Japan's Earthquake and Technology

Photo of Paul McMahon

Paul McMahon

Founder of TokyoDev

Last Friday, March 11th, there was a 9.0 earthquake in Northern Japan. Despite Tokyo being several hundred kilometers from the epicenter, it’s effects were felt even here (although to a much lesser extent than in Northern Japan). As someone who is interested in technology, over the last five days, I’ve collected the following observations about how technology as it relates to the quake.

Early Warning Systems

As in Japan earthquakes are a part of normal life, the country is designed to handle them. Beyond the buildings themselves being built to withstand quakes, there is an early warning system for earthquakes. When an earthquake is detected, there are warnings broadcast on televisions and even to mobile phones. However, although my mobile has received many warnings of earthquakes since the initial one, I never got a warning for the big one itself. Apparently the quake was detected by the early warning system and broadcast to TV, so I’m not sure why I didn’t receive one.


Soon after the quake, everyone tried to reach out to loved ones on their mobile phones. This brought down the cellular network, making it virtually impossible to get in contact via mobile until Saturday morning. As many people now only have mobile devices, long line-ups formed at payphones.

Despite the troubles of the cellular network, the Internet functioned perfectly. Knowing the news of this quake would soon reach my family in Canada, I preemptively sent them an email informing them of the quake and that I was alright. Soon after, I received a Skype call from my parents, and since then have talked daily with them by it.


I don’t have a television at home, but I do in my pocket. Though I rarely use it, like many Japanese mobiles, my phone comes equipped with 1seg, which allows me to watch TV on my phone. As I walked home from the office after the quake, I saw many people watching the events unfold on their mobile device. The portable nature of a mobile phone, plus the battery, make it superior device to a normal television in an emergency.

As watching television on your phone isn’t the best viewing experience, I’ve instead turned to the Internet. The major Japanese networks are using Ustream, which was already quite popular in Japan, to stream live broadcasts. NHK World has been broadcasting in English, but although they cover press conferences live with translation, the overall focus is more of an international nature. For up to date news, I turn directly to the Japanese channels. Although my Japanese isn’t so good, the news they present is targeted at people living within Japan.

The overall demeanor of Japanese media is in line with that of the general population - cool and calm. This is in stark contrast to international media which seems overly sensationalistic.

Social Networks

For timely information, Twitter has been my number one source. As it is a real time information\ source, it’s let me stay up to date with the situation of other people around Tokyo.\ One specific example where it was useful was when I mentioned that gas at my apartment was out. Immediately, I received a reply that I needed to press the reset button on the meter. In yet another example of earthquake preparedness, the gas meters in Japan are designed to automatically shut off in the event of a large earthquake. By pressing the button and waiting, as long as no leak is detected, normal operation resumes. If not for making this aside comment on Twitter, I would have been without hot water and home cooked food for at least a couple days, as I would have assumed the outage was normal.

As Facebook isn’t as real time as Twitter, I haven’t found it so useful for staying up to date. It does help me communicate with friends in Japan who don’t use twitter (such as one who had the same gas issue as me - unfortunately she waited a day before posting anything and thus went much longer without it) and family and friends abroad.

Geiger Counters

Amongst the fears over the Fukushima reactor, many people have set up Geiger counters and put the output up online. Some have the counter connected directly to the computer, others are putting its display on Ustream, and others still manually updating the data. Although some have detected spikes of several times the normal levels of radiation, none have detected anything even approaching harmful levels.

I think the biggest danger from this incident is not some giant death cloud of radiation enveloping Tokyo, but rather from irradiated food or water getting into the system undetected. I hope individuals like the ones doing this already are enough to make the government and companies ensure this does not happen.


Nuclear power and it’s safety have been discussed extensively by people far more qualified than myself to understand it, and as such leave it’s merits and risks to others. However, no matter the eventual outcome of the situation, it will have a profound effect on Japan. There are seventeen power plants around Japan, and the acceptance of them will no doubt be questioned by the communities living near them.

Japan already has an electricity shortage. Before the quake, Japan was excessively using power on stuff like neon signs, vending machines that talk to you, and pachinko parlours. However, even though this waste has been cut back, and many companies and factories have yet to resume normal operations, there are still scheduled blackouts throughout Tokyo and the surrounding areas. Dealing with this reduced capacity, especially as the crisis subsides and people want to resume their normal lives, will be perhaps Japan’s biggest challenge.

More about the author

Photo of Paul McMahon

Paul McMahon

Founder of TokyoDev

Paul is a Canadian software developer who has been living in Japan since 2006. Since 2011 he’s been helping other developers start and grow their careers in Japan through TokyoDev.

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