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Panic-buying adds to Japan's woes

Tinned goods, batteries, bread and bottled water have vanished from store shelves and long lines of cars circle petrol stations as Japan grapples with a new risk set off by last week's earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis: panic-buying.

Far outside the disaster zone, stores are running out of necessities, raising government fears that hoarding may impede the delivery of emergency food aid to those who really need it.

"The situation is hysterical," said Tomonao Matsuo, spokesman for instant noodle maker Nissin Foods, which donated a million items including its Cup Noodles for disaster relief. "People feel safer just by buying Cup Noodles."

The company is trying to boost production, despite earthquake damage which closed down its facilities in Ibaraki prefecture until Tuesday.

The frenzied buying is compounding supply problems from damaged and congested roads, stalled factories, reduced train service and other disruptions caused by Friday's magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan's north-east coast and the major tsunami it generated.

Renho, the minister in charge of consumer affairs, who goes by one name, asked people to refrain from buying items they do not really need.

Many shelves were bare at a Family Mart convenience store west of Tokyo. Owner Kazuhiro Minami was expecting a small delivery, but said he would have to shut anyway if the electric utility decided to go ahead with proposed three-hour rolling blackouts.

"I'm really, really worried," he said, blaming hoarding, distribution problems and worries that there might be another quake.

Even in the western city of Hiroshima, which was untouched by the earthquake and tsunami, stores are running out of batteries and the media is warning people not to hoard, a local government official said.

Panasonic, which donated 500,000 batteries, 10,000 torches and 300 million yen (£2.3 million) for quake victims, boosted battery production at its Osaka plant by adding work shifts. It also increased shipments from its battery factories in Thailand and Indonesia. Retailers said they have not seen such panic in years, perhaps since the oil crisis in the 1970s.

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