Tokyo tiptoes toward normality as disaster impact lingers

TOKYO (Reuters) – Yoko Hashiguchi and her toddler fled Tokyo after a deadly earthquake and tsunami devastated northeast Japan and triggered a nuclear disaster at a power plant 240 km (150 miles) away.

Three weeks later, they’re back in the capital, hoping life will get back to normal.

“After the quake, my husband said ‘Leave’ so we went to (the southern island of) Okinawa. Now I have to return to work and my daughter starts daycare, so we came back,” said Hashiguchi, 33, cuddling her daughter on a park swing.

Life in the metropolis of 13 million people is tiptoeing towards normality from the early post-disaster days when train service was patchy, workers stayed home and groceries were bare of necessities such as bread, milk, toilet paper and diapers.

But the new normal is a pale shadow of the pre-disaster hustle and bustle.

Shoplights are dimmed as power shortages persist, only about half the escalators are running in subway stations and Tokyo’s boisterous nightlife is only now starting to revive.

Stress simmers just beneath the surface and an air of self-restraint is keeping shoppers at home, raising concerns about the world’s third-biggest economy as it tries to recover from a disaster that caused damages that could top $300 billion.

Some fret most about the possible spread of radiation from the quake-crippled plant to food and water after high levels were found in vegetables from regions around the plant.

A Reuters reading today showed a radiation level in downtown Tokyo itself of 0.2 microsieverts per hour — still low by global standards. “If the nuclear situation gets worse, we’ll leave. I’ve got our gear all packed,” Hashiguchi said.

The battle to stabilise six reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s (TEPCO) Fukushima plant could take weeks if not months, followed by a clean-up operation that may drag on for years.

Repeated and large aftershocks are also fanning fears that a massive quake could strike again, this time closer to home.

“I only go as far from home as I can walk back and I take emergency gear with me,” said Noriko Ariura, rummaging in a bag holding a radio, flashlight, bottled water and medicine.

“If we go further afield, I take protective helmets, too,” said the mother of a five-year-old son, who admitted she was more nervous than many after surviving the 1995 quake that killed 6,400 people in the western port city of Kobe.

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