As I’m sure everyone is well aware, on Friday (3/11) at 2:46 PM JST there was a magnitude 9.0 earthquake under the Pacific Ocean off the north-east coast of Japan. It’s been named the 2011 Sendai Earthquake and Tsunami in English (東北地方太平洋沖地震, or Tohoku Pacific Ocean Offshore Earthquake, in Japanese) and is officially the 5th worst on record and the worst ever for Japan.
Ignorant foreign news sources said there was a massive earthquake in Tokyo, but that’s wrong. Tokyo was impacted (they recorded a magnitude 6, I think), but it’s called the Sendai Quake because Miyagi Prefecture (Sendai is the capital of Miyagi), in the Tohoku region, was the closest to the epicenter. Tohoku is the region directly north of Kanto, where Tokyo is. Tokyo is, in fact, already beginning to move towards business as usual three days after the quake happened. A friend told me that the trains are running again and a lot of the city is operating, albeit under somewhat limited conditions. Another friend, who is getting married at Tokyo Disney two weeks from today, said that the wedding is still on because the Disney Resorts were not so badly damaged that they need to cancel contracts. So Tokyo will be fine soon. It’s Tohoku where the situation is somewhat dire.
Japan is a small country (slightly smaller than the state of California), but I actually had no idea the earthquake had happened until I got home from work and saw the news. I’m so far south-west that we got nothing and were only peripherally in the tsunami warning zone. Ehime’s coast is on the Seto Inland Sea, not the Pacific Ocean, so there was nothing to worry about here. Up north, however, so far there have been over a thousand confirmed deaths with tens of thousands of people unaccounted for, in prefectures ranging from Hokkaido to Kanagawa. Certain coastal areas in Miyagi are largely inaccessible and the casualty numbers keep going up. Most of the casualties are a result of the tsunami that followed the quake.
It’s actually the tsunami that are the big problem. Japan is earthquake proofed to hell and back, which kept the structural damage from the quake relatively mild, but then the tsunami hit. The thing that’s so terrifying about a tsunami is that the water doesn’t just come in once and that’s it, it keeps coming, and can come in harder the second or third time. When the waves are as big as 10 meters (about 30 feet), that’s a lot of damage.
In Tohoku, there are millions of people without power, food and water shortages are imminent, Sendai airport and a lot of cities are flooded, I think the phones are still out, and a lot of homes have been destroyed. A blog online was uncomfortably reminded of Katrina when they saw footage of people on the roofs of what had been their homes, waving blankets and towels to get the attention of rescue workers. The Japanese government immediately mobilized the Self-Defense Force (that’s the Japanese military, which is substantially larger than most people realize – more on that another time) and relief operations from over 40 countries have already arrived. The US military has come in with Operation TOMODACHI (Operation Friend).
As a result of the quake and tsunami, an oil refinery in Chiba caught fire and burned and the Number One nuclear reactor in Fukushima was damaged, leaking radiation in what has been called the third worst nuclear disaster in history. An area of 20km surrounding the plant was evacuated and so far at least 15 people have been admitted to the hospital showing signs of radiation poisoning. Six other reactors have had cooling failures and there’s fear that there may be an explosion due to overheating. The Japanese government has issued statements that the situation is being dealt with and not to panic, but that’s very scary news to hear.
In short: north-east Japan looks like Armageddon right now. And the aftershocks have not completely stopped.
But, to put Japan in perspective for a minute, I’m going to finish this with a story told to me by a friend who lives about 20 minutes out of Tokyo proper. For her, the quake lasted almost a full minute and her apartment looks like a war zone, with appliances broken and half her stuff flung around. What she said is that, about an hour after the initial quake, when they were still having aftershocks of magnitude 4 and 5, her doorbell rang. She thought maybe it was the building manager, checking up on people. No, it was a Sagawa post delivery guy with something she’d ordered. His comment? “Man, that was really scary.” And then he went on his way to continue Friday’s deliveries.
This is Japan. Admittedly, Tokyo was not in ruins (far from it, though there were damaged buildings and fires), but still. People waited till it seemed safe enough to do so and just kept going. This is a really hard country to slow down. But there is a lot of work to be done in Tohoku, so if you can donate anything, they could use the help. A lot of people are in trouble up there.