Q: During the big Tohoku earthquake, all landline and mobile phone lines were practically blocked.  Surprisingly, Internet was still available.  Those with a postpaid mobile internet plan were able to access thru their phones and some form of contact was established to those with live Internet connections.

I dread to think how it would be if an earthquake struck while my non-Japanese speaking child is on the train by herself and everything stops.  So, we’re thinking of ways how to keep connected during this period.

My family rarely uses the phone, so we’re all on prepaid plans including our middle school child.  Would anybody know if prepaid phones can access the Internet (Gmail, to be exact)?  If not, what could be a good alternative to connect to the Internet in an emergency situation (e.g., no power, no trains, etc.)?



A: Wilderness travelers, mountaineers, and deep sea sailors use satellite phones to communicate anywhere in the world. They work because satellites are not affected by local communications services. They are very expensive though.

One new system that is in prevalent use in the States and is quickly spreading around the world is the SPOT Satellite Messenger which can locate where you are by GPS and also allows you to send messages. They haven’t really been established in Asia yet, but they probably will, soon. This disaster is probably one very good reason for Japan to hurry up and adopt a system like this. I’d like to get a SPOT device for use when I go climbing mountains for use with the possibilities of something happening with my diabetes.

I should add, that if the recipient of a Skype or Fring call is also using Skype or Fring, the calls will go through, because they are using the internet. Skype and Fring will also call regular phone lines, and that is where they might not work.

Softbank is the worst system to have in Japan. There was a test last autumn in Yama to Keikoku magazine (mountaineering magazine) to determine how useful each telephone company is in the mountains, away from towns. In almost all cases Softbank failed to connect. Docomo did the best, and AU was second.

For those of you with iPhones, from April the government has ordered that Softbank may no longer hold exclusive rights to the iPhone and you will be able to change carriers to Docomo just by going into their service centers and having the SSL chips converted. I will do that as soon as I can, so I can get better service and cell phone coverage.

The internet works separately from the phone network and that’s why so many people were able to communicate during the earthquake with Twitter and Facebook. One thing you can use is “Internet Phone software”, or apps, like Skype, Fring (download it for free here), or Viber. With these you can make very cheap (around ¥2,000 for several hours of talking) calls to anywhere in the world. During the quake when my iPhone couldn’t connect, I downloaded Fring, paid for the ¥2,000 phone plan, and managed to hook up with my mother and brother in the States. The only problem was that because the Japanese phone lines were down I couldn’t use Fring to call people here in Japan. Email did get through, though. SMS messages, because they use the phone network, didn’t.

– – M. A.

Read also the touching story of  the heroic hospital staff worker, Shigeru Yokosawa, who sacrificed his life during the tsunami to secure a satellite phone for the tsunami-hit hospital in Rikuzen-Takata, Iwate.

Ultimate sacrifice given for a lifeline / As tsunami rushed in, hospital worker spent his last seconds securing satellite phone

Yusuke Amano / Yomiuri Shimbun

RIKUZEN-TAKATA, Iwate–An administrator at a hospital destroyed by the March 11 tsunami gave his life to protect a precious lifeline–a satellite phone that was doctors’ only link to the outside world after the disaster.

Sixty-year-old Shigeru Yokosawa was scheduled to retire at the end of the month, but he died in the tsunami that consumed Takata Hospital in Rikuzen-Takata.

Since that tragic day, the hospital’s staff has continued to work in a makeshift clinic, using the satellite phone to communicate with rescuers and aid workers. Land lines and cell phones in the city were out of service after the disaster, making the satellite phone the only way to request medication and call for help with patients needing emergency care.

Just after the main tremor hit, more than 100 people–hospital staff, patients and local residents who had come seeking shelter–were in the four-story concrete building. Minutes later, people started shouting a huge tsunami was approaching.

According to Kaname Tomioka, a 49-year-old hospital administrator, he was on the building’s third floor when he looked out the window and saw a tsunami more than 10 meters high coming straight at him. Tomioka ran down to the first floor staff room and saw Yokosawa trying to unhook the satellite phone by the window.

Satellite phones are vitally important during disasters, when land lines are often cut and cell phone towers are down.

