The following comes to us from one of our friends and correspondents in Japan. After reading, please do whatever you can to lend a hand.
Just a few notes on the situation in Japan.
As you have heard, last week on Friday, in the middle of the
afternoon, on a normal working day, we experienced the largest
earthquake that I have ever experienced in living 20 years in Japan.
It started like a "normal" quake but just kept on increasing in
intensity for an extraordinary long time. I scurried across the floor
to get my desk and put on my hardhat. The company provides us with
hardhats and emergency supplies in a belt bag for just this
Immediately, cell phone coverage was effectively dead as the circuits
were overloaded. It remained so for several hours after the quake
though it was possible to get through to numbers if you were lucky,
though almost all calls ended in failure.
Our mobile phones' IP Internet service remained active and usable.
Twitter became the most reliable communication method and realtime
news about the situation came in all the time. I'm subscribed to
several earthquake alert services on Twitter and quickly realized
which area had been affected. Soon after the Tsunami warnings came in
via mail, and Twitter followed with what seemed bizarre commentary from
friends who were updating realtime about the amazing scenes they were
watching live on TV.
After several strong aftershocks during the afternoon, we were faced
with the problem of getting home. All trains in the Tokyo area had
stopped and didn't plan to restart that day except, amazingly for the
Shinkansen which started again within a few hours.
I posted my situation on Facebook and within minutes several friends
offered me a place to stay the night. I managed to chat with one of my
friends over Skype chat on my iPhone and headed off in his direction.
Near his house I called him by voice on Skype on the iPhone.
The walk over to his apartment only took about 30 minutes but it was
an amazing sight. Thousands of people were walking calmly along the
sidewalks next to the main roads. The convenience stores were stripped
bare of produce. All bentos, bread, pot noodles and other food stuffs
were gone. Also mobile phone chargers and batteries were immediately
sold out. All bicycle shops were sold out as people who had a long
walk purchased one there and then to ride home on.
Mobile phone shops were kept open to allow people to charge their phones
and NTT call boxes were set to allow free calls within Japan. Long
lines were reported at the phone boxes as there are so few public call
boxes left now in the streets and public places.
My home phone was not available as it is no longer provided via the
analog copper cable but is an IP phone that is connected to the DSL
fibre router provided by the phone company. During a power failure it
is dead. We were warned about this when we subscribed for the fibre
Internet service. I heard that landline to landline calls were
The following morning I searched on Google Realtime search for the
name of the station and train lines nearby. From 1 minute old Twitter
messages I could see people complaining about the 500m lines outside
the stations. Other people who had boarded the train were tweeting how
dangerously crowded the train was and how, once they had reached the
platform it had taken them an hour to actually board the train.
I decided to sit it out and caught the train back later when it was
less crowded, knowing in advance that the station was relatively
Many people were able to receive Skype calls on their iPhones or PCs
from relatives abroad but were unable to get through to their family
in the same city due to problems with the mobile voice network. We
also determined by coordinating over Twitter that SMSs were not
getting though. Some test messages never got through at all.
One more piece of technology which has proven not to work well is the
Earthquake pre-warning system. New mobile phones make a sound and
display a message before incoming earthquakes as the warning can be
broadcasted before the relatively slow moving ground waves arrive.
There was no warning for the first very large quake, which was a total
failure, and then random warnings throughout the night for relatively
moderate quakes. When a whole room full of people's phones suddenly
sound an alarm, it really adds to the fear factor.
On the subject of over-the-air broadcasts, Japanese TV excels at keeping people informed. Every few months we get a tsunami
warning and a map is projected over the TV program showing the areas
in danger. There are remotely controlled cameras in all the major
ports that NHK controls which usually in the end show tsunamis of 10
cms or so rolling in. The aerial footage that we have all seen is from
the TV company helicopters, it was broadcast live. It is routine for
them to head out over the affected areas at the first sign of an
Across the Kanto plain, where Tokyo and the surrounding areas lie, the
US military broadcasts on 810AM. During emergencies English speakers
can get information from this station. I haven't felt the need to
listen to this, yet. NHK is running 24hr bilingual news on their net
Concerning the nuclear crisis, the French Embassy advised their citizens to leave Tokyo unless
absolutely necessary whereas no notification has been given by others.
Some non-Japanese friends have just left the country.
I'm following the news, and checking against outside experts' analysis.
The information seems to match, but the explosions don't seem to be
part of the expected failure plan. I guess there is not really a
chance to test the design of a nuclear power station before it fails.
As far as I understand, the power plants were all automatically
scram'ed (by the "safety control-rod axe man") i.e., made safe
immediately. The reaction was dampened with the control rods but the
problem was then to dissipate the remaining heat as the reaction
subsides. At this point, the cooling and emergency cooling failed. The
water started to get super-heated breaking down giving off hydrogen
and oxygen which, when it was let out into the containment building to
reduce pressure, led to the explosion. When the officials pumped
seawater into the cooling system, you know they have given up on
trying to save the reactor as it usually requires very pure water to
avoid corrosion. I think, after that, you basically have to
decommission the reactor. It is certainly a mess that will take years
to clean up.
I'm generally in favour of nuclear power, but building power stations
in such an earthquake and tsunami prone area does not seem wise. I
don't understand why Japan doesn't build thermal power stations with
the abundant heat from volcanic sources.
Also, it's well known that the nuclear industry in Japan is scandal
ridden, so people are really looking closely at what they are saying
and fact checking.
I will reserve panic to when the US withdraws its personnel en masse
from their bases near Tokyo.
Due to the damage to the power stations, there are rolling blackouts
scheduled but they haven't come into effect yet. It is uncertain how
area by area blackouts will work. Will the trains stop? Will the
ticket machines work? Will there be lights in the stations on lines
that are running? No one knows. I expect Shibuya and Shinjuku will be
We found out the schedule for the blackouts from what was obviously a
pdf created from a copy of a fax! After announcing the blackout, TEPCO
(the electric company)'s website went down due to the load. I managed
to get a copy from someone who had archived it on their public Dropbox
folder. They announced the location on Twitter. I posted this to my
mailing list for local English speakers and people were soon helping
each other to translate it and tell others who were having difficulty
with the Japanese.
Google's disaster relief page has also been useful and we were able to
confirm that one friend in the badly affected area was alive by seeing
a confirmation message posted by a family member on his entry in the
people finder section.
Looking back, the thing that saved the day for me was TCP/IP. All
services web, chat, ip-phone, mail, except the phone company's mail
server, worked reliably. SMS and mobile voice phone cannot be relied
upon even if their network is working.
Lastly, I must note that for Tokyo this quake was an inconvenience.
For Northern Japan it is a disaster which has literally wiped whole
communities off the map. Only the roads remain where bustling towns of
many thousands stood hours previously. People have been rescued 10s of
kilometers out to sea sitting on house roofs. The office I work for
has branches around the country and as of Monday morning 200 people
were not able to be accounted for. Please ask everyone to give
generously to the international relief agencies that are supporting
the efforts. Please give to those agencies that you already know, as
several hundred fake domains were registered over the weekend in order
to scam people into donating to fake relief sites.
"Off The Hook" listeners in Tokyo, at least, are doing fine.
Stuart - Tokyo