Foreigners in Japan rely on Twitter for breaking news

Twitter has been a lifeline for Westerners both inside and outside of Japan as they try to keep up with fast-moving events following Friday’s massive earthquake and the tsunami that followed.

The social networking service has often been the fastest way for non-Japanese speakers in the country to learn what is being said at government press conferences and in news reports carried by NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting service.

The events unfolding at a nuclear power plant in the Fukushima prefecture were of particular concern, especially after NHK carried alarming footage Saturday of a large explosion that destroyed the top of the reactor building.

Japanese officials held press conferences broadcast live on television later in the day and Twitter users including several Western journalists tweeted the main points in English as they were delivered, before stories had appeared from outlets like Reuters and CNN.

“Edano says TEPCO confirmed no damage to inner container at building of Fukushima No. 1 during explosion,” tweeted TokyoReporter during a briefing from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, referring to the Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Twitter was also used, along with Facebook, Linked In and other social networking services, to keep family and friends overseas up to date with the events unfolding in Japan. Bill Imada, a Los Angeles-based marketing and advertising executive, was in Tokyo with a delegation to enhance Japanese-American relations when the quake struck.

“As it was unfolding in Japan we were sending tweets about what was being reported by the foreign ministry and other sources,” Imada said in a telephone interview from Tokyo Monday.

He is part of a network of Japanese-American bloggers in the U.S., he said, who were relaying his tweets to a larger audience back home. Erwin Furukawa, a vice-president with Southern California Edison who was part of the same delegation, said he send news home via text messages from his Blackberry.

“The cellular networks were inoperable for voice calls but the fact that we were able to send text messages and tweets to keep people updated was phenomenal, and Skype was working too,” Furukawa said. “I’m thinking that 10 years ago this whole situation would have been totally different.”

Many of those tweeting minute-by-minute updates have been journalists, including TokyoReporter, Justin McCurry from the Guardian and Martyn Williams of IDG News Service. The Japanese prime minister’s office PR director, Noriyuki Shikata, has also been tweeting regularly, as has John Roos, the U.S. ambassador to Japan

Twitter has also been used to convey an entire narrative of events. The Wall Street Journal reporter Daisuke Wakabayashi set out by car with two colleagues on Friday night for the badly damaged Miyagi prefecture and recounted the entire experience via Twitter, including detours along crumbling streets and lining up for five hours to buy gas.

“We are finally getting to look at the damage near Sendai Airport. It is a stunning scene. Planes and cars are under water, he tweeted Sunday morning.

Twitter has also relayed alerts from Japan’s earthquake early warning system in close to real time. The warning system interrupts television shows with an alarm and flashes information on the screen in large red letters about the location of a quake and the prefectures where strong shaking is expected.

They too are being translated almost immediately into English. The tweets may not reach people in time for them to prepare, but they at least let them know what they are experiencing, or that the expected tremor occurred in another part of the country.

Social networking sites also shared news about which trains in the capital city were running. A search for “Narita Express” on Sunday morning, for example, revealed that the train service to the airport had resumed service. The most up-to-date information wasn’t always posted on the Internet, and the customer service phone number for the airport service was often busy.

The massive quake, the fourth largest on record, has produced dozens of aftershocks of magnitude 4.5 or higher. Several sites, including Earthquake Bob and NewEarthquake are posting an automated stream of those events as recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey.

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