Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and the Wrath of Nature

Earthquakes, Tsunamis, and the Wrath of Nature

09/2019  | Reading time: 7 minutes

With the Japanese typhoon season in full swing and worse than a generation has seen in its life, today, we check on in what ways Japan is burdened by natural disasters.

A burden of Japan is a strong inclination to natural disasters, be they weather-related or topographical. Weather-related disasters, such as typhoons and heavy rain seasons (梅雨・tsuyu), are induced by extreme climatic fluctuations, which is explained by the country’s geographical location. In general, Japan’s climate is already somewhat hectic: summers are hot, while winters are very cold. Winters in Hokkaidō can reach −20 °C, while summers in Kyūshū can have a minimum temperature of 28 °C. High humidity exacerbates the high temperature which can be increasingly hard to bear in the capital city of Tōkyō, where the “urban heat island” effect can intensify the temperature even more, due to energy usage, notably the overuse of air conditioners. One might ask to what extent temperature has increased. The summer of 2018 proved to be an important indicator of times to come: 65 people were killed, and roughly 22,000 hospitalised in a single week alone, calling forth predictions about the effects of the ongoing climate change.

Topography is another key factor in natural disasters, as the numerous fault lines in the country contribute to the high number of earthquakes each year. Occasional tsunamis, which are the aftermath of a larger earthquake, can be very destructive because the complex coastlines in Japan are vulnerable to high waves. All these can be traced back to the fact that Japan lies on the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire, a popular expression for the Circum-Pacific Belt, marking a horseshoe-shaped territory in the Pacific Ocean that is the world’s most seismically active region.


The Pacific Ring of Fire
Source: Wikimedia Commons, author: Astroskiandhike, licence: CC BY-SA 4.0

The belt is cluttered with epicentres and active volcanoes, burdening the countries lying in its range with the highest number of earthquakes per year. Of course, it is not only the number of earthquakes that is higher but their intensity too. In the last ten years alone, Japan experienced two major disasters that were destructive enough to make it into the history books: first, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, followed by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster, and, then, the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes. What both of these have in common is the unexpected severity of destruction in infrastructure and human lives. Material, economic, and social damages are now accounted for, and their combined effects are still halting recovery to this day.

The costs of a disaster

The economic costs usually not only place a temporary burden on a country but can also deepen existing problems. Since the early Heisei Era, Japan has dealt with a recession and a deflation spiral, which are being slowly consolidated through the implementation of the three tenets of Abenomics. Key issues that need to be alleviated are female employment, the burden of an aging population on the social security net, population decline, and a high suicide rate among the economically active population. In the event of a larger disaster, these issues can worsen. Generally speaking, disasters that occurred in the past couple of years have influenced economic growth in a number of ways: due to the destruction, both household and business spending decreased, the net export rate shrunk, and business investment declined.

These factors made the already falling consumption rate worse. In September 2018, Ōsaka was struck by Typhoon Jebi, leaving considerable damage in its wake. The most critical damage was concentrated around Kansai International Airport, destroying transport infrastructure and, thus, delaying exports. A major earthquake in the same month caused even more difficulties by hurting tourism and the services industry. These events, therefore, affected economic growth negatively, so much so that, in the second quarter of 2018, relevant indicators showed the fastest decline in more than three years. Foreign economic factors, such as the trade war between the US and China, are coupled with occasional dramatic setbacks imposed by nature—increasing the challenges that Abenomics has to face.

 Social costs

In the case of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster, where recovery has dragged on and the future is unclear, we can talk about not-so-temporary social effects too (social in the sense of demographic changes). Tōhoku, a region already struggling with depopulation and ageing, suffered a devastating blow as a result of the threefold disaster. Around half of the victims were said to be older than 65. Since the elderly are obviously more vulnerable in case of disasters, these numbers show a worrying tendency in the demographic tree. Depopulation was already a problem before 3/11, as young people had begun leaving this relatively isolated region for better job opportunities. While urbanisation seems to be a growing issue in many other countries, Northeast Japan experiences an accelerated migration because of the lingering risks of nuclear radiation and the scale of the destruction.


