Japan Earthquake 1995 Case Study

Case Study – Japan Earthquake & Tsunami

(11 March 2011)


[Click here to read an independent report]

  • A massive 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck Japan, Friday afternoon, on 11 March 2011 @ 0546 GMT
  • The quake was centred 130 kilometres to the east of the prefecture’s capital, Sendai.
  • A tsunami was sent crashing into the country’s north-eastern coast.
  • It was originally reported at a magnitude of 7.9, but later was upgraded to 8.9 and then to a 9.0.
  • It lasted 6 minutes.
  • That makes it the fifth largest recorded worldwide since 1900, according to the U.S. Geological Service, larger than the 7.9-magnitude Great Kanto Earthquake that devastated Tokyo in 1923 or the 6.8 magnitude quake that hit Kobe in 1995.
  • It had 10,000 times more energy than the magnitude 6.3 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, which struck 17 days earlier

The Cause

  • Japan is located on the east edge of the Eurasian Plate.
  • The oceanic Pacific Plate subducts (sinks under) the Eurasian Plate.
  • This plate margain is “destructive” – it is not a smooth process, friction is present and the plates stick.
  • When the plates stick, tension builds up.
  • When this pressure builds up and is released, it causes a rapid shift in the plates and a lot of energy to be release, in this case about the same as the annual energy output of the UK.


  • Japan was largely prepared for the earthquake and many buildings remained standing afterwards, but it was not prepared for the subsequent Tsunami.
  • A tsunami warning extended to at least 50 nations and territories, as far away as South America.
  • Damage was caused in Tokyo and many injuries in the north where the quake was centred
  • The yen fell sharply but recouped most of its decline several hours later. Tokyo stocks fell.
  • Local television showed smoke rising from a Tokyo port building, fire in the capital’s waterfront Odaiba district and an oil refinery ablaze in Ichihara, near Tokyo.
  • A tsunami measured at anywhere from one meter to 7.3 meters hit at various places along the coast, while a 10-meter tsunami was seen at the port in Sendai, near the epicentre.
  • Aftershocks were continuing, with one hitting magnitude 7.1, according to the USGS. Tall buildings swayed violently in central Tokyo as the aftershocks hit.
  • Immediate power outages in Tokyo and eight other prefectures reportedly affected some 4 million homes.
  • In Iwate Prefecture a bridge collapsed and a building was washed away, with boats and cars swirling around in the rising waters.
  • In Tokyo, hundreds of concerned office workers tried in vain to make calls on jammed cellphone networks, some wearing hard hats and other protective headgear. Many of them streamed out of buildings in the business district, gathering in open areas. The crowd appeared spooked by the sound of glass windows rattling in tall buildings.
  • Traders said most of the selling was offshore as Tokyo traders evacuated. The yen could be in for further declines as the scale of the damage becomes known.
  • Tokyo’s major airports halted flights, though Haneda Airport was later reported to have reopened several runways. All Tokyo area trains were halted, while the shinkansen bullet train service was suspended.
  • Water could be seen rising over cars and pouring into warehouses at Onahama port in Fukushima Prefecture, with five deaths reported in Fukushima.
  • Two nuclear plants on the Pacific coast in Fukushima were automatically shut down.
  • At Fukushima the subsequent tsunami disabled emergency generators required to cool the reactors.
  • Over the following three weeks there was evidence of a partial nuclear meltdown in units 1, 2 and 3; visible explosions, suspected to be caused by hydrogen gas, in units 1 and 3; a suspected explosion in unit 2, that may have damaged the primary containment vessel; and a possible uncovering of the units 1, 3 and 4 spent fuel pools.
  • Radiation releases caused large evacuations, concern over food and water supplies, and treatment of nuclear workers.
  • The IAEA has rated the events at level 7, the same as Chenobyl, and the highest on the scale – meaning that there is a major release of radio active material with widespread health and environmental effects.
  • The situation has been further compounded by numerous aftershocks.
  • 2,000 people confirmed dead
  • 10,000 more people expected to be confirmed dead
  • 2,000 people injured
  • 530,000 people displaced, staying in 2,500 evacuation centres, such as schools and public halls
  • 24,000 people still completely isolated and cannot be reached
  • 1.2 million homes without power
  • 1.4 million homes without water
  • 4,700 destroyed houses
  • 50,000 damaged houses
  • 582 roads cut off
  • 32 bridges destroyed


