In a city where everything works, suddenly not quite everything does.
It's little things, mainly. Automated teller machines that stop dispensing cash. Bare shelves in the corner store. Express trains to the suburbs supplanted by chugging local ones. A darkened skyline and silent streets.
Residents of this frenetic capital are keenly aware that whatever daily inconveniences they encounter here pale beside the quake-spawned human tragedy and the accompanying nuclear crisis unfolding 140 miles to the north. In the days immediately after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami, Tokyo felt at times like another world, almost sheltered.
But now, in one of the world's most orderly and efficient megacities, every small new breakdown causes a palpable ripple of anxiety. People fear that it's a sign of far greater disorder to come, and feel powerless to ward it off.
"I didn't really need the cash, but ," said Hiroko Meiji, her sentence trailing off as she tucked away her bank card. Outside a downtown branch of Mizuho Bank, bowing, apologetic employees were turning away her and other customers. The bank's ATM network crashed for several hours.
Shortages are minor compared with those in the earthquake zone, but add to the nagging sense of concern. Staples such as milk and rice have all but disappeared, amid what seems to be panic buying.
"People are hoarding because they are bracing for what they fear could be another disaster," said Nobue Kunizaki, who heads the Risk and Crisis Management Education Center in Yokohama. "People want more information, but they don't seem to be getting it."
Life suddenly feels strangely unpredictable, stripped of its clockwork trappings. Thursday evening, the government abruptly warned of the possibility of a widespread blackout around Tokyo after the main utility company declared that the metropolitan area had nearly exhausted its daily allocation.
No blackout hit the capital, apparently because voluntary rationing by individuals and businesses proved sufficient.
Most people are still making their way to work each day. Even a mundane office job can offer distraction from the sense of existential dread over the possibility of a radiation cloud drifting south from the crippled plant. Earlier this week, an extremely small increase in radiation levels kept many people indoors.
One of the few places where there are crowds to be found are the city's main passport office and two main airports, where many people are trying to book domestic or international flights out.