Tokyo Rice Store Urges Calm as Nuclear Risk Sparks Panic Buying

Tokyo Rice Store Urges Calm
Racks normally displaying flashlights sit empty at a Yamada Denki Store in Osaka. Photographer: Naoko Fujimua/Bloomberg

Masuhiro Ogura, who runs his own rice store in downtown Tokyo, is telling shoppers not to buy from him until they run out.

“If you still have some left, you should wait,” Ogura, 68, told a regular customer yesterday, joining a government appeal to refrain from hoarding amid fears of nuclear radiation leaks from an earthquake-damaged facility 135 miles north of Tokyo.

Tokyo residents emptied store shelves of food, water and batteries and filled car tanks with gasoline as workers at the crippled Fukushima nuclear facility struggled to avert the risk of a meltdown. Hoarders may make it more difficult to send goods to the millions of people affected by the 7-meter (23-foot) tsunami that engulfed Japan’s northeast coast, according to Agriculture Minister Michihiko Kano.

Seven & I Holdings Co., Japan’s biggest retailer, said its Ito-Yokado supermarkets and 7-Eleven convenience stores in Tokyo are emptied of necessities as soon as fresh supplies arrive. “Every day the stores provide a certain amount, but as soon as a shop opens, the products disappear,” Hirotake Henmi, a spokesman for Seven & I, said in a phone interview.

Shoppers at 7-Eleven stores are emptying them of rice balls referred to as Onigiri, batteries and tissue paper, Henmi said. Seven & I, which owns 7-Eleven, has 13,219 of the convenience stores in Japan.

Tissue Paper

Retailers in Tokyo and its suburbs ordered about 10 times more water than usual on March 13 and March 14, said Nobuo Saito, a spokesman for the government’s Consumer Affairs Agency. Food stores sold about 9 times more chicken meat than they did before the March 11 earthquake, Saito said.

“I want food to be delivered to people in the devastated area,” said Kano, the Agriculture Minister, according to the ministry’s website. “I’d like to ask everyone for a favor to act calmly” and not hoard necessities, he said.

In Tokyo’s Kachidoki area, more than 20 people lined up to buy tissue and toilet paper as boxes were unpacked at one of Matsumotokiyoshi Holdings Co.’s Papasu drug stores.

“Food, water and paper products are in high demand,” said Tetsuya Ishigami, a 40-year-old salesman sent from company headquarters to help. “Bottled water disappears quickly. Customers also come to us for things the victims would need although they can’t ship them there yet.”

Towns Engulfed

The U.S. Geological Survey raised its estimate of the earthquake’s magnitude to 9 from 8.9, making it the world’s fourth-most powerful since 1900 and Japan’s strongest on record. Official police figures put the death toll at 2,734, with 3,743 missing at 6:30 p.m. yesterday local time.

Near the 1-million person city of Sendai, Japanese television footage showed entire towns razed by the temblor’s resulting tsunami, which carried cars and buildings inland. More than 440,000 people have been evacuated to about 1,500 shelters in the northeast, according to the National Police Agency yesterday, and almost 800,000 remain without power.

About 140,000 people within 30 kilometers (19 miles) of the Fukushima nuclear plant were ordered to stay indoors.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan appealed for calm as workers at the stricken nuclear plant pumped sea water to cool the reactors and prevent the uncontrolled release of radioactive material.

Safe Levels

Tokyo Electric Power Co. engineers yesterday restored water to safe levels. Radiation readings at the front of the facility’s gate dropped to a level that isn’t “harmful to the human body,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said.

Rice merchant Ogura said there was some disruption in rice supplies because some wholesalers may have had trouble buying fuel for their trucks. His store won’t sell more than 5 kilograms (11 pounds) of rice to customers who aren’t regulars to help discourage hoarding, he said.

Masaru Sakamoto, a 49-year-old salesman for a food company in Tokyo, said he couldn’t buy gasoline over the weekend.

“I went to more than 10 places on Saturday and Sunday and they were all sold out. Monday was no good, either.” He finally filled up his car’s tank at a Shell gas station in central Tokyo yesterday.

Fuel Supply

Idemitsu Kosan Co., Japan’s third-biggest refiner by market value, said some gasoline stations may be short of supply.

Idemitsu, which also operates gasoline stations, “tries to deliver gasoline, but whenever it arrives, consumers buy quickly, so the stations are running out of stock,” said Maki Yasunaga, a company spokeswoman, in a phone interview. “We have been getting more and more calls from people asking where they can buy gasoline.” The company’s stock fell 11 percent to 7,990 yen yesterday, the biggest drop since October, 2008.

Seven & I fell 12 percent to 1,879 yen in Tokyo trading, the most since it listed in September 2005. The broader Topix index plunged 9.5 percent and had its worst two-day plunge since 1987.

Ito-Yokado’s supermarket shelves are emptied of “daily necessities, especially cup noodles, water, rice, tissue paper and batteries soon after opening,” Seven & I’s Henmi said. Orders for household consumer goods have “doubled or tripled and for products like water, the orders are even higher,” he said.

Online Shopping

Panasonic Corp. plans to boost production of dry-cell batteries in Japan and may start importing the product from overseas factories.

At one of Yamada Denki Co.'s stores in Osaka, about 250 miles southwest from Tokyo, racks for flashlights and batteries sat empty.

Seven & I has 170 Ito-Yokado supermarkets in Japan, with more than 100 in the Kanto region, which encompasses Tokyo and six prefectures, and contains about one-third of Japan’s 127 million people. It closed 350 7-Eleven stores and 82 York Benimaru supermarkets. None of the Ito-Yokado outlets have been closed, Henmi said.

Some Tokyo residents are resorting to Internet purchases. Motoko Miura, who bought trash bags at the Papasu drug store, said she ordered 100 bottles of water from an online drug store on the day of the quake, which arrived two days later.

Butta Nosan, an online vendor, said orders have surged 10-fold since the earthquake. “I got an e-mail from a Tokyo resident whose family didn’t have rice for tomorrow, so I sent them some,” said Dai Adachi, spokesman for the closely held company.

Ogura, the rice-shop owner, said he won’t take advantage of surging demand to make more money. “I’m not going to raise prices,” he said. “If you do that, you will lose trust. Once the panic settles in, supply will return.”

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