Tweets to cheer disaster victims find way into books

ONLINE SUPPORT OVER DISASTER — Hiroyuki Tsuruda, 20, founder of prayforjapan.jp Website, speaks in an interview in Tokyo on June 3. Kyodo News photo

TOKYO — When the magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck Japan on March 11 and knocked out telephone lines, Twitter was flooded with messages trying to reach people affected, including expressions of encouragement, and those words are now making their way into books as memorials of the country’s biggest postwar crisis.

“Pray For Japan,” a printed version of the prayforjapan.jp Website, became the No.1 seller at Kinokuniya Bookstore in New York in May, and a paperback dubbed “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, which 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, a staffer 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, and 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,” the spokesperson 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, an inland prefecture just south of 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 dark due to a blackout, initially to “share the moment with my close friends.”

It unexpectedly drew nearly 3 million online accesses 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 e-mails, 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 tie-up 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 e-mails 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 the book on iPad 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 a free English e-book in mid-April.

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

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

Among the some 200 volunteers are 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 language learning material publisher who released the bilingual version of the book for sale in Japanese bookstores, said he had been “overwhelmed” on reading the e-book. Proceeds from sales will be donated to the Japan Red Cross.

“This earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster are the biggest events to hit Japan since 1945. I had to help document this for future generations…There has been nothing as important as this in my life,” the British blogger said.

Social media journalist Hitomi Kumasaka said Twitter as well as Facebook “helped activate many Websites or messages supportive of Japan” due to their high information-gathering capabilities.

In Quakebook, a contributor from Tokyo said, “Together with thousands of people in my online community, most of whom I never met, I felt fear, gratitude and sometimes despair, but I never felt alone.”

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