In many societies, a second earthquake coming just days after the biggest quake and tsunami in recent history and during a nuclear crisis might have triggered fresh panic in an already traumatised country.
But late on Tuesday night, in the hours following the earthquake that hit Shizuoka in the Chubu region south-west of Tokyo, people simply looked weary and flat. Many sat quietly texting or reading news on their mobile phones.
The 6.1-magnitude quake, which jolted Tokyo and caused at least six injuries, capped a day that started with news of further explosions at the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant north-east of Tokyo and during which they heard their prime minister, Naoto Kan, warn of “the very high risk” of more radiation contamination from the plant.
They were also deluged with increasingly disturbing images of the widening trauma in the ravaged north-east and the beginning of a series of power outages that is likely to last weeks, if not months.
On top of that came news of the precipitous slide in Japan’s stock market, warnings from foreign embassies that their nationals should leave Japan, and a growing exodus of foreign as well as some Japanese residents from Tokyo. Many have left either for destinations abroad, if they managed to secure seats on fully loaded planes, or to cities west of the capital such as Osaka, Kyoto and Fukuoka.
A group of expatriate mothers on Tuesday gathered for coffee in the shopping district of Aoyama and compared notes about the best places to take refuge. “Singapore, Hong Kong – I don’t care, I just want to get my children out, everybody else has,” said one British woman married to an investment banker. No one spoke about when they would return.
Entertainment and shopping areas, normally teeming with people late into the night, were empty. Many shops and restaurants remained shut or closed early on Tuesday after shutting on Monday in preparation for rolling power cuts by Tepco, the country’s largest energy provider and operator of the stricken power plant.
Subdued lighting and “out of service” signs posted on inactive escalators in public areas added to the sombre atmosphere.
Shoppers had earlier crowded into supermarkets throughout the city. There was stark evidence of shortages of staples such as rice, milk, bottled water and onigiri rice balls. There were also long lines outside fuel stations. Concerns over supplies drove the continuing rush by Tokyo residents to procure flashlights, batteries and candles in preparation for blackouts.
Tokyoites – at least those who remain in the city – continue to go stoically about their business, at least for now.