Tomioka shouted to Yokosawa, “A tsunami’s coming. You have to escape immediately!” But Yokosawa said, “No! We need this no matter what.”

Yokosawa got the phone free and handed it to Tomioka, who ran up to the roof. Seconds later, the tsunami struck–engulfing the building up to the fourth floor–and Yokosawa went missing.

Hospital staff could not get the satellite phone to work on March 11, but when they tried again after being rescued from their rooftop refuge by a helicopter on March 13, they were able to make a connection. With the phone, the surviving staff was able to ask other hospitals and suppliers to send medication and other supplies.

On March 15, four days after the quake, the remaining staff set up the makeshift clinic in a community center and went back to work caring for patients. Since its launch, the makeshift clinic has seen more than 150 patients a day.

As of Tuesday, the satellite phone was still the only available tool for obtaining information about patients in shelters who needed emergency care.

Health issues the clinic attends to vary widely–from chronic disorders such as high blood pressure and diabetes, to shock, insomnia and other psychological distress caused by the earthquake.

Rigio Kikuchi, 83, who was a regular patient at the hospital for high blood pressure before the disaster said, “It’s really helpful that I can still get my medication under such circumstances.”

On Monday, Yokosawa’s wife Sumiko, 60, and his son Junji, 32, found his body in a morgue. On Tuesday, they brought him back home to Shiwacho in the prefecture.

Yokosawa’s job as a prefectural government hospital administrator took him to many places throughout his career, sometimes far from his family. Two years ago, he became the hospital’s chief administrator.

Yokosawa’s coworkers praised him for his gentle ways and the attention he paid to patients.

Sumiko said when she saw her husband’s body, she told him in her mind, “Darling, you worked hard,” and carefully cleaned some sand from his face. She said she had believed he was alive but had been too busy at the hospital to contact his family.

“I’m proud of all the good my husband did for the people there,” she said. “Now that his body is at home, his soul should be at rest.”

Someone has taped a piece of paper to the satellite phone that reads: “Yokosawa’s phone. Our chief is helping us from heaven.”

(Mar. 24, 2011)
This next article spotlights the use of the mobile-Internet during disaster by AKKY Akimoto with Japan Times, Wednesday, March 16, 2011



The mobile-Internet is a lifeline for people in postquake confusion

When the earthquake hit northern Japan on Friday, voice calls from mobile phones became immediately unavailable in order to leave room for emergency calls. However, in the Kanto area, mobile Internet connection was mostly kept on, and many people turned to the Web to exchange information.

On Japan’s main social networking site, mixi, some communities were set up soon after the quake to keep people informed. The largest one now has over 300,000 members and it has guides to communities by region and purpose.

Mixi also has a function that displays how recently your friends logged in, so you can check if your friends have accessed mixi after the quake. Another feature,ashiato (footprints) — which was once one of the key attractions to mixi — shows when another user viewed your page (profile/diary/message/etc). While itis possible to send messages to your most important family and friends, features that do not require any direct interaction meant that even those who are not close friends can see who is OK.

Twitter was heavily used as well. When most railways stopped in greater Tokyo on Friday evening, many office workers were isolated in central Tokyo and decided to either stay put or walk back home. A lot of assistance was offered over Twitter by stores, restaurants, campuses and even people in houses along main roads who tweeted that help was available. Twitter even set some official hashtags to help identify your tweet, such as #jishin (general earthquake information); #j_j_helpme (requests for rescue or other aid); #hinan (evacuation information); #anpi (confirmation of safety of individuals, places, etc.); #311care (medical information for victims). And although it is not official, #jishin_e seems to be used for English, too.

TV news was also able to get out beyond normal channels as people utilized services such as Ustream and Nico Nico Douga. Initially, some users began redistributing NHK and other TV news video on Internet live video-streaming sites, then some TV networks including NHK, TBS and Fuji officially gave permission and opened channels saying: “This is an emergency and any method to share information is appreciated.” Some of the live-video streams online saw the number of viewers exceed 100,000 people.

Internet radio also played a part, as the Radiko online station temporarily deregulated its regional block. Usually, it is limited within certain prefectures due to broadcast licenses. Kanto-based radio stations such as InterFM can also be listened to on PC and smart phones.

