The automatic response when hearing that a natural disaster has struck is to call loved ones in the area to see if they are all right.

So it was only natural that when a series of large earthquakes hit the Chuetsu region of Niigata Prefecture on Saturday night, telephone lines connecting the area with the rest of the country were flooded with calls, making it difficult for them to get through.

To ease callers’ frustration, NTT East Corp. set up a voice mail service to help people in the quake-hit areas get in touch with those elsewhere, and vice versa.

By dialing 171 and following the Japanese-language instructions, callers can leave messages for people in affected areas. Those hit by the disaster can similarly leave messages for people outside.

NTT sets up the service whenever there is a major catastrophe. Messages should be no longer than 30 seconds and are erased after 48 hours. As of 2 p.m. Monday, about 307,000 users had either left or retrieved voice messages via the service, the telecommunications carrier said.

To make the voice-mail service more accessible to non-Japanese speakers, a Nagoya-based nonprofit organization posted instructions in English on its Web site, detailing how to use the service.

The organization, We can, supports the education of foreign children in Japan and Japanese returnee children from overseas. Leader Jun Sonoda is authorized by the city of Nagoya as a volunteer coordinator in the event of disasters.

The group drew up the manual in English in cooperation with NTT East and NTT West Corp. after Typhoon Meari hit Japan on Sept. 30.

On that day, a Japanese member of We can living in Mie Prefecture, which was hit hard by the typhoon, called Sonoda to ask how to use the 171 service.

“It was then that I realized the service was difficult to use, even for Japanese,” Sonoda said. “I imagined that foreigners (who do not understand Japanese) would not be able to use it.”

He suggested that those who leave a recorded message in a foreign language also mention the time and date, because the messages are time-stamped, but only in Japanese.

He also said that users should be aware that the messages will be replayed by the most recent one first.

We can’s Web site can be accessed at www.alter-navi.jp/we-can/

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