A still of the destruction the 3/11 tsunami has left behind.
Source: Shutterstock

Unsurprisingly, in the case of the Tōhoku disaster, social issues have also unfolded. Survivors fleeing to other regions and big cities have found themselves discriminated against because much of the general populace is afraid of radiation, and have consequently branded the survivors as “contaminated.” Female survivors are especially exposed to distress and stigma regarding marriage prospects, as many would be reluctant to father a child to someone they believe is likely a radiation-affected woman, even if the survivor in question was never exposed to radiation. A similar phenomenon also arose after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. But not only single women are under pressure. A new expression was born after 3/11, describing a worrying trend: “atomic divorce,” or genpatsu rikon (原発離婚). It describes those cases when a couple decides to separate over different views on radiation safety.

An inclination for further segregation can also appear in times of disaster, mainly against foreign residents, or ethnic Koreans and Chinese. In 1923, the Great Kantō Earthquake prompted disturbing social unrest. False rumours spread fast about ethnic Koreans taking advantage of the chaos and poisoning wells to take revenge for the occupation of the Korean Peninsula, which led to a large-scale massacre, where Japanese residents and law enforcement killed more than 6,000 Korean residents in the disaster-hit area. While a tragedy like this has not occurred since, major earthquakes and tsunamis have given birth to a considerable amount of hate against these groups in the online sphere, spreading rumours about them looting the affected areas. What is different now than in 1923 is that, this time, authorities such as the police and the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) do not get involved in this spreading of hate, and a considerable resistance that wants to silence xenophobic and groundless rumours can also be found on the internet.

Social gains and the effect of a collective tragedy

Despite the worrying social consequences, the Japanese people are said to be remarkably resilient when it comes to disasters. As a nation that experiences thousands of earthquakes per year (including minor tremors), the people of Japan have learned to cope with challenging situations and to rely on social order in times of despair. Criminal activities in disaster-hit areas are relatively non-existent, and the country’s setsuden (節電) policy, encouraging the population to save energy after the Fukushima disaster in response to fears of power outages, was overwhelmingly successful. International university students were also mobilised in the wake of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake in order to provide disaster relief information in multiple languages for foreign residents. Historical occurrence of major disasters plays a fundamental part in post-disaster behaviour. To alleviate the damages, Japan has a very sophisticated and advanced safety net, including the following features:

  1. Earthquake-resistant buildings. Most buildings in Japan, especially in and around Tōkyō, are built in a way that in case of an earthquake they remain flexible and move along with tremors.
  2. Phone emergency alert system. Phones bought in Japan will alert the user 5 or 10 seconds beforehand in case of an earthquake.
  3. Earthquake-sensitive bullet trains. The sensors built in Shinkansen trains force them to stop immediately.
  4. Automatic TV channel change. In case of emergency, television sets change to live news coverage to deliver useful information about shelter or evacuation.
  5. Comprehensive education. Japanese schools make sure that students from the youngest age are prepared for a tremor. Drills are held regularly, and convenience stores sell survival kits.

These preparedness-improving measures are highly effective and much-needed. The Meteorological Agency is constantly producing predictions, one of which has caused widespread worry: the government, along with the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Resilience, reinforced the prediction that, in the coming 30-or-so years, a major earthquake would take place in the Greater Tōkyō Area. There is historical precedence to consider: every 100 years, a devastating magnitude-7-class quake occurs, which usually destroys the areas in or around the capital: so it was with the 1923 Kantō earthquake and the 1855 earthquake that demolished the city of Edō, i.e. the present-day Tōkyō. The fact that even the government acknowledges this prediction gives hope for the future that the necessary preparations will be made to minimise economic damage and loss of human life.

IN FOCUS: Japan—The Legacy of the Heisei Era (English edition) is coming!

You can also find this piece in the next issue of IN FOCUS magazine, due at the end of October, which aims to provide a comprehensive account of Japan’s contemporary political, economic, social and cultural life, with a special focus on the symbolic difference between Emperor Akihito, who resigned in April, and Emperor Naruhito, who ascended the throne in May. The publication will examine Japan in the Heisei Era, while presenting the country’s current security policy challenges and the characteristics of its international relations.

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