As news of the massive damage in the northeast became more widely known, people began thinking of ways to help people in the Tohoku region.

Many big websites are accepting donations via their usual payment methods. Some simply accept money, while others are selling avatars, coupons and virtual items, with proceeds going to charities. Some software/service vendors are offering their apps for free in Japan.

Grassroots activities are also emerging. A student at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies created a website and called for people to translate advice on how to cope with the earthquake, and received many responses via Twitter and other networks. The site has now been translated into 28 languages, with the aim of helping foreigners in Japan: nip0.wordpress.com/.

In an effort to conserve electricity there are now blackouts in the Kanto area, and some websites are reassembling the official PDF information from Tokyo Electric Power Company, offering address and postal code searches to check when and how long your area will be blacked out (see list below).

People in Japan who are still able to use the Internet know they are lucky, and the idea that you can somehow contribute to those less fortunate is widespread. The Web has surely played a major part in this.

Info on power blackouts:
machi.userlocal.jp/teiden/en.php (in English)
Streaming video: Ustream:
NHK www.ustream.tvuser/NHK-TVUstream
TBS www.ustream.tv/channel/tbstvTV
Nico Nico Douga live.nicovideo.jp
Radiko.jp radiko.jp
Enterprises Efforts on Helping Disaster Victims:

Akky Akimoto writes for Asiajin.com, an English blog on Japanese web scene
Ensure communication lines can withstand disaster (From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 3, 2011; retr. from Daily Yomiuri Online Apr. 4, 2011)

After a disaster, people desperately want to confirm their families are safe as soon as possible. They want to let others know they are fine as well. Accordingly, many people felt frustrated that they could not contact their loved ones soon after last month’s massive earthquake because phone lines were down.

Last month’s earthquake smashed communication networks in the Tohoku region. But in the event of a disaster, it is essential to ensure communication lines still operate so people’s safety can be confirmed and the extent of the damage gauged. Communication infrastructure is a vital lifeline–just like supplies of water and food; it must be further strengthened.

The Tohoku Pacific Offshore Earthquake disrupted about 1.5 million fixed-line telephones, five times more than the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake did.

Cell phones, which had previously been trumpeted as reliable during a disaster, were practically useless after the Tohoku earthquake because 14,000 base stations became unusable and cell phone companies limited connections to prevent system overloads due to the flood of calls.

We hope telecommunications companies will develop facilities and provide services that can better withstand disasters. Base stations supporting cell phone networks will quickly run out of power and grind to a halt if an outage occurs. Their power systems must be strengthened, and priority should be given to ensuring cell phones remain operable at administrative bodies, hospitals and evacuation facilities.


Public phones to the fore

The importance of public phones must also be recognized again. In a disaster, communication via public phones is given priority over ordinary phones. The number of public phones, however, has halved in the past decade. Operators of public phones should examine where the phones are, and install however many more are necessary.

During the latest disaster, text messages, disaster bulletin boards and new information services such as Twitter were more effective for sharing and passing on information than voice messages were. Text information can be sent instantly, unlike spoken messages, and is easy to access. We hope people will prepare various means of communication even during normal times.

Local governments will need to consider how to best provide disaster-related information in the Internet age.

The earthquake alert system sends instant text messages to cell phones located within a certain range when a quake is detected. It may be worth considering expanding this service and offering tsunami alerts and evacuation advisories as well.


Internet a valuable tool

The Iwate and Miyagi prefectural governments developed a system to help search for the names of people who had been forced to take shelter across their prefectures. This was set up to help the many people–even those in evacuation centers–who had no way to tell others where they were.

Local governments would be wise to actively use the Internet to provide disaster victims with more detailed information about available services and matters that have an impact on daily life. The Internet also is a useful tool for people who travel to many evacuation centers to search for family members. We hope local governments will expand these efforts.

However, if the Internet and cell phone text messages play major roles in the event of a disaster, an “information gap” could open between people with access to them and those without. This “disparity of connectivity,” which likely will disadvantage the elderly, will need to be addressed.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 3, 2011)

(Apr. 4, 2011)