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Tokyo Sees Its Lights Go Dim, And Lifestyles Change

With its massive electronic billboards now dark, Tokyo's Shibuya fashion district is far more subdued than it was before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP
With its massive electronic billboards now dark, Tokyo's Shibuya fashion district is far more subdued than it was before the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

In normal times, Tokyo thrives on electricity.

Dazzling digital billboards overlook the shopping districts, doors glide open automatically, and moving sidewalks transport people through malls and train stations.

But the earthquake and tsunami have forced the city to reduce its power usage, forcing residents to alter their lifestyles.


For a young Tokyo hipster, Shibuya is the place to see and be seen. It's a busy, noisy crossroads where people can shop, meet friends and have a drink.

Elina Ishizawa, a 22-year-old beautician, stands with a friend watching the crowd.

"When you come to Shibuya it's always a party," she says through an interpreter. "The whole city is having fun. I like to come here because it makes me feel energetic."

But these days, the mood is more somber. Because of the power shortage, giant electronic billboards that normally make evenings in Shibuya as bright as day have all been turned off.

Hidetomo Takahashi, an office worker, scans the crowd, trying to find a friend.


"Usually Shibuya is so bright you can see everyone's face even if they're far away," he says in Japanese. "But today it's so dark, it's difficult to see people approaching you."

The catastrophe of March 11 and the crippling of a major nuclear complex have dealt a big blow to Japan's power supply. Residents have been asked to contend with electricity shortages, something virtually unheard of here.

All over Tokyo, escalators have been turned off, trains are running on limited schedules, and restaurant patrons eat in the dark. Even the emperor is said to be turning off lights in the Imperial Palace.

Naoki Kobayashi manages a club in Shibuya with private karaoke rooms. Unlike a lot of businesses nearby, he has stayed open throughout the crisis. But he has had to reduce his club's hours.

"We're doing what we can," he said through an interpreter. "Of course, it's a business that uses a lot of electricity on a regular basis. So we've turned off the lights outside, and we turn off the lights in rooms when they're not being used."

When measures like these aren't enough, there have been rolling blackouts in some neighborhoods.

In Fujisawa, on the far outskirts of Tokyo, Kamamoto Hiroko stands in the kitchen of her apartment making tea. Since the earthquake, power has been shut off in her neighborhood five times. And without electricity, she can't use her oven or run water — and the heat goes off.

"Usually it's just my husband and me living here, and we know ahead of time when the blackout is going to occur," she says. "If the blackout is in the morning, we try to get up early and use the bathroom before it begins. If it's in the evening, we eat ready-made meals and dine by candlelight."

Kamamoto says she wishes the blackouts were more predictable — at least one outage was rescheduled at the last minute. But she says she understands what the country is going through.

"Of course, it's inconvenient for us — but when I think about the people up north and the struggle they have, this is the least we can do to help the cause," she says. "So we're doing what we can to get through it."

Like a lot of people, Hiroko says she hopes the power supply improves by the time hot weather arrives and people need to use their air conditioners. But power company officials say they can't be sure how long the blackouts will last — and that means things could get worse before they get better.