TOKYO -- One week into the world's worst nuclear emergency in 25 years, the United States has offered to evacuate American citizens living in Japan. The U.S. embassy in Tokyo urged Americans to stay at least 50 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant -- four times the distance recommended by the Japanese government.
Fleeing the country has not been simple for people trying to get out of Japan. Flights have sold out quickly, with lines of prospective passengers snaking out the airport terminal. With no trains and little gasoline, transportation to Tokyo from the north has been nearly impossible.
Two Southern Baptist missionary families living in northeastern Japan already have relocated to southern Japan. The third family, living outside the mandatory evacuation zone -- a 30-mile radius from the nuclear plant -- is in the process of relocating.
Many people in Tokyo, however, have chosen to stay or simply continue moving south. Despite the U.S. Embassy's offer, their own offices in Tokyo remain open and they have not ordered families to leave.
"Why would I want to leave before it's time?" asked an American business
man living in Tokyo. "My family in the States keeps calling and wanting me to leave Japan and come 'home.' They forget that Japan is my home too.
"I'm not saying my family won't ever evacuate," the businessman added, noting he offered the employees of his international business the opportunity to relocate. "It's not the right time for my family. We feel safe and are watching the news and warnings. We feel this is an opportune time to minister to our neighbors and our adoptive country."
International Mission Board personnel in the greater Tokyo area and east of Nagoya also have been given the option of "voluntary evacuation," an IMB spokesman said. So far, no personnel in these areas have relocated but leaders say plans are in place if the need arises.
Helicopters dumped tons of water March 17 on nuclear reactor No. 3 at the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, trying to prevent a meltdown of fuel rods. News video footage suggested the attempts were not very successful, with most of the water falling outside the target buildings. The operation was intended to help cool the reactors and also to replenish water in a storage pond with spent fuel rods.
Freezing temperatures have not helped the cause. Survivors of the earthquake and tsunami sit in shelters or homes without electricity while snow falls around them. On Monday, Japan began a widespread effort to curb nationwide energy usage to deal with reduced electrical supplies caused by disaster-related damage to the nation's nuclear plants. The government urged companies and residential complexes to keep lights off or cut down on office hours. Rolling blackouts rotate electrical supplies between different parts of the country.
Tokyo seems to have been put on pause. At the iconic crosswalk in front of Tokyo's Shibuya Station -- usually a riot of lights and noise -- the massive video screens were turned off. No Japanese pop music blared; only footsteps could be heard.
One Japan Baptist Convention worker said the train delays and modified bus routes took her so long to get to work that it was easier and faster for her to walk two hours to the office. Driving a car to work is almost out of the question. Lines at gas stations are eight blocks deep -- if you can find a station that even has gas. For most, however, they are staying indoors and leaving only to buy groceries, on the thin chance that there might be rice or milk at the local store.
The catastrophe Japan has experienced has been so overwhelming -- a 9.0-magnitude earthquake, a crushing tsunami and the evolving nuclear crisis -- that a 6.4-magnitude earthquake that struck 55 miles south of Tokyo late March 15 was assumed by many to be an aftershock. That quake, however, was a separate event in its own right, shaking buildings, interrupting train service and briefly closing highways, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Along the coast, where the March 11 earthquake and tsunami hit, the damage is more acute. The official police tally confirmed 5,178 people dead and 8,606 are still missing. But officials in Miyagi prefecture estimate that at least 10,000 of its 2.3 million citizens were killed by the quake and tsunami. The number of dead is expected to go up as rescuers reach more hard-hit areas.
The gravity of Japan's crisis was driven home by Japan's Emperor Akihito making a rare appearance March 16 -- an event usually reserved for times of extreme crisis or war. His direct appeal to the public is considered exceptional in Japan and marked the first time an emperor spoke to the public on television. His comments underlined Prime Minister Naoto Kan's earlier assertion that Japan is going through its worst crisis since World War II.
The 77-year-old Akihito, who is deeply revered even though his role is ceremonial, urged citizens to not give up hope as the country grapples with this catastrophe.
"I truly hope the victims of the disaster never give up hope, take care of themselves, and live strong for tomorrow," Akihito said.