The earthquake in Japan and its aftermath

The largest magnitude earthquake in Japan’s recorded history struck the main island of Honshu on March 11 causing massive destruction and death.

August 9, 2011

By Dr. Rustin Gates

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake with the largest magnitude in Japan’s recorded history struck off the northeastern coast of the Japanese main island of Honshu. Minutes later, a massive tsunami, triggered by the earthquake and bringing with it waves over 30 feet tall, crashed into coastal towns causing massive destruction and death. Included in this destruction were several Japanese nuclear reactors that experienced huge explosions due to malfunctioning cooling units damaged by the tsunami. The nuclear crisis is currently ongoing as Japanese energy officials work round the clock to restore power and contain any nuclear fallout. The threat of radiation exposure has made rescue and recovery of victims problematic, something evidenced by the fact that as of late April there were more than 14,000 deaths confirmed and an equal number of people missing.

The nuclear emergency provides a new wrinkle for the Japanese as they confront the aftermath of their latest devastating earthquake. Resting squarely on the intersection of several tectonic plates, Japan has extensive experience with earthquakes. The first reliably documented major quake came in the year 599. More recently, the capital of Tokyo experienced a large earthquake in 1855 that, while only causing relatively few deaths (about 6,600), ignited fires that burned down much of the city. Northeastern Japan was hit by an earthquake-created tsunami towering 80 feet tall in 1896. Similar to the March 2011 disaster, water washed far inland and killed tens of thousands. In 1923, Tokyo experienced another and far deadlier jolt. The Great Kanto Earthquake killed more than 100,000 people and was responsible for a raging and widespread fire that destroyed much of the city. Many in Japan believed Tokyo would suffer yet again since earthquakes historically hit the region roughly every 75 years, but the next major quake in 1995 hit the cosmopolitan city of Kobe. Densely populated, Kobe suffered severe damage and tallied over 6,000 deaths.

With this background, the Great East Japan Earthquake, as the March quake is officially known, is simply the latest in a long line of seismic disasters to ravage Japan. While it is the largest quake to ever hit Japan in terms of magnitude, it resulted in considerably less loss of life than the earthquakes in Tokyo in 1923 and northeastern Japan in 1896. Moreover, the economic impact, while huge, is probably comparable to the destruction of much of Tokyo in 1923. This is not to downplay the enormity of the current disaster in Japan, but rather to illustrate Japan’s tragically common experience in mourning and rebuilding whenever the Earth shakes. Indeed, the process has already begun in northeastern Japan today, but it will be years, perhaps decades, before Japan has fully recovered. But here history can be useful in our understanding of the present, because it can offer not only context for comparisons but reasons for hope as well. Faced with devastation before, Japan has always rebounded to become something better than what it had been. I have no doubt Japan will respond the same way to this latest crisis.