear and speak no evil.
Hitoshi works at a large Nissan car plant at Atsugi, Kanagawa—about 50 kilometres south west of Tokyo. Some 20,000 workers were at the plant when the earthquake hit.
“Our boss shouted ‘Get under your desks.’ There was a power blackout. Everyone was confused,” he said.
“The second wave struck about ten minutes later and we were told to get under our desks again.
“Only when the third wave struck did human resources make an announcement.
“Over a PA system they said, ‘Be careful.’ We were going mad saying, ‘What the fuck’s going on?’ It was pathetic.
“Then they announced that we could go home—if we wanted to. There was a lack of responsibility and leadership.”
The government’s advice was to stay at work. It seemed more important to keep up the view of Japanese workers as diligent and hard-working.
Constant updates are broadcast about the impact of the tsunami on the economy and the markets.
People are left feeling that the government is more interested in profits than the dead, missing and homeless.
I was lucky—I was at home when the earthquake struck. I thought my little apartment was going to shake to the ground. I staggered into the street like a punch-drunk boxer.
My partner was not so fortunate and had to wait in a subway station in central Tokyo for ten hours until after midnight when the trains started running again.
Everyone had different experiences. Momoko, a local government worker, said she stayed at work all night at the Shinjuku Ward Office (town hall), providing blankets and shelter to people stranded in one of Tokyo’s busiest areas.
Toshi told me he stayed in his office overnight.
Many people found themselves wandering the streets while others had to hike home. Car rental firms and bicycle sellers were in great demand.
The remoteness of many small coastal towns means that the fate of many missing people is still unknown.
Geography plays an important role in the unfolding disaster.
The interior of the country is mountainous, so the vast majority of inhabitants live on or around the coasts.
The population of Japan is 127 million—compared to 62 million in Britain.
The Tokyo metropolitan region, south Kanto, is home to some 35 million people—the most populous conurbation in the world.
The vast majority of people live like “maki-zushi”—tightly packed rolled sushi—in tiny flats in packed out neighbourhoods.
Only the rich can afford semi-detached houses.
If the earthquake’s epicentre had been Tokyo, the death toll and the magnitude of the destruction would have been even more horrific.
But these are small comforts to people ravaged by disaster.
Many people in Japan feel, once again, that they are having to make sacrifices to protect big business and Japanese capitalism.
Names of interviewees have been changed to protect their identities