Resulting from its geological location within the Pacific “ring of fire,” earthquakes are frequent and widespread. Consequently, all of Japan’s coastal areas are at risk from storm and tsunami. In the 1830’s, the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai depicted the greatness of the sea in a woodblock print called “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” which is one of the most recognizable works of Japanese art in the world.

Although most of the earthquakes are hardly noticeable, there is always the threat of catastrophe. There are three major catastrophes that had happened in recent times:

The Great Hanshin earthquake or Kobe earthquake in January 1995

Up to 6,434 people lost their lives and nearly 27,000 people were injured in one of the worst earthquakes in the country’s history. Located 20 km away from the center of the Kobe city, the earthquake measured 7.2 on the JMA Seismic Intensity Scale (or 6.9 Mw) and lasted for approximately 20 seconds. Damage was extremely widespread and severe as approximately 400,000 buildings were irreparably damaged. Transportation infrastructures – highways, subways, and railways – were also severely damaged. The images of the Hanshin Expressway made front pages of newspaper worldwide, thus the earthquake became known as the Great Hanshin earthquake.

The earthquake and consequent tsunami off the east coast near the city of Sendai, Tohoku Prefecture, in March 2011

Being the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan and the fourth in the world since modern record-keeping in 1900, the earthquake measured 9 Mw and occurred 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of the Oshika Peninsula of Tohoku. The earthquake triggered a 40-meter (133-ft) high tsunami waves, which travelled up to 10 km (6 mi) inland in the Sendai area. The earthquake was so tremendous that it moved Honshu (the main island of Japan) 2.4 m (8 ft) east, shifted the Earth on its axis by estimates of between 10 cm (4 in) and 25 cm (10 in), increased earth’s rotational speed by 1.8 µs per day.

The Japanese National Police Agency (NPA) reported over 15,879 deaths, 6,157 injured, and 2,533 people missing. The damage was also equally severe. The NPA listed 121,788 buildings as “total collapsed”, 280,926 buildings “half collapsed”, and 699,180 buildings “partially damaged”. Among the worst events is the nuclear accidents, where at least three nuclear reactors in Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant complex exploded due to the cooling system failure from the loss of electrical power. The World Bank estimated economic cost was US$235 billion, making it the costliest natural disaster in history.

The Kumamoto earthquakes in April 2016

The 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes are a series of earthquakes. The earlier of the two occurred on April 14 and measured a magnitude of 6.2 Mw, and the latter occurred on April 16 with a magnitude of 7.0 Mw. The two earthquakes killed approximately 50 people and injured about 3,000 people.  Numerous landslides occurred throughout the area. One of the most notable events of these earthquakes is the damage of the Aso Shrine. The shrine’s rōmon (tower gate), officially classified as an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government, and the haiden (worshiping hall) both completely collapsed.

What I think the Japanese has done well is responding to these catastrophes. After each, though daunting, the Japanese learned and sought to improve its disaster prevention authorities. For example, after the Great Hanshin earthquake, Japan installed rubber blocks under bridges and rebuilt buildings further apart. It also improved its disaster response policies, which proved to perform faster and more effective in the 2004 Chiatsu earthquake. When these things happen, city gas supplies are automatically cut off to prevent any fire being triggered. Each district organizes earthquake drills and all households are to prepare an emergency survival kit, which is available to buy from department stores.

Despite the tremors that Japan has gone through, we can witness Japan’s diligent resilience that has been leading Japan to where it is today.

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