Natural Disasters: 3 Historical Catastrophes in Japan

  • If you frequently tune into International News, the story of a natural disaster in Japan will be a common sight for you. The geographical location and topography of Japan makes it a prime target for earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and typhoons. These days, while many disasters can be predicted, prepared for and controlled, in days gone by the Japanese were not so lucky. Some of the greatest natural disasters of Japan are well known around the world, but with so many Asian countries having large-scale disasters peppering their history, what do you actually know about the disasters of Japan in years gone by? Here is an introduction to some of the most devastating natural disasters in Japan’s history.

    The Unzen Earthquake and Tsunami


    Date: May 21st, 1792

    Death Toll: 15,000 +

    Location: Kyushu (Shimabara and Nagasaki)

    The only disaster in this list to take place in Kyushu (the south island of Japan) this disaster was caused by volcanic activities at Mount Unzen (in Shimabara). A series of earthquakes had taken place in the area over the previous year, and in 1792 the Fugen-dake peak started to erupt, with lava continuing to flow for two months. Small earthquakes were happening until May 21st when two large earthquakes triggered the landslide which tore through Shimabara City and into Ariake Bay, causing the great tsunami. Sitting right at the foot of the mountain and completely unprotected, the damage done to Shimabara City by the landslide was widespread.

    As rocks, lava and debris crashed through the city and into Ariake Bay, the displaced water was thrown into the air to form a giant tsunami. Waves were between 10 and 20 meters high. Fatalities from the disaster at Shimabara occurred in three parts: one third by the initial landslide where people in Shimabara City were buried beneath the rubble, one third by the tsunami as is swept across the bay to Higo (Kumamoto) Province and submerged the towns on the coastline, and the final third of victims were killed when the wave bounced back from Higo and returned to Shimabara. Lake Shirachi in Shimabara City was created by this final wave of water.

    The Sanriku Earthquake


    Date: June 15th, 1896

    Death Toll: 21,959

    Location: Iwate Prefecture, Honshu

    While the death toll for this disaster was much lower than the Great Kanto Earthquake, the Sanriku Earthquake is regarded as one of the most destructive seismic disasters that has happened in Japan. The earthquake was of an 8.5 magnitude and resulted in two tsunamis of almost 40 meters in height.

    At the time of the tsunamis, it was high tide on the Sanriku Coast. As was their custom, the fishing fleets of the local area were all out at sea when the disaster struck. Imagine the scene they came back to when they returned home, having no idea there had been a natural disaster. The tsunami was so powerful that the devastation had absolutely obliterated the surrounding area. Victims were found with limbs missing and their bodies broken by the force of the storm.

    Despite the seriousness of the event, preventive coastal measures were not fully implemented until 1933, after another earthquake struck the same area. However, this second earthquake saw far fewer casualties because of the locals’ prior knowledge of the previous disaster. This part of Japan is particularly prone to natural disasters – it was in the same region that, in 2011, we saw the tsunami that resulted in the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

    The earthquake actually occurred more than 100 miles off the coast of Iwate, and as such the damage caused by the disaster was not limited only to Japan – the USA was also affected by the disaster.

    The Great Kanto Earthquake

    Date: September 1st, 1923

    Death Toll: 100,000 + (first reported as 140,000 – including the number of those missing and presumed dead)

    Location: The Kanto Plain, Honshu, Japan

    The deadliest natural disaster in the history of Japan, the Great Kanto Earthquake had a magnitude of 7.9. The whole of the Kanto region sustained damage from the disaster, including Tokyo, Yokohama, Kanagawa, Chiba and even Shizuoka in the Chubu region.

    One of the main reasons that the disaster was so deadly was because it struck at lunchtime (11:58), a time at which many people were cooking lunch over open fires. Large blazes broke out and many developed into firestorms which swept across Tokyo and beyond, engulfing everything in their path. The fires were so hot that they melted the tarmac on the roads – people were trapped or stuck and died when they could not free themselves. The greatest loss of life happened at the old Army Clothing Depot – nearly 40,000 people had taken shelter there after the initial quake, but the whole building was devastated by a fire tornado.

    As if this wasn’t enough, a strong typhoon struck Tokyo Bay at the same time as the earthquake. The fires took two days to put out. In Kanagawa Prefecture, one of the main causes of death was the landslides which buried entire villages. A few minutes later, a 10-meter high tsunami blasted the coastline, contributing to many more deaths. There were 57 aftershocks following the initial earthquake.

    While this earthquake was by no means the strongest earthquake the world has ever seen, it is known as one of the deadliest disasters and is much cited in popular fiction. One recent reference to the earthquake is the newest animated film by Hayao Miyazaki (creator of Studio Ghibli) called ‘The Wind Rises’ – released in 2013. September 1st is the designated Disaster Prevention Day, in remembrance of The Great Kanto Earthquake.

    Coming from a country where large-scale natural disasters are quite rare, reading about disasters of this magnitude makes Japan seem like another world. Japan is not a huge country, nor does it have a massive population, so the number of people involved in these events really did change the face of Japan for generations to come. While the geographical location and topography of Japan have not changed since the times of these great disasters, as a developed country Japan is much more able to deal with things like earthquakes, tsunamis, and landslides. Natural disasters with large-scale casualties like the Great Kanto Earthquake are rarely seen in modern day Japan, and while small-scale natural disasters may be everyday occurrences, they are rarely serious.

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