Japan is earthquake country. The archipelago nation sits on the junction of four plates: the Pacific and Philippine plates to the east and the North American and Eurasian plates to the west. Its worst temblor, the Great Kanto Earthquake, hit in 1923 and left 143,000 dead. Memories of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which killed more than 5,200, are more recent. Japan’s vulnerability has brought about extensive disaster plans and sophisticated earthquake-prediction technology.
It was therefore that much more terrifying that a nation as prepared as Japan lost swaths of land to roaring tsunamis and raging fires. A 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck the Tohoku region on March 11. It was more powerful than Hanshin or Kanto, and 900 times greater than the January 2010 tremor that devastated Haiti. It rattled the planet on its axis and shifted parts of Japan’s main island 3 to 16 feet. Then came the waves, at times 30 feet high and sweeping 6 miles inland, tearing towns apart and pulling them into the ocean. Tsunami warnings went out to 50 countries and territories, including the United States.
Threat of nuclear meltdown
At last count, 15,703 people died and nearly 5,000 disappeared in the fires and tsunami, the highest number of casualties Japan has seen since World War II, pointed out Kyoto University earthquake scientist Manabu Hashimoto.
The Tohoku earthquake recovery was delayed not just by a chain of aftershocks, but also by the threat of nuclear meltdown. Countries from the Philippines to the United States, on high alert for tsunamis bearing down on their shores, now monitored the risk of radiation. People fretted over the safety of the food supply, a concern that would persist long after Fukushima, site of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, was at last shut down — and spurred the shutdown or freeze of facilities in Germany and Switzerland. “Fukushima,” declared der Spiegel, “marks the end of the nuclear era.”
In the outpouring of support that followed the Tohoku earthquake was admiration for survivors’ politesse, reportedly stemming from Japan’s culture, its legal system, and, surprisingly, its Yakuza presence. The civility is immeasurable during the long road to recovery, as thousands of homeless await guidance from a squabbling government and its prime minister of the moment. Others with homes in the area surrounding Fukushima still await a decision to see if they must vacate them.
As Japan thanks the many who continue to give, the country has taken time to give to others: The country recently gave aid to an inundated Thailand.