March 11 Earthquake and Tsunami: A Perspective

Wolf Richter's picture

Wolf Richter

The earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 exactly one year ago—it’s March 11 in Japan even as I’m writing this on March 10—and the nuclear catastrophe that followed are personal to me: my wife is from Tokyo, and my in-laws live there. To our immense relief, no one we know was hurt. But others weren’t that lucky, and our thoughts and prayers are with them. The horrid numbers, updated as of March 10, 2012:

- Dead: 15,854

- Still missing: 3,155

- Living in shelters, temporary housing, or displaced nationwide: 343,935

In my posts about Japan, I’ve been critical of many of the things that Japan Inc. manages to accomplish, including the latest debacle: Evaporating Japanese Pension Fund Assets.

Today is different. And more personal. I'm attached to Japan, and the tragedy filled me with deep sorrow. But no one I know expressed these feelings better than my wife in her message sent to our friends four days after the disaster. It depicts what we’re already forgetting: the chaos in Tokyo during the hours and days that followed the earthquake, the emotions that came with it, and the unique Japanese ways of coping with it.

One friend who was working as a doctor at a hospital in Tsukuba, a city located north-east of Tokyo and harder hit than Tokyo, told me that the damage was substantial. The building survived, but ceilings fell, connecting corridors collapsed, and sprinklers went off and kept running. With elevators stopped, doctors, nurses, and staff were running up and down ten floors to care for their patients. She finally made it home the next morning after 10 hours of driving to reunite with her husband (also a doctor) and three children. 


Other friends recounted their stories about the quake, an incredibly violent and relentless shaking that lasted 3 to 5 minutes. They were all scared to death. Some were on the 21st floor, others were on the 39th floor, and buildings were swaying like willow trees, and the world outside was rolling, and cabinets toppled, people were screaming and crying, and some felt seasick. Trains stopped running, and that night, many walked miles to get home, 4 hours, 8 hours, 10 hours. Some girls, limping on high-heels, couldn’t make it and found shelter somewhere on the way. One took a cab but got stuck in traffic for 7 hours and finally arrived at the nursery at midnight to pick up her baby. Others spent the night at their offices and ate emergency food distributed by their companies.


When they finally got home, they found shelves that had fallen over, and books, dishes, and objects were scattered on the floor, some were broken. The refrigerator door had opened, and the content was on the floor. Some had no power and water. And aftershocks continued incessantly.


That experience was traumatic, yet when they went on line or turned on the TV, they had to grapple with the devastation in the northern coastal areas where the tsunami had hit. And suddenly, their own experiences were nothing compared to the incomprehensible disaster unfolding in those regions, and we are all deeply saddened. I mourn and pray for those who lost their loved ones and for those whose loved ones are still unaccounted for.


Since the earthquake hit Japan, there is no single moment that I’m not thinking about this disaster and about Japan. Though I was in San Francisco when it hit, and I didn’t share the same experience with the people in Japan who actually went through this traumatic event, I’ve been engulfed with a deep sorrow, the kind of sorrow that I didn't feel when a disaster hit Sichuan, Haiti, Sumatra, New Zealand, etc.... not even Kobe.


Tokyo is relatively calm now, though people are having a hard time securing power, gasoline, food, water, transportation, and some modes of communication. But it’s incredible that only 253 buildings in Tokyo collapsed and that only 7 people died. People are trying to find little things they can do to help those in the most devastated areas, such as saving power by not turning on the heater or not overloading the phone system with unnecessary calls.


People are nervous about each development of the nuclear crisis, while the shelves in supermarkets and convenient stores are becoming empty; supplies don’t arrive. But people are doing their best to perform their duties and to get their lives back to normal as much as possible, as quickly as possible.


The people in the Tokyo area are worrying about and cheering on the people in northern Japan, while the Japanese, like me, outside Japan are worrying about and cheering on the people in Tokyo, who are also distressed with these series of events. But sometimes once I'm alone, a sorrow creeps into my heart and tears well up against my will, without me knowing if it's because I'm away from my country and thus more sentimental, or if it's because of the gravity of the destruction.


For thousands of years, people in this archipelago have been slapped by Nature. Just when we forget how powerless we are in face of it, we’re reminded that we have no choice but to accept fate and submit to it in awe. But we've always stood up again and moved on. This time too, we will surely recover … but adjusted to the new situation.


However, unlike the destruction of buildings and infrastructure, the subsequent crisis at the nuclear power plants is hard to take. It was caused by the destructive force of Nature that was beyond our preparations, but the crisis and its consequences are clearly man-made—though tens of millions of people in the Tokyo area have benefited from this structure as a source of energy for modern life.


It will take a while to clear the chaos, but witnessing how people in Japan are acting during this ultra-stressful time, I cannot help but believe in their core strengths: persistence, patience, diligence, resilience, the sense of solidarity and community, an ability to sense and pay attention to unwritten orders—qualities I considered stuffy when I still lived in Japan. And I'm confident that spirit of the Japanese will overcome this hardship.

A year later, the endless stream of reports on the catastrophe in Fukushima have become nerve-wracking, but now on the Japanese internet, there’s something ... lighter. And utterly cynical. Read:  Nuclear Contamination As Seen By Japanese Humor (mostly pics).

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winter2012's picture

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Mary Wilbur's picture


Great post.

Gold Dog's picture

What do you suppose tha Apaches and the Peqots think of those yellow people?

sangell's picture

If nothing else the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown gave the world a better glimpse of Japan beyond the Las Vegas like veneer of bright lights big city, outrageous fashions and globe straddling corporations though, even in the midst of the disaster I thought that the immaculate light blue coveralls worn by Chief Cabinet Minister Edano during his press conferences were simply brilliant. Who knew they had executives everybit as cowardly and craven as anything in the West. I speak of that miserable Tepco boss Masataku Shimizu, who, while his power plant exploded, decided he needed to check into hospital to have his blood pressure looked at! I guess that might have been after PM Kan payed a surprise visit to Tepco HQ's and told the assembled senior executives they had better suit up to go to Fukushima if had any ideas about abandoning the facility!

