Twitter, Facebook vital as Japan cell networks jam

Cell phone networks are jammed as millions of Japanese struggle in the aftermath of the 8.9-magnitude quake and the tsunami that hit the country Friday. Many are turning to social media.

Tim Hornyak
Crave freelancer Tim Hornyak is the author of "Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots." He has been writing about Japanese culture and technology for a decade. E-mail Tim.
Tim Hornyak
2 min read

Japanese are using social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and Mixi as cell phone networks are jammed following the 8.9-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northern Japan on Friday, killing at least 300 and leaving nearly 500 missing.

Carriers were limiting voice calls on congested networks, with NTT DoCoMo restricting up to 80 percent of voice calls, especially in Tokyo and in northeast Japan, where 30-foot tsunami waves caused extensive damage. (See video below.) But service was nil or patchy throughout the country.

With cell phone networks congested, Tokyoites line up to use pay phones at a post office by Kanda Station downtown.
With cell phone networks congested, Tokyoites line up to use pay phones at a post office by Kanda Station downtown. Brian Chapman

Carriers Softbank and Au were also affected, with Tokyo residents unable to send text messages to friends and loved ones. Friends have reported that they were able to contact family members on DoCoMo, but not others.

Twitter, Facebook, and Japanese social-media site Mixi were helping fill the communication gap though, as online networks held firm. However, Internet service was on-again, off-again in Tokyo.

Friends in Tokyo reported walking miles to get home from the Marunouchi district of the capital's downtown as subway services were suspended. Streets in the capital remained gridlocked, with highways shut down, early Saturday.

"The streets were so full of people walking, and it was so crowded it was like being in a morning rush-hour commuter train," said Toshie Niida, who works at a cable broadcaster in central Tokyo, in a Facebook chat. "It took me more than an hour to walk home."

"I saw a lot of people on the street talking on cell phones, but also long lines for every remaining pay phone," said Brian Chapman, a journalist living in Tokyo. "Facebook and Skype are proving to be the best ways to keep in touch. An on-the-scene reporter said a lot of people near the most damaged areas are getting a lot of their TV info from watching TV on their cell phones, because regular TVs aren't working."

Gregory Starr, a Tokyo-based editor, commented on Facebook: "I've given up trying to get anywhere close to home. The convenience stores have been stripped bare of all food, but luckily there were a few cans of beer."

Christopher Johnson, a reporter who lives in Tokyo's Setagaya-ku, said: "I ran out of the shower, grabbed a towel and ran outside, watched our old Japanese house shake side to side for what seemed like more than a minute."

"It seems as bad as the Kobe earthquake in 1995," Johnson added in a Facebook chat. "The problem now is fires and the extreme cold in the north, where people are afraid to sleep indoors. And what about all those seniors living in coastal fishing villages?"

Maiko Takemaru, who works at a video rental shop in Shibuya, Tokyo, said DVDs were shaken off shelves and staff were looking at a long cleanup.

"I had a traumatic reminder of my time in the 1995 Kobe earthquake," Takemaru said in a Facebook chat. "Kobe was worse in terms of the terror, but I was still scared out of my wits today in Tokyo."