Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, 2011

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 devastated homes and lives (images courtesy Corbis/Bettmann).

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011 focused the world’s attention on Japan as that nation faced its greatest crisis since the Second World War. As the catastrophe spread to include a nuclear crisis and to affect the economy, it illustrated to the world the tragedy of a natural catastrophe that people might prepare for but can hardly imagine happening.

Japan Struck by Tsunami

The most powerful earthquake in Japan’s recorded history struck beneath the Pacific Ocean at 2:46 PM local time, 11 March 2011, 129 km east of Sendai and 177 km east-northeast of Fukushima. The quake was so powerful that it knocked the earth off its axis and shaved milliseconds from the time of day. As the stressed Eurasian plate lying under Japan rebounded, it spawned a deadly tsunami that rampaged over the northeast coast of the main island of Honshu in a horrifying spectacle and destroyed everything in its path. Japan’s worst previous recorded earthquake, in 1923 in Kanto, was of an 8.3 magnitude and killed 143,000 people. The 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Kobe in 1996 killed some 64,000. This 2011 earthquake was at a 9.0 magnitude.

Despite extensive planning and preparation by the Japanese, the death toll from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami is expected to exceed 20,000. At Miyako, the massive seawalls, which were built to withstand a 9-metre tsunami, proved useless because the earthquake had lowered the entire shoreline by a metre. One town, Minamisanriku, is missing more than 10,000 of its 17,000 inhabitants. Millions in Japan were left without electrical power, an estimated 46,000 structures were damaged or destroyed and nearly 200,000 people had to live in temporary shelters. Hundreds of aftershocks of considerable force shook buildings and disrupted transportation in Tokyo, the world’s largest city.

The tsunami also caused one of the most serious nuclear crises in history, at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. Although the facility was designed to survive a powerful earthquake and to resist a tsunami, it was unable to cope with both. The failure of the cooling systems for the reactors resulted in explosions, a partial meltdown of the reactor cores, and the spread of harmful radiation.

Global View of the Tsunami

Unlike the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the horror of the 2011 tsunami unfolded before the eyes of the world through the dramatic images recorded by surveillance cameras, mobile phones and hovering news helicopters. The disaster has left the world vividly aware of the vulnerability of the interdependent economy, of the long-term implications of nuclear power and of the tenuousness of life in the face of the very forces that created the world we live on. It has also shown the world the remarkable character of the Japanese, their community spirit, their resilience and their stoicism (“gaman”). Although it had abated by the time it reached the west coast of North America, the tsunami was a reminder to those who live in British Columbia, Oregon and California that they are no less vulnerable to the forces of the Ring of Fire.

In Canada, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon announced on 13 March that Canada would provide medical, engineering and financial aid to Japan. Private organizations such as the TD Bank Group made large donations and provided help in collecting public donations.

Learn more:
Earthquake and Tsunami near Sendai, Japan
Video of Japanese Tsunami