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Twitter: Disaster in 140 Characters

Japan tsunami disaster: As Japan scrambles, Twitter reigns


BANGKOK, Thailand — Can Operation Yashima save Japan?

It did in a hugely popular Anime series, “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” Then, the hero tapped Neo-Tokyo’s energy grid to power a particle beam intense enough to destroy an invading robotic enemy.

Now, in the aftermath of last week’s tsunami, Japanese have taken to the web to rally for a real-life take on Operation Yashima. This plan is a bit less dramatic: use as little electricity as possible to spare their maxed-out power grid. But with nuclear reactors threatening to melt down, and radioactive fallout in the air, it is a sci-fi-tinged solution to a bona fide crisis.

This call to arms is being circulated on — you guessed it — Twitter.

It seems no natural disaster or revolt can pass without an examination of Twitter, the free internet social media service that lets users type out news, rants, epiphanies or cries for help in 140 characters or less.

Japan’s tsunami has drawn out all of this and more. It has also cemented Twitter’s relevancy in a country famously tough to crack for foreign-born social media companies.

Japan is the record-holding nation for most Tweets ever in one second: nearly 7,000 were fired off in a moment on the most recent New Year’s Eve. According to Web stats agency Comscore, Twitter is used by nearly 17 percent of Japanese citizens with internet access. (And in Japan, practically everyone does.)

Since the crisis began, Twitter has proved indispensable in a country with downed phone lines and cell networks crashing from a huge volume of calls. In addition to e-mail, many Japanese have turned to Twitter to find missing loved ones, according to translations of Japanese tweets.

“The safety of Kazumasa Shibayama’s parents and grandmother, who live in Natori, has not been confirmed,” wrote user @m_te18. “It seems they fled by truck. I’m asking for information from people who know anything. I’d be very happy if you disseminated this message to as many people as you can.”

Other tweets express sorrow and disbelief.

“I glanced at the news in the morning,” wrote @ouioui73. “A child was in a car and the parent was crying. I thought the parent was crying because the child was found alive. But, in fact, the child was found dead. It’s too cruel. Why did this happen?”

Other messages dwell on the practicalities of living in a nation dealing with nuclear fallout. (Using Japanese characters, a Twitter user can express much more within the 140-character limit than is possible using English.)

“If nuclear radiation is affecting people taking public baths, I’m concerned that people might be affected,” wrote @jam_tamako. “I called the public health center in Koriyama and they said even though there’s radioactivity in the public bath water, if you soak in the contaminated water for 5-10 minutes, it won’t penetrate your skin. So if you’re still worried about it, just take a shower after you come out of the public bath.”

Many Japanese have reported that while mobile phone calls have failed, the Internet has proven more reliable. In the panic following the tsunami’s arrival, internet traffic on mobile devices shot up by 80 percent in a matter of hours, according to Comscore stats.

A team from the U.S.-Japan Council, scheduled to meet Japan’s prime minister shortly before the quake struck, was among those unable get calls out to their families. “They couldn’t make phone calls, but they could access the internet,” said Stann Nakazono, a 47-year-old filmmaker and council member based in New York City. “They wrote ‘We’re OK, just a little shaken up.’ That’s actually how I first heard about the earthquake.”

Twitter is also being used to evaluate authorities tasked with pulling Japan through the crisis.

The message “#edano_nero” has circulated in support of the Japanese prime minister’s right-hand man, Yukio Edano, who has appeared red-eyed on TV at odd hours to update the public. The message means “Edano, get some sleep.”

Other campaigns pressured the overworked military to “get some food” and pressured Prime Minister Naoto Kan to figuratively “wake up” to the disaster’s severity.

Both inside Japan and abroad, Twitter has also become the most immediate method of sharing the latest mind-blowing tsunami footage. “There’s that addiction because it’s so instantaneous,” Nakazono said.

“It’s so surreal, so bad, and at the same time you can’t turn away,” he said. “We’re glued to it. A lot of us are really concerned about family members there.” Nakazono and others in the group JaJa, a network of ethnic Japanese living in the U.S., have since taken to using social media to start arranging fundraisers.

Meanwhile, as people in Japan struggle to make sense of what the premier calls their worst crisis since World War II, some Twitter messages evoke Japanese society’s storied perseverance.

“On Twitter, information is spreading that once the land is contaminated by nuclear activity people can’t live on that land again,” writes user @mokudo2ch. “Whether this is true or not is up to you to judge. But 1.17 million people are currently living in the city of Hiroshima.”