TOKYO — Japan’s huge earthquake brought super-modern Tokyo to a standstill Friday, paralyzing trains that normally run like clockwork and stranding hordes of commuters carrying mobile phones rendered largely useless by widespread outages.
The magnitude-8.9 quake off Japan’s northeastern
coast shook buildings in the capital, left millions of homes across Japan without electricity, shut down the mobile phone network and severely disrupted landline telephone service. It brought Tokyo’s train system to a halt, choking a daily commuter flow of more than 10 million people.
“This is the kind of earthquake that hits once every 100 years,” said restaurant worker Akira Tanaka, 54.
He gave up waiting for trains to resume and decided — for his first time ever — to set off on foot for his home 12 miles north of the capital. “I’ve been walking an hour and 10 minutes, still have about three hours to go,” he said.
Tokyo prides itself on being an orderly, technologically savvy, even futuristic city. Residents usually can rely on a huge, criss-crossing network of train and subway lines. But after the mid-afternoon quake, authorities were forced to scan the entire web for quake damage and canceled nearly all train service for the rest of the day.
Tens of thousands of people milled at train stations, roamed the streets or hunkered down at 24-hour cafes, hotels and government offices offered as emergency accommodations.
Mobile phone lines were crammed, preventing nearly all calls and text messages. Calls to northeastern Japan, where a 23-foot tsunami washed ashore after the quake, generally failed to go through, with a recording saying the area’s lines were busy.
Unable to rely on their mobile phones, people formed lines at Tokyo’s normally vacant public phone booths dotting the city.
Osamu Akiya, 46, was working in his Tokyo trading company’s office when the quake send bookshelves and computers crashing to the floor and opened cracks in the walls.
“I’ve been through many earthquakes, but I’ve never felt anything like this,” he said.
Japan’s top telecommunications company, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp., set up an emergency phone line and a special Internet site for people to leave messages for family and friends.
Up to 90 percent of calls were being restricted to prevent telecom equipment from being overloaded, NTT spokeswoman Mai Kariya said. The company was checking on damage to towers and cables.
Superfast bullet trains, commuter trains and subways all were shut down, East Japan Railway Co. said. A handful of subway lines resumed service after a six-hour outage, and officials said they would run all night, past their usual hours.
When Tokyo trains suffer rare problems, they usually are running again within an hour. So, many people initially waited at stations. But when the railway company announced a suspension of nearly all service for the day, crowds poured into the streets.
City officials offered more than 60 government offices, university campuses and other locations for stranded commuters to spend the night.
The Tokyo suburb of Yokohama offered blankets for people who wanted to sleep at the community’s main concert hall.
“There has never been a big earthquake like this, when all the railways stopped and so this is a first for us,” Yokohama Arena official Hideharu Terada said. “People are trickling in. They are all calm.”
Although there were no power outages in central Tokyo, elevator services were disrupted in many buildings, in many cases intentionally shut down as a precaution.
In downtown Tokyo, Tomoko Suzuki and her elderly mother stood at a crowded corner, unable to get to their 29th-floor condominium because the elevator wasn’t working. They unsuccessfully tried to hail a taxi to a relative’s house and couldn’t immediately find a hotel room.
“We are so cold,” said Suzuki. “We really don’t know what to do.”