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In Japan: Fear of the unknown

Neena Sasaki, 5, carries some of the family belongings from her home that was destroyed after the devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 15, 2011 in Rikuzentakata, Miyagi province, Japan.

Kai Ryssdal: According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there've been three more earthquakes in Japan so far today. I didn't say aftershocks because all three of them were magnitude 6.0 or higher. That'd be enough to send people almost anywhere else in the world diving under their desks for cover.

The earth has clearly not settled around Japan and with the problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant still hanging overhead, people there are understandably a little unsettled themselves. We've got Rob Schmitz on the line from Japan once again. Hey Rob.

Rob Schmitz: Hey Kai.

Ryssdal: So first of all I guess, what's the mood, what's it like?

Schmitz: I spent most of the day in Tokyo and the people I spoke with there were not encouraged at all by a national address given this morning by the chief cabinet secretary. He broke the news that radiation was indeed leaking from one of the reactors at the Fukushima power plant. Prime Minister Naoto Kan also gave a national address today, and he told everyone there was a high risk of further radioactive leakage. That was right after he told everyone to be calm. And take a guess which part of that mixed message Japan's stock market glommed on to. So the stock market is now in a freefall; it's had the worst two days in 40 years, so there's clearly panic in the market here.

Ryssdal: Are people trying to get out? I mean, panic is a strong word when you talk about the markets, but it's even stronger when you start talking about people.

Schmitz: Yeah, and I'd say from my conversations today in Tokyo, people are starting to panic too. I was at the train station today and I talked to many people who are leaving. They'd heard the radiation news, and they'd also heard that winds would be blowing that radiation towards the city. Whether or not the amount of radiation found outside the reactor would travel all the way to Tokyo seemed unclear, but they weren't going to wait around to find out. Many folks I spoke to were going to stay with extended families in unaffected parts of southern or western Japan. And I met a lot of foreigners who were on their way to the airport, flying home. Foreign embassies are starting to tell their countrymen to leave, and many foreign businesses in Japan have relocated their foreign staff either outside the country or to unaffected cities with big airports like Osaka.

Ryssdal: So Rob, when you and I spoke yesterday, you pointed out how the Japanese tend to come together in times like this and do what the government says and they have a way of just snapping into line. The gentleman I spoke with on the show on Friday said the exact same thing. That does not sound like what's actually happening.

Schmitz: Yeah, you know, I think the reason for that is that the Japanese are receiving mixed messages about what's going at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. On the one hand, you've got the prime minister saying, 'Watch out for more radiation,' and on the other, the company that runs the plant insists that radiation levels aren't very high. But then you look at reports in the Japanese media -- it's clear the situation at Fukushima isn't improving. Add to the fact that most people simply don't understand how nuclear reactors work, nor much about radiation -- other than it's bad -- and you've got a situation with a lot of unknowns, and by nature, people are a little scared of the unknown.

Ryssdal: All right Rob, thanks a lot.

Schmitz: Thanks Kai.

Ryssdal: Marketplace's Rob Schmitz in Japan for us.

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