What worries me is not the Japanese people ( birth rates excepted) it is the implications for the US when, not if, we are struck with a similiar natural calamity. Does anyone think we could put a few hundred of our poor or lower middle class into a school gym for weeks and feed them UN refugee rations and not have a disaster. The resident of New Orleans couldn't manage 48 hours after Katrina before chaos broke out!


Harlequin001's picture

In the face of these natural disasters it's always right and proper to feel sorry for the victims, most decent folk would agree with that.

But this is Japan. This is the race of people that inflicted incalculable cruelty on every race it could during the last world war simply because it could. This is the same race of people who devoid of any individualism and independent thought, whose every aspect of their lifestyle (including marketing promos) is to 'be the crowd'.

If there is one defining difference between man and animal it is IMO rage, the ability to feel anger, to develop hate and to kill and maim without feeling and for no apparent reason, simply because we can. What makes us good or bad is our ability to control it. The Japanese did it simply because they were told to, simply because they could, and they did it without any compassion whatsoever. When I think of and see the horrors inflicted on the rest of the world including the thousands of Allied servicemen and let's not forget the occupied civilians in WWII I am sadly devoid of all compassion for these people because I see nothing that has fundamentally changed. Be the crowd. It matters not that they have or have not apologised for the atrocities, what matters is that they still worship and pay homage to those that in many ways were the worst perpetrators of it. No one complains, no one says no. If that isn't saying to those that would support them now 'fuck you, we still support and agree with our own, and nothing has changed' then I don't know what is.

I struggle throughout any point in history to see any race that either has, or is capable of inflicting such deliberate cruelty on others (both militariy and civilian) purely for the sake of it. "Be the crowd" means that for as long as Japanese society dictates that as long as everyone else is doing it then no one should stand out and say no; for as long as it does then like ants in a colony they remain the most dangerous people on earth.

I don't hate Japan, I have no reason to, I just look at humanity and think it would benefit immensely from the removal of these mindless automatons who do nothing other than what they're told as a member of the club. Fuck 'em, as far as I am concerned they're on their own and for no reason other than that they deserve no better.

'Does anyone think we could put a few hundred of our poor or lower middle class into a school gym for weeks and feed them UN refugee rations and not have a disaster." They do this because it is what they do. It's what they understand. It's what makes them the most dangerous people on earth, and they'll smile at you whilst they do it.

Lndmvr's picture

Aniimal kingdom is just as bad. Prey gets eaten alive. Cats of all stripes play with thier food before killing it. Just wanted to say it's kinda a bad comparison. The thought of killing must be somewhat the same in man and animal.

JohnnyBriefcase's picture

I agree with everything you said aside from: "as far as I am concerned they're on their own and for no reason other than that they deserve no better."


Unfortunately their mistakes (building the nuclear plants, failing to properly address the meltdowns and claiming everything is ok) will effect the entire world and all of humanity for as long as we call earth our home. 


Fuck them cannot be said nearly enough.

oldman's picture

The worst is yet to come

No way to put a happy face on this

The biggest story of the 21st century buried

under the debris of the collapsed machine

End of a culture

The universe is beyond the comprehension of an oldman

'Sorry' is all he can muster

Urban Roman's picture

There was some moron on NPR this weekend announcing that the damage from the nuke plant was minimal, and that the people were just being all hysterical about nothing. He asserted that no one had suffered any ill effects, including the cleanup workers at the plant.

Meanwhile, I read here and on a couple of blogs about contamination in the terabequerel range, and sieverts, and other hair raising statistics.

Fact is, there hasn't been enough time yet for the freaks to start being born, and leukemia to show up.

It will come ...

Boxed Merlot's picture

I in no way mean to minimize this horrific event but I see terrible parallels with Japan's Tepco and the Teneo debaucle in the US.

MFG is the Fukushima of meltddowns, not the first and not the last, but with politicos like Louis Freeh seeking compensation for those responsible and hiding Corzine and the radioactive fallout of their lawlessness, they have stood 200 years of jurisprudence on its head.

This also will be looked back on as a watershed, trigger event with equally devestating economic, and societal deconstructive consequences.



J1mB0b's picture

Thank you for writing this.

The ultimate reason for all the wealth creation & management tools is to use it for some "slice" of the human community (eg, ME, my family, my tribe, my "nation"  ... US (whatever that means: from the royal WE, to a poorly defined global community).

ZH is a forum for articulating the many disasters we are bringing to ourselves because of a lack of responsibility in articulating & taking on the consequences of gamesmanship on a global stage.  Your post is a gentle reminder of the consequences of natural (& un-natural) disasters on US.

Thanks again.


flapdoodle's picture

Gambatte, bitchez!

non_anon's picture

don't be the nail that sticks up

Wolf Richter's picture

.... or you'll get hammered down.

Uchtdorf's picture

My wife is also Japanese, from Shiga Prefecture. Her brother was living in Sendai when the earthquake hit. He and his family were fine, but it took 5 agonizing days to confirm that.

By the way, that kotowaza originally said kui, instead of kugi.

Stay prepped, my ZH bros and sisters.

non_anon's picture

yes, a Japanese cultural thing

JohnnyBriefcase's picture

Sounds more like a social conditioning/brainwashing thing. I guess it's like saying being an apathetic, unthinking piece of shit is an american cultural thing.