For Kobe Quake News, Internet Outstrips TV

Worldwide users relay on-scene information

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

MOVE over, CNN. Here comes the Internet.

The worldwide computer network was first ''on the scene'' during the Kobe earthquake, giving many users around the world moment-by-moment news. The Internet even provided block-by-block damage reports, names of casualties, and other information well ahead of CNN.

In the first hours after the earthquake, which struck the area around Kobe at 5:46 a.m. on Jan. 17, satellite transmitters went down. The Japanese Meteorological Agency received its first reports on the earthquake more than a half-hour late because of damage to telephone lines. People searching for news of their loved ones were unable to get through jammed telephone-switching systems.

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Internet users, however, were more successful.

Stephen Turnbull, an American economist teaching at the University of Tsukuba near Tokyo, began reaching friends in Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto through the Internet within hours of the earthquake. He started broadcasting the addresses of working Internet sites and his own translations from Japanese television under the heading ''Quake News,'' by early afternoon.

On the other side of the Pacific, Shimpei Yamashita, a student at Stanford University in California, quickly assembled an earthquake ''home page'' that included information on casualties, relief information, and block-by-block damage reports. A former chairman of Japan's government-controlled broadcasting network, NHK, uploaded photos of the destruction onto the Internet using graphics software.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry, which launched its own on-line public-information service last August, offered quake information. The Jamaican Tourism Industry Board in Tokyo sent out an electronic SOS and collected a truckload of relief supplies that one of its staff members drove to Kobe the weekend after the earthquake.

''It was amazing,'' says Stephen Anderson, associate professor at the Center for Global Communications in Tokyo, which is promoting use of the Internet in Japan. ''It showed the power of a decentralized system. People were able to identify locations and get in touch with people that they couldn't reach by phone.''

The main hindrance to the Internet's coverage of the Kobe quake was the relative unfamiliarity of the Internet in Japan. Until September 1993, use was limited to universities and a handful of companies that could tap into university networks. Under pressure from Japanese firms and foreign entrepreneurs, the government finally relented and allowed the Internet to be available on a commercial basis. Since then, on-line use has exploded in Japan, but even now there are probably no more than 300,000 Japanese roaming the Internet compared with 20 million Americans, Professor Anderson says.

Not all the activity on the Internet in the days after the quake was aimed at relief for the victims or information-sharing. Arguments also erupted, as Japan-watchers debated Japanese construction standards and industry practices, criticized the late reactions of the Japanese government, or attempted to use the Internet to put pressure on politicians to accept more foreign help.

Among the more aggressive groups was the Dead Fukuzawa Society, organized by graduate students at the University of California at San Diego and named after Yukichi Fukuzawa, one of Japan's early Westernizers. Ulrike Schaede, a graduate student at Berkeley, wondered electronically why no one had mentioned ''the disastrous fact that the whole city of Kobe currently lies under a huge cloud of asbestos.''

Soothing words came from Ed Lincoln, a Brookings Institution economist now serving as an adviser to US Ambassador Walter Mondale. He wrote: ''What we should strive for is that we all learn from whatever mistakes or shortcomings are identified, so that the response to the next major earthquake -- wherever in the world -- will be better.''

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