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The consistent occurrence of earthquakes in Japan has made the country a geographical nightmare for natural disasters. One-tenth of the world’s earthquakes occur in and around Japan. On average, the country experiences an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 each year. Regular earthquakes in Japan date back to ancient times, as Sugawara no Michizane, a government official, recorded 23 destructive earthquakes out of 623 earthquakes felt in Japan between 416 AD to 887 AD.

The country today is well prepared for natural disasters. Even so, Japan still faces monumental casualties and property damage due to unexpected earthquakes. As recently as February 13 of this year, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.3 occurred off the coast of Tohoku, just weeks before the 10th anniversary of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami – thankfully, no deaths occurred.

Here’s a rundown of some of the major earthquakes to strike Japan.

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923

Photo Credit: Flickr / foundin_a_attic

On September 1 at approximately 11:58 am rumbling began to emerge which escalated into a magnitude of 7.9. Tokyo and Yokohama metropolitan areas suffered devastating damage, killing over 100,000 people.

Over half brick-work built buildings and one-tenth of concrete structured buildings completely collapsed within the region, leaving the area unrecognizable. Uncontrollable fires broke out amongst wooden homes and shops. As many of the water mains were destroyed, it took nearly two full days to put out the flames.

The impact soon triggered a tsunami off the coast of Atami, which reached a height of 39.5 feet, killing 60 people and destroyed over 150 homes. The Great Kanto Earthquake was considered the worst natural disaster to strike Japan at the time.

Date: September 1, 1923
Magnitude: 7.9
Deaths: 140,000

The Great Kanto Earthquake 1923

The Great Hanshin Earthquake – 1995

Photo Credit: Flickr / Masahiko OHKUBO

January 17th marks the day of The Great Hanshin earthquake. The disaster struck the city of Kobe(‌神‌戸) and the surrounding areas with a magnitude of 7.2.

The night before the 17th, Slight rumblings alarmed several locals but nothing out of the ordinary for Japanese standards. Tuesday at 5.46 am, the rumblings came back with a magnitude of 7.2. The epicenter of the quake occurred 40 miles away from Kobe between Honshu and Awaji Island.

Shockwaves shook Kobe and the surrounding areas as buildings collapsed, bridges folded and train tracks were destroyed. As a result, over six-thousand people lost their lives, thirty thousand were injured, and three-hundred thousand were made homeless.
Today, little signs of the disaster appear in the city, but Kobe residents will never forget the devastation left by the Great Hanshin earthquake

Date: January 17, 1995
Magnitude: 7.2
Deaths: 6,000

The Great Hanshin Earthquake 1995

The Great East Japan Earthquake

Photo Credit: Flickr / Kasper Nybo

March 11 marks the day of Japan’s most devastating natural disaster. An earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 (highest ever recorded) struck off the Tohoku region’s northeast coast. A major tsunami was triggered, which flooded over 200 square miles of coastal land as waves were estimated to be 38 meters high. 500,000 people were forced to evacuate the area, while 20,000 people were dead or missing.

As a result of the enormous tsunami, a Fukushima-based nuclear plant was forced into a level-7 nuclear meltdown. The plant’s cooling system was destroyed, therefore causing a meltdown which released radioactive material.

Thankfully, no deaths or radioactive illnesses have been documented as a result, although over 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes to avoid potential harm.
The overall damage caused by the 2011 disaster is estimated to be around $360 billion, and rebuilding to the region is still being carried out to this day. 

Date: March 11, 2011
Magnitude: 9.0
Deaths: 15,894

2011 Earthquake and Tsunami

Why does Japan have so many earthquakes?

Pacific Rim Volcanic Seismic Belt
 Photo Credit: KK News / Song Su Laoquan

So what makes Japan such a hotbed for natural disasters?

In short, Japan is located on the pacific ring of fire (環太平洋火山帯), making the country a red zone for natural disasters as four major tectonic plates meet on the Japanese archipelago – Eurasian, Philippine, Pacific, and North American plates.

As each plate shifts and collides, a trigger of shockwaves releases due to the excessive pressure. As many earthquakes occur offshore, tsunamis are often triggered, which causes major damage to coastal regions.

Roughly 5000 minor quakes occur every year in Japan, and over half are between 3.0 – 3.9 magnitude. Over 160 are measured at an average scale of 5.0, which can shake Japan’s archipelago.

Earthquakes in Japan: If or When?

Photo Credit: Somosculto Blog

A century reunion of 1923 is expected by experts as the years tick away. Tokyo ranks as the most populated city globally, including an endless skyscraper jungle spread across many areas of the city. The potential of a similar disaster to occur could rank as the worst in human history, given the congested area and predicted magnitude of impact. Experts have given a 70% chance that an earthquake will strike Tokyo with a 7+ magnitude before 2050.

The Japanese government has prepared for such disasters. An emergency disaster team is on standby to monitor each sign of a disaster striking. Simultaneously, the Tokyo fire department is the world’s largest urban department, fully prepared for emergency evacuations. In terms of structure, skyscrapers were designed to withstand major impacts, allowing them to sway and move in the event of shockwaves.

Homes are also built to comply with earthquake-proof standards under Japanese law. It’s estimated today that 87% of buildings in Tokyo are earthquake-resistant. Japan’s notorious bullet trains are also equipped with earthquake sensors that can halt every train in the event of an incoming earthquake. In terms of coverage, every Japanese TV channel immediately switches to earthquake-related coverage to inform the nation as quickly as possible to better prepare for evacuation.

Locals and government officials will need full resources for the coming years if the experts call it right. A 5 pm melody of the children’s song Yuyake Koyake echoes across the Minato area to remind locals of the potential disaster that could strike and better prepare Tokyoites for what is expected in the not-so-distant future.