The Kobe Earthquake: Telecommunications Survives at Kobe University


Soon after the devastating, 7.2 magnitude temblor of the "Great Hanshin Earthquake Disaster" hit the Kobe, Japan area at 5:46 A.M. on January 17, 1995, Mayumi Morimoto, professor of Cross-Cultural Studies at Kobe University, escaped through the window of her crumbled Ashiya condominium complex with only her Macintosh PowerBook 160/14/80 in her backpack. Across town, Virginia Garland, Visiting Professor of English and American Studies at Kobe University, along with her husband and two cats, evacuated their damaged high rise apartment building. They watched news of the disaster on CNN on a Sony Watchman television set in a nearby elementary school shelter.

Professors Morimoto and Garland were initially unaware that the pre-dawn earthquake would claim more than 5,400 lives, including 249 foreigners, and that they were among 300,000 people who had instantly become homeless during the 40 seconds which shook them and their apartments in the greatest vertical tremors from an earthquake ever recorded.

The two faculty colleagues had both become survivors and evacuees. However, they found that the latest telecommunications technologies from Japan and the United States were effective tools in dealing with this tragedy in the hours and days which followed.

Infrastructure Interrupted

Several communications-related issues were evident on the day of the quake, when it became increasingly apparent that the cities of Kobe, Ashiya and Nishinomiya were isolated from the rest of Japan.

Radio and TV broadcasts indicated that raging fires and continuous aftershocks were contributing to the destruction. Telephone contact within the devastated Hyogo area was impossible, but phone communication was possible to other prefectures in Japan and to foreign countries. Transportation was also cut off, due to the unprecedented collapse of major highways and railroad lines.

Professors Garland and Morimoto both lived in Ashiya, one of the hardest hit areas. Separated by the severed Hanshin, JR and Hankyu railways and the horrifically overturned Hanshin Expressway, the two friends were unable to contact each other until January 18, through emergency phone lines belatedly set up by the Japanese Self Defense Forces (SDF) at the school shelter to which Garland and her family had evacuated. It was clear that the people in the quake-stricken cities had to re-establish contact with friends, relatives, colleagues, employers and students as well as with disaster relief and embassy personnel in the national and international community as soon as possible.

At Kobe University, two staff and 39 students (including seven international students) from the 14,000-strong student body perished in the quake. All of the laboratory animals in the Biology Department at the Faculty of Science died of cold and starvation. Faculty members, especially in the downtown Kobe University School of Medicine, lost vital research data and samples. Many faculty, staff and students were injured and lost their homes.

Over 1,100 people in Kobe's destroyed Nada ward took shelter in the university's gymnasium. Physical damage was minimal at the Rokko mountain campus but use of the Internet was temporarily halted with a power outage. Computers on rolling carts and heavy weight computers on tables were generally undamaged; but other computers were destroyed by falling furniture, particularly bookcases. Normal telephone and fax communications were cut off.

Can't Stop the 'Net

Masao Tanaka, Dean of the Faculty of Cross-Cultural Studies, bravely managed to get to his Kobe office from his Osaka home on January 17 and promptly implemented emergency government telephone lines. Tanaka first contacted all parents of the 280 Cross-Cultural Studies majors, then he determined the status of his faculty colleagues and staff members.

The dean's office continued to operate by phone, fax and computer on a 24 hours-per-day basis for several weeks after the earthquake. Steven Sliwa, President of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, evaluates this type of telecommunications use by universities: "Most people expect information technology to improve the productivity and effectiveness of student services and administrative aspects of higher education...information technology and telecommunications present a substantial opportunity for universities to take the initiative."[1]

In the immediate aftermath of the quake, the latest in telecommunications technology was used in the sharing and updating of information as well as in communicating disaster relief measures. Ben Shneiderman discusses the educational role of modern telecommunications: "Advanced communications tools (electronic mail, network access, bulletin board systems, videotape recorders, TV broadcasts) support engagement among students, connection to the external world, information gathering and dissemination of results... Electronic mail opens up new possibilities for cooperation among students, guidance from teachers, and communication with national or international leaders."[2]

One of the most advantageous means of beginning contact was through the Internet. Rivera and his colleagues at the University of Alabama have researched the benefits of interpersonal communication via the Internet: "Another big advantage is the ability to send messages directed at groups of users or all users on a system. Many employ this technique to spread news of particular events quickly and also to ask for help, ideas or opinions. This capability provides both an up-to-date source of information and also facilitates dissemination of important events (e.g. Tianammen Massacre). Most of these features are also available on a global basis when a LAN is linked to outside resources such as the Internet."[3]

Fortunately, Morimoto and Garland had electronic mail accounts through Kobe University prior to the January 17, 1995 earthquake. Kobe University operates the Kobe Hyper Academic Network (KHAN). Internet access was recovered after only a few hours.