  • A Tsunami warning was issued 3 minutes after the earthquake.
  • Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who convened an emergency Cabinet meeting, urged the nation to be calm and said the government will do its utmost to minimize damage from the quake. He told a news conference a large amount of damage had occurred in the northern Tohoku region.
  • A Meteorological Agency official appeared on TV urging those affected by the quake not to return home because of possible tsunamis.
    • “In some areas we have issued a warning of tsunamis of higher than 10 meters and we expect these areas will experience the high water levels soon,” said the official. “Please stay on high alert.”
  • The governor of Miyagi Prefecture asked for Japanese military forces to be sent in to help.
  • The Defence Ministry was sending eight fighter jets to check the damage, the agency said.
  • The government set up a task force at the Prime Minister’s Office. The Bank of Japan set up a disaster control team, headed by BOJ Gov. Masaaki Shirakawa, to assess the impact of the earthquake on financial markets as well as on financial institutions’ business operations.
  • In response, 91 countries have offered aid, from blankets and food to search dogs and military transport.
  • The Japanese government is among the best prepared in the world for disasters and has so far only made specific requests for help, such as calling for search and rescue teams.
  • Several charities, including Save the Children UK, British Red Cross and World Vision UK, are asking for donations.
  • A British rescue team has arrived in Japan to join the search for survivors of the earthquake and tsunami.
  • Fifty-nine search and rescue experts, four medics and two sniffer dogs flew out on a private charter plane with 11 tonnes of equipment on board.
  • Modern innovations, such as Twitter were bringing updates on the situation far earlier than the media.


BBC – Japan In Pictures

National Geographic – Japan In Pictures

Wikipedia – Japan 2011 Earthquake & Tsunami

Like this:


How do the effects of earthquakes differ in countries at different stages of development?

For the exam you will need to know 2 case studies very well, one from an MEDC (more economically developed country) and one from an LEDC (less economically developed country). You will need to be able to explain how and why the effects differ referring to level of development (how rich or poor the country is).

Link to syllabus: A case study of an earthquake in a rich part of the world and one from a poorer area – their specific causes; primary and secondary effects; immediate and long-term responses – the need to predict, protect and prepare. Contrasts in effects and responses will be clear.

Case study 1: Kobe, Japan 1995: Great Hanshin earthquake (MEDC).

Causes: At 5.46am on January 17th 1995 the Phillipines plate was pushing beneath the Eurasian plate along the destructive fault line that runs beneath Kobe. The plates had become stuck and pressure began to build up beneath the crust and was finally released leading to an earthquake measuring 7.2 on the richter scale, with tremors lasting 20 seconds.

Primary effects: 6434 people dead and 40,000 injured. Gas mains ruptured, water pipes fractured, sections of elevated road collapsed and railway lines buckled.

Secondary effects: 300,000 homeless.2 million people left without electricity and 1 million people had to cope without water for 10days. Fires engulfed the city, devouring the wooden structures, damage to roads restricted access and the fires burned out of control. The economy suffered as there was $220 billion in damage. Companies like Panasonic had to close temporarily.

Responses: Friends and neighbours searched through the rubble for survivors, joined by the emergency services when access was possible. Hospitals struggled to cope with the large amount of injured people. Major retailers provided supplies for people and Motorola maintained mobile phone connections free of charge. The recovery longer term was quick. Railways were 80% operational within just a month, most roads were back to normal by July that year. A year later the port was 80% operational again.

