Quake watch: Japan hit yet again | FT Alphaville

Quake watch: Japan hit yet again

Just as anxious, sleep-deprived and quake-traumatised eastern Japan was beginning to relax – just a little: a fresh earthquake struck the already ravaged region of Tohoku and rocked Tokyo at 11:32pm local time, triggering fears of another tsunami and more problems at the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.

The 7.4 magnitude earthquake (quickly downgraded by the US Geological Survey to 7.1 but maintained at 7.4 by Japan’s Meteorological Agency, for what that’s worth), hit the northeast coast, close to the city of Sendai, which on March 11 had seen its airport engulfed by surging water from the tsunami.

With little immediate information, markets at first didn’t appear to know what to do, the yen initially spiking then ticking downwards, as FT Alphaville noted earlier. Spooked by fears of a fresh crisis at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, US stocks fell and Treasuries erased earlier losses, Bloomberg reported. Compounding confusion was an initial tsunami warning, prompting evacuations along the northeast coast, abruptly lifted two hours later.

At the back of everyone’s minds in the wake of Wednesday night’s quake – from investors and Tokyo residents to the hundreds of thousands of survivors of the March 11 disasters, crowded into emergency relief centres and makeshift housing throughout the northeast – were the crucial questions: Will efforts to resolve radiation leakage from the stricken nuclear power plant stay on track? Were there any more fatalities or injuries? And had eastern Japan’s already battered electricity infrastucture sustained any further damage?

At pixel time, there were reports of power outages in the northeast — a “yes” to that final question, then.

Ahead of an expected government briefing later in the morning, Tepco, operator of the damaged nuclear plant, had confirmed there were no new problems and no injuries among the 300 or so workers estimated to be at the site.

While news agencies scrambled to find the answers, many residents in Tokyo responded much the same way they did in the wake of the March 11 disasters – with a mixture of calm, bewilderment and anxiety. On the other hand, many expatriates who have just begun returning to the city after fleeing Tokyo in the days after March 11 were undoubtedly considering in the wee hours whether to repeat their escapes.

A 10-second tremor is one thing. But in the city centre on Wednesday night, the earthquake shook buildings for a full 90 seconds – longer than most of the countless aftershocks that jolted the city in the days immediately after the March 11 disaster.

The lateness of the hour meant many commuters living in the city’s sprawling suburbs were already at home. However, the inner-city entertainment districts of Roppongi and Akasaka were more crowded than they had been for weeks, as office workers encouraged by warmer weather and the recent absence of tremors ventured out. In one large Japanese restaurant in Roppongi, customers fell silent as the tremors struck, glancing at each other nervously.

Chefs and waiters paused, as plates and glassware rattled on tables and people began anxiously reaching for bags and coats. Just as quickly, the pace seemed to return to normal – underscored by a mood of underlying anxiety – after the tremors subsided. Some customers paid and left to take the last trains home from nearby subway stations, although many others milled around in the main street or crowded into nearby bars and cafes, to talk and drink with friends.

A group of bankers who had been at a restaurant more than 50 floors up in Roppongi’s Mori Tower during the quake said the building had swayed strongly, panicking some customers. Although many neon lights in the large entertainment districts were already dimmed or switched off as part of power conservation measures, electricity continued running, although mobile phone networks appeared overloaded with many people unable to get calls through.

Among the city’s stressed-out residents, too shaken to go to bed, many had settled in by 1am for a long night glued to television sets. Most were waiting for a briefing from the government, which have  been running daily. But as one commentator noted, “they must take their time, to find out all the facts, if they don’t give an accurate picture, it will only make things worse”.

The other key sign that people will look for is whether government ministers, led by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, will get back into their “crisis gear” – the regulation blue outfits that some have likened to janitors’ uniforms. On April 1 the cabinet shed the outfits in favour of the usual business suits, citing a new mood of normality. But that was then, and this is now.

Related links:
Japan disaster coverage – FT.com