Quake tweets make their way into memorial books

by Mayu Yoshida

Kyodo

When the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck on March 11 and knocked out telephone lines across Tohoku, Twitter was flooded with messages as users tried to contact people in the disaster zone with words of both concern and encouragement.

Those words are now making their way into books as memorials to the nation’s biggest postwar catastrophe.

“Pray For Japan,” a printed version of the prayforjapan.jp website, was the top-selling book at Kinokuniya Bookstore in New York in May, while the paperback “Quakebook” hit bookstores in Japan in mid-June. Both are written in English and Japanese.

“Launching the website and publishing a book was my way of saying ‘don’t you dare forget that day,’ ” said Hiroyuki Tsuruda, a 20-year-old student who founded prayforjapan.jp. The book is primarily a compilation of tweets posted on the microblog about the disaster.

“Everyone had kindness in their heart that day. But, as time passes by, people are starting to forget the tragedy, especially in Tokyo,” the Keio University student said. “That was one of the reasons I decided to accept an offer to publish my website as a book.”

The book “consistently sold well throughout the month, especially among young Japanese living in the city,” said Ryosuke Hayashi of the Japanese bookstore’s New York outlet.

When the massive earthquake hit parts of northern and eastern Japan, including Tokyo, at 2:46 p.m., the Internet became practically the only communication tool. Twitter marked its highest number of daily tweets at 177 million, according to Twitter’s blog.

The social-networking site, which was relatively late to spread in Japan, also saw a record-high 572,000 new accounts created the following day, and has become “a lifeline in a time of disaster,” a representative said.

Hashtags such as #prayforjapan, #earthquake or #tsunami garnered thousands of messages per second worldwide at the time, according to Poynter Online.

Tsuruda, who was attending a driving school camp in Tochigi near Fukushima, where the disaster triggered a nuclear crisis, was one of those who watched the numerous messages streaming online, he recalled.

“A historical event was happening in social networks,” he said. “I felt sort of an obligation right away to take action, to convey it for future generations.”

He launched the website at 6:10 a.m. March 12, less than 16 hours after the earthquake, working two hours under a blanket inside a room that was darkened by a blackout, initially to “share the moment with my close friends.”

The website unexpectedly drew nearly 3 million online hits and was tweeted 150,000 times in 48 hours, and its Facebook page immediately became the seventh-largest in Japan, he said.

By March 20, Tsuruda had received nearly 1,000 emails, including from the United States and Germany, saying they were “touched” or “encouraged” by the website, as well as more than 200 inquiries from artists, media and advertising agencies asking for tieup projects.

Also, more than 30 translation volunteers came forward on the Internet and made prayforjapan.jp readable in 12 languages, he said.

“It was beyond my expectations and I was thrilled just reading those emails and offers,” said Tsuruda, who says he is also running a business with the dream of becoming an Internet service specialist.

He is now working to release an iPad version of the book around early July for more global readers. “After three months, I thought I must tell people that we should always keep this day in our mind,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Chiba Prefecture, a British blogger with the pseudonym “Our Man in Abiko” got his Twitter-sourced charity paperback put on the market June 14 via online store Amazon.com Inc. and bookstores in Japan.

The 40-year-old, who did not reveal his name, used Twitter to collect ideas, stories, volunteers and even the publisher for “2:46: Aftershocks: Stories from the Japan Earthquake,” nicknamed the “Quakebook,” which was initially released as an e-book in mid-April.

The collection of firsthand essays, art and photographs related to March 11, gathered in 15 hours through his tweet a week after the disaster, including from other parts of Asia, and Europe and North America, is now being translated for release in Dutch, German and Chinese, he said.

“Whenever I had problem, I would ask Twitter for help,” said the blogger, who works as an English teacher in the city of Abiko.

The some 200 volunteers include artist Yoko Ono and authors William Gibson and Barry Eisler. He says he has met none of them in person.

Tamio Okumura, editor-in-chief of a publisher of language -study materials who released the bilingual version of the book for sale in Japanese bookstores, said he was “overwhelmed” upon reading the e-book.

Proceeds from sales will be donated to the Japanese Red Cross.