Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami: Inevitable Instability – AD, AL, VL, LH, GL, SA

Tohoku’s Story:

On March 11, 2011, tragedy struck throughout Japan devastating the millions that lived there. At first, the people of Sendai began to feel short, small quakes that shook their ground. These small quakes, known as foreshocks, preceded the much larger main quake that would rip through the majority of Japan. Several of the foreshocks measured around 6 to 7.2 magnitude on the Richter scale. 

UTSA community members reach out to Japan earthquake, tsunami victims

Around 2:46 pm on March 11th, the main quake occurred with a magnitude of 8.9, later revised to 9.0. This event resulted from thrust faulting on the subduction zone plate boundary between the Pacific and North American plates, known as the Japan Trench. This undersea quake lasted about six full minutes, and after thirty minutes reached the opposite side of the Japan Trench, on the coast of Honshu. This quake was also felt in Russia, Taiwan, and China. Within half an hour of the quake, a towering tsunami reached the land that was triggered by the thrusting of the faults. The shallowing ocean floor caused waves to slow and pushed water mass upwards. The quick transition from deep to shallow ocean floor created greater potential for higher waves. Waves reached as high as 130 feet. Due to the tsunami’s incredible height, the waves rushed to the shore, not allowing people enough time to properly prepare for its impact. As the water rushed the shores, it swept the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, destroying its power and cooling systems, and triggering meltdowns at three reactors. This forced several thousand people living within a mile and a half of the plant to evacuate from the dangerous nuclear waste spread. 

One day later, on March 12th, the effects of the earthquake and tsunami were ongoing. A hydrogen explosion occurred at the plant’s number one or main reactor, sending radiation into the air. All residents within a 12-mile radius were ordered to evacuate to avoid these harmful radiation waves. Over the next 2 days, similar explosions occurred at the other two reactors. While this was all going on, the foreign minister announced that 25 countries had offered assistance to Japan; including rescue teams and relief supplies. The U.S. Navy sent seven ships toward Japan to assist with these relief efforts, as well as the U.S. Air Force had planes headed to Japan carrying coolant for the Fukushima power plant. However, it was later found that the coolant was erroneous. 

Flash forward to April 12th, Japan raises the nuclear event to category 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event scale. Originally, it was listed as a category 5 based on radiation released into the atmosphere. Just twelve days later, on April 24th, the Japanese government designated a specific area to be cleared around the nuclear plant to protect the local citizens. This exclusion zone ranged two kilometers and spanned across nine cities and towns. 

Nearly nine months later, on December 16th, Japan declared a “cold shutdown”. They turned down core temperatures and pressures to a level where nuclear chain reactions can not occur. This was due to their struggle for months to stabilize the plant. 

Impact of Tohoku:

This tsunami devastated the country of Japan; but beyond this, it even had a lasting global effect. The tsunami as a result of the earthquake reached over 25 Pacific Rim countries, and even reached as far as Antarctica, the west coast of Brazil, and along the coast of California. The tsunami caused 30 million USD in damage in Hawaii, along with 100 million USD in damages and recovery of California’s marine facilities. Additionally, there were damages in other areas as far as French Polynesia, Galapagos Islands, Peru, and Chile. In Japan alone, the damages were estimated at around 220 billion USD. The Natural Centers of Environmental Informations states, “the damage makes the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami the most expensive natural disaster in history”. 

As a result of the event, there were more than 123,000 houses that were destroyed or damaged, along with businesses, roads, and railways. The effect of this caused more than 450,000 people to become homeless, along with more than 18,000 dead and thousands more injured or missing. Most of these deaths were a result of drowning in the tsunami. It was also stated by the Natural Centers of Environmental Informations that, “fortunately, the loss of life outside of Japan was minimal (one death in Indonesia and one death in California) due to the Pacific Tsunami Warning System and its connections to national-level warning and evacuation systems”. 

Environmental damages included, locally significant damages to natural resources, coastal ecosystems, contamination of water, and potentially hazardous debris. Due to the enormous amount of debris, it created a high amount of waste that has been estimated to be between 80 and 200 million tons – comparable in size to the waste generated by Hurricane Katrina, which cost over 3.2 billion USD to clean up. The shortage of land will further escalate the cost of post-disaster waste management in Japan. The disaster mass of debris faced the risk of contamination of the stockyard due to the leachate generation. As well as the desilting of coastal canals because coastal waterways were fully silted by the tsunami and would need to be drained to become operational. Also susceptible to contamination was the water; due to the toxic chemicals, and there was a risk of danger of soil and groundwater  that would affect farmlands. The utilization of wells in the affected areas were stopped because the water supply and sewage networks as damaged urban water supply and sewage networks can result in cross-contamination, thus leading to health impacts for the population. The damage to the Nuclear Power Plants released many radioactive materials over a large area, which led to a widespread evacuation. Reactors were flooded with seawater that mixed with the acid, resulting in the decay of fuel rods which posed major health and environmental risks.

Art Produced in Tohoku’s Wake:

In the years that followed this catastrophic event, the Japanese found ways to unify as a whole and prolong the remembrance and awareness of the tragedies that took place. They were able to do this through various forms of powerful and socially collaborative artworks, which have become very important and popular throughout modern Japanese society and culture. Art forms that were influenced by these events on March 11th were ever-so powerful through the means of strengthening and unifying Japanese communities, and the country as a whole. Commercialized artworks lessened in popularity, as artists who developed relationships within communities in Japan became popular within the Japanese art scene. Much of the art that took inspiration from the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami was made to raise relief funds and promote donations to help out the people of Japan. Many of the most famous artworks were done by artists who experienced these disasters firsthand or artists who visited the land of Tohoku for direct inspiration. 

