Tsunami Devastates Japan

According to an ancient Japanese myth, the god Kashima restrains a giant catfish called Namazu, who lives in the mud beneath the earth.  When Kashima lets his guard fall, Namazu thrashes about, causing an earthquake. Japan lies beside a major fault line that is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area of tectonic plate collision accounting for 90% of the world’s earthquakes. The Japanese call the giant waves that result from these earthquakes’ displacement of seawater tsunamis. In Japanese history, the moods of quaking land and engulfing sea are well-known.


On March 11, 2011, at about 2:46 p.m., an 8.9-9.0 magnitude earthquake, the fifth largest recorded since 1900, hit Japan. It originated northeast of Tokyo. People throughout the island, many of them at work, sought clearings indoors and out to avoid falling debris.

Twenty minutes later, tsunami waves had swallowed the city of Sendai on the east side of Japan.  Within 30 minutes, tsunamis hit the Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, as well as other areas along the east coast.  Three hours later, the tsunamis had still not abated, engulfing the coastline at reported speeds of 500 mph.  There was simply no time for most people to evacuate, and no way to outrun a 500 mph wall of water.  As waves rushed in, buildings, cars, and boats were gathered up into a blackened mass of wreckage and churning water that left nothing in its path.

As of March 18, the death toll has reached 7,300. Another 11,000 people remain missing. These estimates were initially hard to calculate because many victims were likely washed out to sea with the receding water. Four entire trains are missing, along with a ship carrying 100 people. Fires broke out in many cities hit by the tsunami, further destroying what little remained of these coastal areas. An oil refinery blazed in Ichihara City, and in northeast Fukushima, a dam burst. The Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant was also damaged by the tsunami, causing a cooling system malfunction and danger of radiation leakage.


There are four stricken reactors in the Fukushima nuclear plant; the cooling system is the problem. Post-tsunami, a fire broke out in a nuclear fuel storage pond, and the liquid was boiling. Teams are currently dumping seawater on the area in an attempt to sufficiently cool things down.  The danger is, if the water boils away, the nuclear rods will be exposed and disburse radiation in greater concentrations.  Some radiation is indeed currently being leaked. People within 20 miles have been warned to stay in their homes.

Some scientists say that the situation is not as serious as it has been characterized and that any effect beyond local areas is doubtful. For one thing, the amount of radiation that could be released by a nuclear reactor is significantly less than the amount from an atomic bomb. But some say the situation can have serious repercussions.  The International Atomic Energy Agency rates the situation high risk, a level 6 rating out of seven total levels, which suggests potentially dangerous nuclear incidents.  Time will tell; efforts to cool the reactors continue.


On March 11, tsunami warnings were given out for Hawaii and along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. The biggest waves outside of Japan were in California’s Crescent City, where they reached 6-7 feet. No major damage occurred in any of these regions. There was, however, one casualty in Klamath, Northern California, where a 25-year-old man was swept out to sea when he attempted to photograph the tsunami. Radiation levels from the nuclear plant have also been detected in the U.S., although at extremely low, harmless levels.


Besides the staggering death toll, there are an estimated 430,000 people left homeless.  Many are seeking shelter in schools, shrines, and office buildings. Right now, most people’s bathrooms consist of plastic bags, and temperatures are plunging to 23 degrees Fahrenheit.  There is a severe shortage of food, blankets, and medical supplies. In non-coastal regions, a shortage in fuel due to damage done to nine oil refineries has led to extensive power cuts and has impeded the transportation of supplies.  Meanwhile, “panic buying” has resulted in shortage. 


Relief workers include 80,000 troops, Japan’s Red Cross (90 medical teams), and aid from more than 100 countries, including the U.S. Navy and the U.K. Search and Rescue Team.  Those aboard the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan continue to help, despite exposure to radiation from the Fukushima reactors.  More U.S. Navy ships are expected to arrive. 

Google has created a crisis response page where visitors can easily donate funds. The page also provides an extensive information bank focused on Japan, including a “person finder” program where users can either try to find someone or provide information about a found person. People around the world are reading or watching what happened and finding their hearts going out to Japan.

The Japanese people themselves are trying to maintain a resilient spirit—a resilience born perhaps of a timeless wisdom in accepting nature’s events as being part of a larger balance.  Often unfathomable, that balance must be trusted and accepted if people are to move forward.  A wise Japanese proverb states simply, Keizoku wa chikara nari—“Perseverance is strength.”

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