Fears of a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear plant are causing trauma and travel chaos across tsunami-stricken Japan as foreign governments tell their nationals to evacuate.
International alarm over the deterioriating situation at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant has prompted the strongest response so far from countries including the UK and the USA.
UK officials have urged citizens living within 80km of the Fukushima Daichi plant to evacuate or remain indoors “as a precaution” – almost triple the official Japanese evacuation zone, and in line with US advice. The US has also authorised the family members of diplomatic staff to leave – about 600 people.
“The situation has deteriorated in the days since the tsunami and…the situation has grown at times worse with potential greater damage and fallout from the reactor,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
Foreign Office number for people in Japan wishing to leave: +44 20 7008 6900
Foreign Office number for those in Japan living near Fukushima: +44 20 7008 0000
The US state department chartered flights for Americans wishing to flee and authorised its embassy staff and their families to leave the country, after US nuclear regulators questioned safety measures taken by the Japanese. On Thursday the Pentagon announced that 20,000 dependents of US military personnel in Japan will be eligible for a programme of voluntary evacuation, firstly on commercial flights, but that the use of US military aircraft was also being considered if necessary.
China moved thousands of its citizens to Tokyo for evacuation from the country France and Australia earlier urged nationals to leave Japan, with the French Industry Minister Eric Besson saying: “Let’s not beat about the bush. They have visibly lost the essential of control [of the situation]. That is our analysis, in any case, it’s not what they are saying.”
Russia said it planned to evacuate families of diplomats on Friday.
Most of the international community has been warning against non-essential travel to Japan since the tsunami and earthquake hit last Friday. Some governments have started testing their citizens returning from Japan for radiation levels.
South Korea has set up residual radiation detection gates at Incheon and Gimpo international airports that have direct flights to Japan, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported.
Commercial flights were also under pressure, with just a handful of seats left on most services from Narita – which serves Tokyo to Hong Kong.
Many flights have been cancelled or re-routed as airlines avoid Japan over radiation fears. Demand is now rising for flights out of Japan and plummeting for flights into the country, causing average prices to rise.
However for people wishing to leave Japan but unable to do so on commercial flights, the UK, China, and the US have now chartered planes.
The Foreign Office said: “The UK Government is chartering flights from Tokyo to Hong Kong to supplement commercially available options for those wishing to leave Japan.
“The first option for leaving Japan should remain commercial routes. Commercial flights continue to operate to and from Japan. British nationals with commercial flight bookings should continue to use these flights and you should continue to make reservation and other arrangements with your airline as usual.”
The situation has deterioriated in the days since the tsunami. White House spokesman Jay Carney
Air Charter Service, who specialise in sourcing flights for organisations, told Channel 4 news they’ve handled ‘tens of thousands of calls’ from people trying to get out of Japan. They say there is no danger of people not getting flights at the moment, although the unprecedented demand is causing chaos and delays at airports. Spokesman Glenn Phillips said he believes ‘most of it is down to panic.’
A number of private jet companies also said they were inundated with requests for help with evacuation, but the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA), which represents 17 scheduled international airlines in the region, said most flights were operating normally.
Get the latest on our Japan live blog
La Ha-Na, a South Korean student living in Tokyo, said: “Life and health are the priority over cost in doing this, so I’m escaping Japan even though I don’t feel like it.”
There have so far been no confirmed reports of British fatalities, but around 17,000 UK nationals are known to have been in Japan at the time the catastrophic quake struck.
In the wake of the advice, English teacher Jenny Tamura Spragg, 33, who is originally from Cardiff but now lives in Saitama near Tokyo, said she is trying to stay calm.
But she added: “My husband and I have discussed our options, and are currently putting plans into place, so that if necessary, we’ll be ready to leave.”
For those who survived the earthquake, tsunami, and endured bitter conditions in the north, the danger of exposure to radiation has added to the trauma caused by the disaster.
On Thursday the UK’s Department for International Development said that it’s search and rescue team will be leaving Japan, after extensive search and rescue efforts in the north of the country. Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development, said: “We are all extremely proud of the UK Fire and Rescue Team. Sadly, the chance of them finding further survivors is now extremely low and so their specialist skills are no longer necessary in Japan.”
The team, which included 59 UK fire service search and rescue specialists, two rescue dogs and a medical support team, searched the towns of Ofunato and Kamaishi but found no survivors.
