Japan’s New Survivalist Instinct

Five days after the quake, millions of people are waiting on long lines for basic necessities and fuel. Lennox Samuels reports from Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures on their new reality—and their conspiracy theories. Plus, full coverage of the Japan quake and dispatches from across Japan.

03.16.11 1:54 PM ET

It is a sign of how much Japan’s citizens have come to expect more calamity that they seemed mildly surprised Wednesday that there were no new explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Rarely has a day gone by without some major setback worsening fallout from the earthquake and tsunami that struck the country last Friday. Authorities briefly evacuated workers after radiation levels rose because of a breach in the containment vessel at one of the six reactors. But that registered as a minor development to traumatized Japanese needing a little relief—and some solace. Even the country’s demigod monarch seemed to sense that, taking to the airwaves to deliver a rare address to his subjects. The message was not exactly uplifting—Emperor Akihito said he was “ deeply worried” about the nuclear crisis—but the solidarity is what mattered.

Shocking Photos: Devastation in Japan

The royal commiseration was not unwelcome, but it obviously did not change the situation on the ground, nor staunch a rising anxiety over a catastrophe that officials say has so far killed about 3,700 people, with the toll expected to top 10,000, and forced some 450,000 into temporary shelters. Throughout a broad area around the Fukushima plant, Japanese sought to keep their heads down, and cities took on an eerie quiet. A survivalist mood deepened in Miyagi prefecture, and spread in nearby Yamagata prefecture. Residents emptied convenience-store shelves and rushed to fill up the tanks of their cars, fearing a shortage sooner or later.

They did not quite fill up those tanks, actually. They weren’t allowed to. Fuel companies decreed that the maximum a customer could buy was 20 liters; the most he could spend, 3,000 yen. One buyer who was able to muster a grim humor said he would have to return to the gas station almost immediately, since the few gallons he ended up getting were just enough to allow him to drive back home.

In the city of Yamagata, a line of vehicles stretched three blocks on Route 286 and around the corner as drivers waited up to three hours for their limited purchases at the Cosmo station. “It’s been nonstop all day,” said station attendant Ihee Yamakawa. His company posted online an opening-hours notice that included the stations that would be selling gas. Drivers started queuing at 8 a.m. Among them was Tetsuya Miura, an ad-agency executive whose car was jammed with boxes of Chinese vegetables, scallions, noodles, and canned food that he was planning to deliver to co-workers at his company’s branch in Sendai —one and a half hours away—who were evacuating the city. “I really hate waiting here for 90 minutes, but what choice do I have?” he asked rhetorically.

The station across the street, an Esso franchise, was closed, as were many others around the city. Suspicious residents suggested that the government was restricting gasoline sales to prevent people from abandoning areas hardest hit—and most threatened by more quakes. “They want to keep us off the roads—jamming the roads,” says one man who had waited for four hours the day before and was back for another 20 liters. The conspiracy theory seemed farfetched, even given the order-obsessed administration of Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The official industry line, in fact, is that the scarcity is part of an effort to discourage Japanese from panic-buying many gallons of gas—and making it tougher to handle any emergency down the road.

There’s no rationing in place, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano. “The priority is to send fuel to the disaster zones,” he said. “We request everybody outside of the disaster area to refrain from hoarding gasoline, light diesel, and heavy fuel oil.”

Hoarding, however, seems to be in full swing at shops and stores in cities like Iwanuma, Murata, and Kawasaki, between the big population centers of Yamagata and Sendai. And many stores were closed, often because they had nothing with which to replace depleted stocks. Even some McDonald’s were shuttered. At a 7-Eleven, shoppers stripped the shelves and refrigerators of sandwiches, rice balls, lunchboxes, milk, water, salads, and even junk food. “Dear customers,” read a sign, “Only two rice noodles for each shopper. Please understand.” The plea was roundly ignored.

“There is no gas, so the trucks don’t come in to bring new stock,” says employee Yoko Saitou. The store’s owner said that was true of all the chain’s stores in the area.

Edano, who continues to urge Japanese to be “calm,” has called for supplies to be resumed to the area. But the government spokesman’s exhortations seem to be falling on deaf ears. He also has said that, notwithstanding the evacuation of residents who live within 30 kilometers of Fukushima Daiichi, people should be permitted to enter the zone. On Wednesday, camouflage-clad soldiers were turning away Japanese residents—and foreign journalists.

Lennox Samuels is a Newsweek/Daily Beast editor based in Bangkok. He covered the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.