“The Man Who Sailed His House” – Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

This piece by Yuzo Shimizu is directly influenced by the story of Michael Paterniti; two days after the 2011 Tohoku Tsunami, Michael Paterniti was found miles out at sea, riding on nothing but the roof of his home. Artworks like this became influential in Japanese modern culture in the years after the 2011 disaster.

“The Fractured World” – Illustration by Jave Yoshimoto 

This piece by Jave Yoshimoto, a University of Nebraska at Omaha art professor, was part of a series of works dedicated to the events that occurred in Tohoku. These works depicted the aftermath and effect these natural events had on everyday life in Japan.

Many of these artworks were influential in raising awareness around the world regarding the importance and impact these events had on all aspects of Japanese society; not only visual artworks, but also films, music, and texts were influential in regards to raising awareness and donations in the years after 2011. Art that was socially engaged within communities affected by this disaster became popular in galleries and art shows, as well as artists who were reflecting on their experiences or thoughts after the effect this event had on Japanese society. Art on this subject is not only seen throughout Japan, but throughout the world; an important initiative being the founding of Art Action in the United Kingdom, led by Japanese artist Homma Kaori. Located in the world-renowned city of London, this initiative was able to relocate many young Japanese artists to the big city, with their art being displayed to the world audience. Art Action was very influential in the popularization of contemporary Japanese art, as London is a global hub for modern-age art and pop culture. This is important as London is a place of major influence to younger generations across the globe. Art provided these people and communities a way of expressing themselves, releasing their emotions in remembrance and reflection after a tragedy of this magnitude.

So What? Who Cares?

Both the Tohoku tsunami & earthquake, as well as the seismic events that occur in Jemisin’s “The Broken Earth” trilogy, symbolize the inevitable instability of the world and the people who inhabit it. These major events represent the constant threat posed by the unpredictable environment and fragility of civilization.

Seismic events are a result of small changes in the Earth that occur over time. These small changes build up, like a pot of boiling water. Once these small changes become too familiar, a big change is made such as a tsunami or earthquake. Orogenes are often viewed as unpredictable when they are not able to control their powers. The reason orogenes are feared throughout the world of the Stillness is because when their emotions get the best of them, they can suddenly lash out uncontrollably, oftentimes resulting in catastrophic events. We see this in several instances throughout the three books. For example, in The Fifth Season, Essun realizes her son was just murdered by his father for his orogeny. This sends Essun into a rage causing her to split the valley floor. She stops what she is doing when she sees a father and son. This shows the inability of Essun to control her power when she feels pushed past her breaking point. This unpredictability leaves those around Essun unprepared and at her mercy. We also see this when Jemisin writes, “[s]he fails against him, tries to hit him. It isn’t malice or fear. She never wants to hurt him. She just has to let some of what’s in her out somehow, or she will go mad” (The Stone Sky, 90). This shows how Nassun does not intend to harm, but her orogeny mixed with emotion causes her to release the pent-up feelings she has buried within her. Releasing this pent-up energy is necessary for herself and her well-being, but in turn, sometimes has negative consequences for others around her. This release of feelings is unexpected, but necessary, just like plate movements. The plate movements are unprovoked but lead to an enormous impact that affects many. 

The unpredictability and lack of control we see as a result of orogene out lashes can be comparable to that of a seismic event. For instance, the catastrophic events that occurred in Tohoku were too powerful to stop, as there was nothing anyone could do to lessen the impact of this sudden event. Similarly, we see how when orogene power is uncontrollably harnessed, the impact has a comparable magnitude to that of a natural disaster; as a result, nothing or no one is capable of stopping such. Even from the catastrophic events in Tohoku, we see how small slips and occurrences can become too familiar, leaving us unprepared. Japan is no stranger to earthquakes, especially near Tohoku, small and decently sized earthquakes are not uncommon. When we become too comfortable with a position or a place, whether socially or even in nature, it will cause us to be unprepared for an event of unfamiliar magnitude; this we see in both the Stillness, and throughout society today.

Works Cited

“,.” , – YouTube, 5 March 2024, Accessed 15 April 2024.

“After the Tsunami: Japanese Contemporary Art Since 2011.” Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, 11 March 2021, Accessed 17 April 2024.

“Deadly Japan quake and tsunami spurred global warming, ozone loss.” AGU Newsroom, 26 March 2015, Accessed 17 April 2024.

“Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.” UNEP, Accessed 17 April 2024.

Heath, Chris. “The Man Who Sailed His House.” GQ, 13 October 2011, Accessed 17 April 2024.

“Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011 – Aftermath, Recovery, Rebuilding.” Britannica, Accessed 15 April 2024.

“Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011 | Facts & Death Toll.” Britannica, 4 March 2024, Accessed 17 April 2024.

“Japan earthquake and tsunami: Timeline.” CNN, 12 March 2011, Accessed 17 April 2024.

“Mar 11, 2011 CE: Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.” National Geographic Society, Accessed 15 April 2024.

“On This Day: 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami | News | National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).” National Centers for Environmental Information, Accessed 15 April 2024.

“Pacific Ocean.” IOC Tsunami, Accessed 17 April 2024.

“Recovery postponed: The long-term plight of people displaced by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear radiation disaster – Japan.” ReliefWeb, 6 February 2017, Accessed 17 April 2024.

Reid, Kathryn. “2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami: Facts, FAQs, how to help.” World Vision, 7 May 2019, Accessed 17 April 2024.

Solé, Magdalena. “Art Created in the Aftermath of the Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami.” Art & Antiques Magazine, Accessed 17 April 2024.

“Tōhoku-oki Earthquake and Tsunami, March 11, 2011.” California Department of Conservation, Accessed 17 April 2024.

“Tsunami Strike Japan, Part 1 | Ocean Today.” Ocean Today, Accessed 17 April 2024.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.