Two weeks after the earthquake, Professor Matsuda of Kobe University's Department of Earth and Planetary Science, wrote this e-mail account of his use of the multimedia version of Internet, the World Wide Web (WWW), and cellular phones: "At Kobe University they are making WWW home pages dedicated solely to the Great Hanshin Earthquake Disaster. If you're interested, please check it out. It seems to be a useful tool for the information on the victims and survivors from abroad... I'm sure you are aware that the phones were disconnected at the beginning. I hear that the government phone lines went through. (We have government phone lines connected to government facilities throughout Japan at Kobe University.) In short, the dedicated exclusive lines were OK. I personally hate cellular phones. I doubt the person's common sense when I see somebody talking aloud on the trains. But in such a condition cellular phones came in handy. I talked to my department chair over cellular phones on 19th January, 1995."[4]

Garland and Morimoto used Macintosh PowerBooks to e-mail and fax messages to their friends, colleagues and students in Japan, the U.S. and Australia prior to evacuating to Morimoto's sister's house in the Osaka area a few days after the quake. The Department of Physics in the Faculty of Science at Osaka University made a Hewlett Packard 712/60 available to the two dislocated Kobe University faculty members.

Morimoto forwarded both Japanese and English e-mail from Kobe University to the Hewlett Packard computer in Osaka, which now served as an Internet access point. By January 19, 1995 Morimoto, along with other concerned faculty and students, was using the Internet through Osaka University to organize national and international volunteers for earthquake relief in the Kobe area.

Morimoto, was using the Internet through Osaka University to organize national and international volunteers for earthquake relief.

Electronic Lifeline

The authors' "real life, action research" indicates the vital importance of advanced telecommunications technology in the aftermath of great tragedies.

They conclude that the more recent communication tools are more effective than older versions. For instance, e-mail was the only means of personal communication for the first few days after the Kobe earthquake due to the lack of normal telephone, mail and transportation services. Internet users found their newer, portable computers, with built-in modems for fax capabilities, of greater value than their older and heavier stand-alone computers. When most telephone services were restored, cellular and portable phones were still used by people who were spending long hours in shelters or waiting in lines for food and transportation. Many survivors watched CNN and other broadcasts of the Kobe quake on miniature, portable LCD television sets.

It is hoped that, in the future, educators and others involved in such emergencies will be aware of the value of these telecommunications and network capabilities.

Daniel G. Foster, an instructional technology specialist, refers to e-mail as: "An electronic lifeline... E-mail was efficient, carrying information in a manner commensurate with its urgency (and seriousness)... Work on getting your people to find not the most accustomed form of communication, but the most efficient."[5]

Furthermore, Japanese writer Kumon believes that use of the Internet is important to the global community. "I believe that it is important for us to develop new forums for dialogue between citizens of countries around the world, using new tools like the Internet for this purpose as a supplement to the existing media."[6]

Perhaps similar natural disasters as the recent Kobe earthquake cannot be avoided, but the use of enhanced technology can minimize their destructive impact.

Virginia Garland, an associate professor of Education in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of New Hampshire, is currently a visiting professor at Kobe University. She has had two previous articles in T.H.E. Journal, one on administrative applications and one on computer training in China. E-mail:

Mayumi Morimoto is an associate professor in the Department of American Studies in the Faculty of Cross-Cultural Studies at Kobe University, Japan. She is an instructional designer and multimedia specialist in both Japan and the U.S. E-mail:

1. Sliwa, S. (1994), "Re-Engineering the Learning Process with Information Technology," Academe, 80(6), pp. 8-12.
2. Shneiderman, B. (1992), "Engagement and Construction: Educational Strategies for the Post-TV Era." Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 4(2), pp. 106-116.
3. Rivera, J. C., Singh, S. K., Messina, F. M., & McAlister, K. (1994), "Maximizing Use of Academic Computing Resources," T.H.E. Journal, 21(10), pp. 94-97.
4. Matsuda, T. (1995), "Great Hanshin Earthquake Disaster Report 3," Butsuri (Physics).
5. Foster, D. G. (1994), "In Praise of LAN-Based E-Mail: A Personal View from a College Service Center," TechTrends, 39(2), pp. 25-27.
6. Kumon, S. (1994), "Across the Japan-U.S. Cultural Divide," Japan Echo, 21(40), pp. 46-47.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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