“The government told us we were safe,” said evacuee Mitsuru Fujita. She is living in temporary accomodation 40 miles west of Sendai and is one of 70 000 who’ve been evacuated from the danger area.
The Japanese government said it has no plans to expand its mandatory 12 mile exclusion zone around the plant. 140 000 people living between 12 miles and 20 miles from the Fukushima plant have been advised by the Japanese government to stay indoors.
Six days after the disaster in Japan, more than 5,300 people are officially listed as dead, but officials believe the toll will climb to well over 10,000
Police say more 452,000 people are staying in schools and other shelters, as supplies of fuel, medicine and other necessities run short
For the 39 million people in and around the capital there are threats of blackouts and bank machines have malfunctioned, a level of disorder for a city known for clinical precision and efficiency.
Millions have stocked up on rice and other essentials, emptying shelves at a number of supermarkets, and applications for passports have almost doubled.
The Mizuho bank said its troubles were due to a concentration of transactions at some unidentified branch. The ATMs went down for about two hours in the morning, and failed again in the evening. Customers also could not make foreign currency withdrawals and other transactions.
Areas usually packed with office workers crammed into sushi restaurants and noodle shops have gone quiet. Many schools are closed. Companies have allowed workers to stay home and volutarily cut power usage, submerged parts of the typically neon-lit city in darkness.
The stoicism of a Nagasaki survivor: 'Japanese people are strong, and good at enduring'
On that hot summer day in 1945, Yamashita was shielded from the worst of the destruction by a heavy quilt thrown over her as the bomb exploded.
"I didn't see a thing, but the noise was incredible - the sound of glass flying around, and so many other things. Then when I got up a few minutes later, everything had changed. There was nothing left of the house but the supporting pillars, and the world around us was red," she said.
"Now everybody's making such a fuss about the reactors in Fukushima. But it's nothing like that."
Perhaps due to her mother's influence, her daughter, Shigeko Hara, is also quite stoic - even though she too suffers from a thyroid disorder typical of the children of atom bomb survivors.
"How safe is it really? That depends on the wind and what happens, and since I have children it is pretty scary," the 39-year old said.
"I wear athletic shoes everywhere these days, even to work, because I never know what will happen and want to be ready for anything."
Like many Tokyo residents, she has a backpack at hand for disasters filled with work gloves, socks, shoes heavy enough to walk over glass, as well as aspirin and sticking plasters.
But she also confesses that her emergency food was far past its expiry dates. A carton of mineral water and bag filled with cup noodles and snacks stood close by, ready to be added.
After the quake, she went to buy food and was shocked to see store shelves had been emptied of bread, milk and rice balls. She was able to buy milk on Wednesday after standing in a long line, but that was the first time in two days her daughters, 7-year-old Akari and 11-year-old Yuka, had any milk to drink.
The family is limiting its electricity use as much as possible, responding to official calls to conserve power, shivering at night under extra sweaters in Tokyo's unseasonable cold. She would like to dry her washing outside, but concerns about radiation have her hanging it inside instead.
Still, both she and her mother say their problems are small in the face of the hardships in the tsunami-hit areas.
"I called a childhood friend who lives up near the reactor and said to her, 'We went through a lot more than this in the past," Yamashita said.
"Japanese people are strong, and good at enduring."
As thousands flee the country Save the Children estimate 200 000 children have been displaced.
Karen, 6, huddles together with her family in a classroom at a primary school in Ishinomaki with only a few blankets and a small kerosene stove for warmth
"It is cold here and I want to go home," says Karen. "We have been here since Friday. It's cold and I want a bath."
Karen's father, Koichi says the family had no option but to shelter in the classroom because the tsunami wrecked their home. "The whole house is a mess. All the crockery is broken. Everything around the house is flooded."
Karen has not seen her house since the tsunami. "I don't want to show my children. I am afraid for how they might feel," says Koichi.
All Karen wants though is a chance to see her friends again and a chance to go home. "I miss my friends and I miss home."
Her brother Asato, 8, also wants to go home. "I want to play my computers games, but maybe I won't be able to anymore," he says with a sigh.
Koichi and his wife Rumi find it difficult to keep their children occupied all day long in the small classroom, so they sometimes venture outside for a walk. "We have to get out of the classroom, but it is very cold outside and it is snowing a lot.