Natural Disasters: 3 of the Largest Earthquakes in Japan

  • Japan features on the list of the Top Ten Countries in the World which have the most earthquakes. In fact, in some categories Japan is at the top of the list. The whole country is a very seismic area and as such many earthquakes are recorded in Japan. However, as a developed country with a small population, the earthquakes in Japan are often less catastrophic, for example, than those in China, Iran and Turkey. About 75% of the seismic energy in the world is released at the edge of the Pacific, which is why so many earthquakes happen in places like Japan, China, Indonesia and the Philippines.

    In general, earthquakes in Japan are commonplace – it’s rare for a day to go by in Japan without a minor earthquake happening somewhere in the country. Some sources suggest that there are up to 20 earthquakes per day in Japan (but many of these happen out at sea with no indication on land of there having been an earthquake.) However, major disasters do happen from time to time, and while they may not be an everyday feature on international news, in recent years there have been several high-profile disasters in Japan. Let’s take a look a the three most catastrophic earthquakes to hit the country in the past 25 years.

    Hokkaido Earthquake


    Date: 12th July 1993

    Death Toll: 230

    Location: Hokkaido

    While the death toll for this disaster seems relatively low, it is a big jump up from the next largest earthquake in recent history which only saw 40 people perish. It happened just off the coast of the island of Hokkaido in the Sea of Japan, and had a magnitude of 7.7. There were two shocks to the earthquake, lasting 20 and 35 seconds each. Damage from the actual shaking of the earthquake was minimal, but the earthquake caused a large tsunami which caused most of the fatalities.

    The Okushiri area had been hit by an earthquake ten years before which had resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people, and so the area had tsunami defences in place. However, they were no match for the tsunami which followed the Hokkaido Earthquake. As well as hitting Hokkaido, the tsunami was widespread and was seen in Honshu, South Korea and South-Eastern Russia. Following the tsunami, there was an overhaul of defences in the Okushiri area which has led to better preparations for future disasters.

    Great Hanshin Earthquake


    Date: 17th January 1995

    Death Toll: 6,434

    Location: Kobe

    Kobe (Osaka Bay, Central Japan) was one of the cities worst hit by the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which is also known as the Kobe Earthquake. Large earthquakes in Japan usually occur in coastal regions and are caused by stress between tectonic plates, but the Great Hanshin Earthquake was of a different kind. Known as an ‘inland shallow earthquake’, where the hypocenter is less than 20 km below the surface of the ground. The type of earthquake is particularly deadly because they often happen near populated areas.

    The Great Hanshin Earthquake started just south of Kobe city and spread through the center. It happened early in the morning, with a magnitude of 6.9. At least 74 aftershocks were felt and survivors were afraid to return to their homes as the shocks were happening for days after the disaster. In the worst-hit areas, one in five buildings were so badly damaged that they were uninhabitable or completely destroyed. Older homes suffered much damage, whereas high rise buildings that were built after 1981 faired much better. Many major roads were damaged, including the elevated Hanshin Express way which collapsed.

    The Kobe Earthquake marked a turning point in Japan’s history with relation to volunteering. After the earthquake, many volunteers flocked to Kobe from all over Japan to help the victims. 1.2 million volunteers were involved in the rescue and relief efforts in the three months following the disaster. Even the local yakuza got involved. Since the quake, in Hyogo Prefecture millions of Yen have been invested in building earthquake-proof shelters in public parks that are stocked with emergency supplies.

    Tohoku Earthquake

    Date: March 11th 2011

    Death Toll: 15,893

    Location: Tohoku, East Japan

    The Tohoku Earthquake (also known as the Great East Japan Earthquake and the 3.11 Earthquake) was the most powerful earthquake that has ever been recorded in the history of Japan, and the fourth most powerful earthquake in the world since modern record-keeping began in the 1900’s. It was so powerful that Honshu (the main island of Japan) was shifted 2.4 meters to the east, and the powerful shock moved the whole earth on its axis by between 4 and 10 inches. Having happened only a few years ago, you will no doubt already be familiar with this catastrophe.

    Large foreshocks were felt in the days before the earthquake, including a 7.2 Mw shock two days earlier. The actual earthquake was recorded as a 9.0 magnitude shock, which lasted about 6 minutes. The closest city to the epicentre was Sendai, which was only 81 miles away. The earthquake happened 232 miles from Tokyo. If harnessed, the sheer amount of seismic energy from the Tohoku Earthquake could power a city the size of Los Angeles for one whole year. The tsunami also caused equipment failures at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant which led to three nuclear meltdowns and the release of radioactive materials.

    In terms of the loss of life, The Tohoku Earthquake was the third most fatal natural disaster in Japan’s history. As of 2015, the National Police Agency confirmed that the disaster saw more than 15,000 fatalities, more than 6,000 people injured and more than 2,500 people missing after the event. More than 90% of the victims died by drowning from the tsunami that followed the earthquake. 65% of the victims were 60 years old or older, and 24% of the victims were in their 70’s. In 2012, more than 70% of the people still missing were over 60, with hundreds of missing people in their 70’s and 80’s.

    There were nearly 400 deaths of high school, middle school and elementary students, with more than 150 missing after the disaster. Many families were separated during the event because it happened while children were at school. One elementary school in Ishinomaki lost 70% of its students. Nineteen foreigners were killed in the disaster, including two JET teachers from the USA and a Canadian missionary.

    While major natural disasters don’t happen every day in Japan, they certainly happen often enough to make them a part of daily life for those living in Japan. Preventative measures can be seen all over the country, in the form of public shelters and also in public information. Japanese schoolchildren learn what to do when there’s an earthquake on the way, and for any gaijin planning a trip to Japan, learning how to act in an Earthquake should be on the top of their to-do list.

    Related Articles:
    97 Things to Do in Osaka, the Japanese City of Street Food, Culture, and Comedy, in 2018
    Natural Disasters: 3 Historical Catastrophes in Japan
    The Water is Rising! – 5 Flood Tips to Stay Afloat