Not the deadliest, but by far the costliest natural disaster in world history happened on March 11, 2011, when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded in the country, struck northeastern Japan.
The subsequent tsunami killed almost 16,000 people, while nearly 2,600 are still reported missing. More than 120,000 buildings were totally destroyed, 278,000 half-destroyed and 726,000 partially destroyed.
While the Japanese government estimated the direct financial damage to be about 200 billion US dollars, according to the World Bank the long-term total economic cost could reach up to 235 billion US dollars.
The shaking, which lasted for six minutes, started on a Friday at 2:46 pm local time and was centered on the seafloor 72 kilometers east of Sendai, with 1.1 million inhabitants the largest city north of Tokyo, at a depth of 24 kilometers below the surface.
Less than an hour later, the first of many tsunami waves hit the coastline, some of which reached run-up heights of up to 40 meters at Miyako in Iwate Prefecture and traveled inland as far as 10 kilometers in Sendai.
Interestingly, the area of approximately 560 square kilometers submerged in 2011 closely matched the one affected by widespread flooding after a seism hit the same region on July 9th, 869, which according to scientists was probably equally strong.
By disrupting currents, the tsunami generated huge whirlpools offshore near Ōarai in Ibaraki Prefecture and Iwaki in Fukushima Prefecture, which would gain worldwide notoriety.
A total cooling system failure at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Ōkuma and Futuba caused a level 7 accident, the highest-rated on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES).
The electrical power and backup generators were overwhelmed, resulting in a nuclear meltdown and release of radioactive materials as well as permanent damage to the plant.
However, experts point out that the earthquake wasn’t the decisive factor. The reactor, operative since June 1971 and decommissioned in December 2013, simply wasn’t designed for such a big tsunami.
Although Japan’s Meteorological Agency was criticized for issuing an initial tsunami warning that underestimated the size of the waves, the nation’s earthquake early warning system and stringent seismic building codes prevented many deaths by stopping high-speed trains and factory assembly lines as well as texting alerts to cellphones.
As the tsunami crossed the Pacific Ocean, a 1.5 meter high wave killed more than 110,000 nesting seabirds at the Midway Atoll, located near the northwestern end of the Hawaiian island chain, and reached Chile.
The surge of water carried an estimated five million tons of debris out to sea. In the following years, Japanese docks and ships as well as countless household items arrived on North American shores.
The mighty forces of nature left a permanent legacy, as the jolt moved Japan’s main island of Honshu eastward by 2.4 meters and the Pacific Plate slid westward by 24 meters near the epicenter.
Notwithstanding that Japan on September 29th, 1972 established full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), breaking them off with the Republic of China, still Taiwan’s official name, the relations between Nippon and its former colony Formosa have remained cordial.
In the aftermath of the disaster, Taiwan’s government and private sector donated a total of what at the current exchange rate would be 230.72 million US dollars in relief aid and sent search-and-rescue teams to Japan.
Each year since the calamity occurred, a group formed by Japanese and Taiwanese university students, called Arigatō Taiwan, has been holding a commemorative event which reflects those close bonds.
To mark the 10th anniversary, on March 7th, 2021 a group of Japanese living in Taiwan unveiled a self-funded stone plaque in Tamsui, a popular tourist destination on the northern coast.
A Japanese and Chinese text memorializes the “unprecedented” “Great East Japan Earthquake”, the official English denomination, and Taiwan’s aid thereafter.
Murashima Ikuyo from the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association, the de facto Embassy, expressed her sincere gratitude. For her, the tragedy had a silver lining, as it brought Taiwan and Japan even closer together.
I can´t remember which of the two oil refineries set on fire I saw burning on television that night while at my girlfriend’s apartment, the one in Ichihara or the one in Sendai.
It was a truly Dantean spectacle, straight from hell. All those flames in an endless mass of water seemed to belong to a fever dream or a nightmare and left an everlasting impression on me.
At the same, it was very touching to watch how orderly Japanese of all ages patiently cued up in half-empty convenience stores, some of them still paying with credit cards.
You can judge the essence of a nation from how it deals with extreme situations caused by cataclysms like these. This discipline is one the main Japanese characteristics greatly admired by foreigners.
It also contrasts sharply with the shameful behavior of many inhabitants of Saint Louis in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the American city in August 2005. The images of extensive looting are unforgettable as well, though in a very negative way.
In consequence, for the first time in my life I decided to donate money to innocent victims of total devastation, because I thought that my modest contribution of about 200 euros wouldn’t end up in the wrong hands.
I expressed my condolences to an estranged Japanese friend, which was much appreciated. It was time to put aside personal differences and stand together in the face of adversity.
The effects of the catastrophe will be felt in Japan for decades, but thanks to the mentality of its citizens and especially their fighting spirit, I’m confident that very slowly everything will get back to normal.
P.D.: More than 5,000 aftershocks hit Nippon in the year after the earthquake, of which the largest had a magnitude of 7.9.