Japan Earthquake: How was social media used?

This is an exploratory paper on a look at how locational technologies were not effectively utilized during the Japan Earthquake despite their availabilities through social media and mobile devices.   It also looks at how geo-enabling might be used to monitor future disaster relief efforts.

Part 1:  How Twitter was used after the Earthquake

For many us, the moments during and after March 11th, 2011 were both harrowing and unreal, as we saw the horrors of the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami unfold.  For those of us who were not physically in Japan, we were forced to look upon the disaster in despair, helpless to provide any immediate assistance.  What made this disaster closer to us, in some ways even personal to the global audience, was the abundance of social media streams that allowed the world to feel the pain, see user generated media content, and listen to what was going on… in real time.

My uncle’s house is underwater because of the tsunami. He is stuck on the second floor. Please save him. Ishinomaki-shi 3-2-26 #j_j_helpme

On March 11th, 2011, the tweet shown above was seen on Twitter.  It was a plea for help from a woman trying to save her uncle, trapped on the second floor of his house that was in a flood zone caused by the tsunami disaster in Ishinomaki.  She added the hashtag #j_j_helpme which was designated to be used for people seeking help in the aftermath of the earthquake.  Her plea for help was retweeted, over and over again.  She even left an address that allowed us to be able to locate her uncle.  Looking at the location on a map, sure enough, we find out that her uncle’s house was located in one of the hardest hit residential areas inundated by the tsunami.

Uncle’s house is in the tsunami flood zone

While it is unclear as to whether or not her tweet actually mobilized relief agencies to save her uncle, we are able to follow her thread by “following” her via her twitter account, and find out that just a few days later, she posted the following message:

“My uncle was rescued! Thank you everybody! I pray that others will be rescued as well!!!”

The power of the social web

It was through moments like these, following stories via the social web, that enabled many of us from around the world to experience what was happening on the ground, as if we were there.  In some ways, the spatial boundaries were bridged through the power of social media.  The social fabric of the nation quickly revolved around the usage of Twitter as the primary mode of communication, from requesting medical aid, assistance, seeking information about missing people, sending encouragement, and also reporting damage and transportation infrastructure statuses.  While Twitter was used predominantly to talk about entertainment and anime before the earthquake, it quickly morphed into something entirely different on the day of the disaster, where 72% of the topics were related to the Earthquake, and another 8% were on transportation.

Before and after Twitter topics

In some ways, Twitter became the virtual bulletin board for exchanging valuable information, disseminating it to the public, and utilizing the social networks to “spread the word” quickly and effectively.  For March 11 alone, 33 million tweets were reported in Japan, almost double the average daily usage.  Over the next 30 days, more than 700 million tweets were reported.  Out of a total population of 128 million, that is a lot of tweets, even when you take into account the fact that most users tweet multiple times.


The power of the “re”tweet

Part of the intrigue, and power of the social web, lies in its ability to transmit data through a multitude of networks that grows exponentially the more “popular” the information is.  In Twitter, this is accomplished through its “retweet”ing capabilities, the simple notion of sharing a tweet with others in your network, and subsequently having people in your network retweeting it again, until a single tweet reaches a massive audience, sometimes in a matter of hours.

In the case of the tweets related to the Earthquake, retweeting was used effectively to communicate infrastructure damage, missing person notices, and even announcing relevant hashtags. Here are some examples of tweets that were retweeted more than a thousand times:

Tweet from a hospital director in Miyagi announcing that 30 patients are near starvation, seeking food, medical equipment and fuel.

RT @tamtamhirai: 30人以上が餓死寸前です。食料、医薬品、燃料を至急お願いします。 宮城の県南地域には物資が全く来ません。 地域住民が30万人以上、孤立状態です。メディアに無視されてる地域です。助けてください 宮城県柴田町仙南中央病院病院長 鈴木健#311sppt #j_j_helpme

If you have crayons, leave them close to the children.  Children have the ability to draw what they are unable to communicate.  Do not stop them even if they draw pictures of dead bodies or violent scenes.  Drawing allows them to express their feelings, and helps them cope with the situation.

RT @syadoyama: 【保護者さまへ】クレヨン等があったら、子どもが使えるところへ置いてあげてください。阪神大震災の時も、子ども達の心に傷が残りました。表現できない感情をこどもは絵にします。死体の絵など暴力的な絵を描いても止めないでください。描くことで吐き出し、癒されていきます。#jishin

People in Iwaki are dying.  The media is going to Miyagi and Iwate, places that are safe to visit.  Iwaki has no food or water.  There is no media present.  There is no gasoline, and therefore no way to leave.
RT @lacrima_night: いわきの人、餓死してしまいます。マスコミは、宮城とか岩手とか、自分達が行っても安全な所しか報道していません。いわきは屋内退避になってから、食糧が届かない、給水もしてないという状況です。マスコミの報道も一切ありません。ガソリンもなくて、いわきから出ることもできません#jishin
RT @koollifekit: @naokoken77 非常に重要なことなので見やすくまとめます【被災地の方へ・救難信号】食料と水「F」医者「―」医療品「=」着陸可能「△」燃料「L」このマークを空からわかるように示しておけば海外の救助隊にも通じるそうです。 #j_j_helpme #save

The single most retweeted tweet

Among all the tweets, there was a single tweet that got retweeted more than 20,000 times:

RT @NamicoAoto: 父が明日、福島原発の応援に派遣されます。半年後定年を迎える父が自ら志願したと聞き、涙が出そうになりました。「今の対応次第で原発の未来が変わる。使命感を持っていく。」家では頼りなく感じる父ですが、私は今日程誇りに思ったことはありません。無事の帰宅を祈ります。#jishin

“My eyes filled up with tears when I heard that my father volunteered to go the the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, even though he will be retiring in just half a year. He said that “the future of this nuclear crisis depends on what we do now, and I must go.” At home, he is not always the most reliable father…but today, I have never felt as proud of him. And I pray for his safe return.”

While most tweets were informational in nature, the most “popular” tweet in Japan following the earthquake was about courage and sacrifice.  Because the effects of radiation typically takes years to kick in, it was the older generation that stepped up to the plate to go to the front lines, risking exposure, but knowing that they had fewer years to live than their younger counter-parts. In many ways, symbolizing the spirit of the Japanese people during these trying times, even prompting the Prime Minister to proclaim to these volunteers, “You are the only ones who can resolve a crisis. Retreat is unthinkable,” according to the Financial Times.


Just a day after the earthquake, Twitter announced a set of recommended hashtags to be used to categorize specific post-disaster situational needs:

General earthquake information: #jishin

Requests for rescue or other aid: #j_j_helpme

Evacuation information: #hinan

Confirmation of safety of individuals, places, etc.: #anpi

Medical information for victims: #311care

This information quickly went viral, and became recognized as the “official” hashtag by the public as was noted by many of the retweets regarding this announcement:

Tweet announcing the “official” hashtags to be used:

RT @Nya_Nya_JAM: twitter社より。統一のハッシュタグなどが発表になりました。情報の統合に協力しましょう。#jishin: 地震一般に関する情報#j_j_helpme :救助要請#hinan :避難#anpi :安否確認#311care: 医療系被災者支援情報

Part 2 of this paper will look at how Twitter, through the use of these hashtags were used during the days after the disaster.

Part 2:  Analyzing Post Disaster Twitter Data >>

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  1. Pingback: Japan Earthquake: How Social Media Should Have Been Used (Part 2) | The Urban Nomad

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