Buildings which survived the quake had been built to stricter regulations from 1981 onward. Buildings which were older than this were not and collapsed easily. New buildings were built further apart to prevent the domino effect should they fall. High rise buildings are now built with flexible steel frames and rubber blocks put under bridges to absorb shock.

The Japanses practice earthquake drills every year to prepare them for another similar event. Over 800,000 people took part in a drill in August 2006.

THINKING POINT: How did being an MEDC help Kobe recover from such a big earthquake? 

Case study 2: The Haiti earthquake 2010 (LEDC).

Causes: The earthquake happened along a conservative plate margin marking the bounder between the North American plate and the Caribbean plate. At 16:53 on January 12th 2010 the island of Haiti was struck by a powerful 7.0 magnitude earthquake. The earthquake was caused by stress building up along the conservative plate margin, when this stress was released there was a sudden slip along the fault. The earthquake was followed by several large aftershocks of up to 5.0 on the Richter scale.

Effects:The earthquake devastated large parts of the capital Port-au-Prince and resulted in massive loss of life making it one of the most destructive earthquakes of all time.

Primary effects: 230,000 people were killed. 180,000 homes destroyed by the ground shaking.

Destroyed buildings in Port au Prince, Haiti.


Secondary effects: 2 million people were affected and 1.5 million were homeless. The homeless were accommodated in over 1100 squalid camps with limited services such as water and sanitation. People lived in these camps for over a year. Cholera claimed the lives of several hundred people mainly children. Storms and flooding caused further hardship in the camps. 19 million chic metres of rubble and debris created- a huge job to clear up. 5000 schools damaged or destroyed. Service such as electricity, water , sanitation and communications were badly disrupted or destroyed. Total damage bill was $11.5billion.

Damage to the presidential palace.

 Responses: Search and rescue was the immediate response. Assistance was required and so specially trained medics with sniffer dogs and high tech heat sensitive equipment were flown in from MEDCs. Local people made up the majority of the rescuers.

Local people made up the majority of the rescue effort.

Aid arrived from abroad in the form of food, water, medical supplies and temporary shelters (from the USA and Dominican Republic at first.) The United Nations and the USA provided security to maintain law and order and ensure a fair distribution of aid. The UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) raised over £100million. This money was used for emergency shelter, medical consultations, clean drinking water and sanitation.

Temporary shelters became home for more than a year for the homeless, while medical care was very limited.

Longer term responses: 3/4 of damaged buildings were inspected and repaired. 200,000 people have received cash or food for public work such as clearly rubble. Several thousand people have decided to move away from Port au Prince to stay with family, some have emigrated to other countries. The world bank pledged $100million to support reconstruction and recovery programmes in Haiti.

How to revise:

Make a table to compare the effects and responses of the 2 earthquakes. What do you notice?

Why did Haiti suffer so much more than Kobe?

There is no denying that both countries suffered greatly as a result of the earthquakes. But why did so many more people die in Haiti? and why did it take them so much longer to recover?

As Haiti is an LEDC, the country had limited services and healthcare before the earthquake even happened. People were living in poverty as the country struggled to develop and improve quality of life for its people. There are no building regulations such as in Kobe, Japan and there are no action plans in place incase an earthquake was to occur. Buildings in Haiti were built with poor quality, cheap materials and these simply crumbled when the earthquake shook. Although building did fall in Kobe, a large proportion did not due to their construction.

Effects were similar, buildings collapsed and services were cut off. In Kobe they responded quickly as they already had well organised emergency services which could arrive from outside the city who were equipped with high tech machinery for rescue. In Haiti they were reliant upon aid from abroad, which arrived quickly to help local people with the rescue effort. Charities were quick to raise funds for Haiti and contribute medics with specialist equipment but these take time to arrive.

The final notable difference was the time it took to respond and recover. In Kobe it was a matter of weeks and months before the city was cleared and 80% functioning. Haiti was still devastated 12 months afterwards and is still recovering to this day. It is a challenge for any LEDC to develop and become richer, but when something as devastating as an earthquake happens, the country is pushed even further backwards in their attempt for a better life.

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