Summary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

1. Overview of the earthquake

On 11 March 2011 at 2:46 p.m., Japan was struck by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake which generated a gigantic tsunami that hit a 700 km stretch of its Pacific coast-lines. It is the largest magnitude ever recorded in Japan and the 3rd in the world, next to the Chile Earthquake in 1960 and the Sumatra Earthquake and Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. The Japan Meteorological Agency called it the “2011 off the Pacific Coast of Tohoku Earthquake.” In accordance with the Cabinet decision on April 1, the government named the disaster caused by the earthquake and the following disaster resulted from the nuclear power plant accident as the “Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. (GEJET)”

2. GEJET is summarized as follows:

(1) Time of occurrence
2:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011 (JST)

(2) Epicenter
Off the Sanriku coast (38º06.2’ north latitude and 142º51.6’ east longitude)

(3) Depth of the epicenter
24 kilometers

(4) Magnitude of the earthquake

(5) Seismic intensity
The maximum intensity observed was 7 as measured in Kurihara, Miyagi. An intensity of 5 lower or higher was observed in 17 prefectures, indicating that the earthquake caused damage to a wide range of areas in eastern Japan.

(6) Tsunami was caused by the earthquake
The epicenter of this earthquake was off the Pacific Coast to Tohoku area, which caused a huge tsunami that struck the coastal area. The tsunami hit 62 municipalities in 6 different prefectures (Aomori, Iwate, Miyagi, Fukushima, Ibaraki and Chiba), causing widespread flooding. In some areas the tsunami was followed by large fires.

The tsunami devastated the Tohoku area, with Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures being heavily affected. In coastal areas, as their public infrastructure such as roads, railways, government offices and hospitals were destroyed by the tsunami, the towns and cities in those areas lost their basic functions.

Otsuchi, Iwate Otsuchi, Iwate, which suffered devastating damage on 12 March 2011. (c)JRCS

Kesennuma, Miyagi Kesennuma, Miyagi, which suffered devastating damage on 11 March 2011. (c)Motoyoshi Hospital

(7) Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Accident
In Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), one of the nuclear power plants along the coast in Japan, some reactors' cores melted down because of the loss of the core cooling function, due to the loss of all electric sources by the impact of the tsunami. The steam generated by this accident eventually exploded buildings, resulting in the release of radioactive materials into the environment.

On 12 April 2011, the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was rated as a level 7 “Major Accident” on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Level 7 is the most serious level on INES and is used to describe an event comprised of “A major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects requiring implementation of planned and extended countermeasures”. It turns the event into the first triple disaster ever recorded in human history.

(8) Damage
The massive earthquake and tsunami, which occurred on March 11, 2011, caused tremendous damage. In particular, serious damage was caused in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures, where the most human loss of life accounted for.

Figure 2-1 Damage Caused by GEJET (National Police Agency, as of 10 December 2020)
Area Prefecture Number of Dead Number of Missing Number of Injured Completely destroyed houses Half destroyed houses
Hokkaido Hokkaido 1 3 4
Tohoku Iwate 4,675 1,111 213 19,508 6,571
Miyagi 9,543 1,216 4,145 83,005 155,130
Fukushima 1,614 196 183 15,435 82,783
Aomori 3 1 112 308 701
Yamagata 2 29
Akita 11
Kanto Tokyo 7 117 15 198
Ibaraki 24 1 712 2,635 25,013
Tochigi 4 133 261 2,118
Gunma 1 42 7
Chiba 21 2 263 801 10,155
Kanagawa 4 138 41
Saitama 45 24 199
Chubu Nagano 1
Yamanashi 2
Mie 1
Niigata 3
Shizuoka 3
Shikoku Kochi 1
Total 15,899 2,527 6,157 121,992 282,920

a. Iwate

Catastrophic damage by the large tsunami beyond suppositions

Yamada, Iwate

The town office area in Yamada, Iwate was devastated by tsunami and fires caused by the earthquake on 14 March 2011. (c) JRCS

The damages of the earthquake and tsunami concentrated in the coastal areas. The coastal area of Iwate Prefecture has its highly intricate coastline. As the area has frequently been hit by tsunamis, the prefecture had reasonably good preparedness for this type of disaster. However, the area suffered such grave damage that the whole city was destroyed, due to the large tsunami beyond suppositions. The mountain corridor traffic road, which linked the internal urban areas and the seriously damaged coastal areas, was cut off in many places, and it resulted in the difficulty of transporting relief goods and supplies to the people in need.

b. Miyagi

Widespread damage caused by tsunami

Ishinomaki, Miyagi

The affected area in Ishinomaki,Miyagi on 14 March 2011.(c)JRCS

In Miyagi Prefecture, there were widespread flooding due to the tsunami. As the tsunami hit urbanized coastal areas, it brought great loss of lives and houses. In Ishinomaki City, located in the northern part of Miyagi Prefecture, the local health network was affected and people faced huge difficulties in accessing and receiving medical service.

c. Fukushima

Large-scale evacuation of residents due to the radiological disaster

Soma, Fukushima

The affected area in Soma, Fukushima on 19 March 2011. (c)JRCS

The accident happened in TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and radioactive materials were released into the environment in a wide range. Evacuation orders were issued in 12 municipalities, which led large-scale evacuation of residents. The number of evacuees was about 160,000 people at its peak period (in May 2012). As the evacuees, including those evacuated voluntarily, were dispersed throughout the country, functions of the communities in these areas were weakened significantly.
Since people worried especially about the impact of radiation on their children’s health, many parents restricted their children from playing outdoors. As a result, the children's lack of physical exercise, decline of physical strength, increase in stress levels, etc. became an issue.
Prolonged stay in temporary housings has significant impact on the affected people, both physically and mentally. Earthquake-related deaths are still occurring, and they exceeded the deaths caused directly by the earthquake and tsunami in November 2013.

(9) Response of the JRCS after of the disaster
Since the onset of the disaster, the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS) was active on the ground by providing much needed emergency medical care and relief services. Furthermore, the JRCS provided the emergency relief activities to the affected people based on the Disaster Relief Act (Japan).

Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital. (c) JRCS Relief teams are working to determine the extent of damage at Ishinomaki Red Cross Hospital on 11 March. (c) JRCS

Mobile clinic Mobile clinic is on the way to the Ishinomaki City on 15 March 2011. (c) JRCS

3. Challenges faced by the affected people which the JRCS addressed

The JRCS has continuously witnessed the challenges faced by the affected people since the emergency response phase immediately after the disaster. There were various needs of the affected people in the disaster area. As the JRCS follows the fundamental principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the organisation has focused on the health and dignity as well as community issues of the affected population.

a. Declining of the functions of the communities

b. Stress of the affected people, accumulated by prolonged evacuation

c. Increased health risks due to inconvenient and unfamiliar life as evacuees

Evacuation center in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Evacuation center in Rikuzentakata, Iwate in April 2011. (c)JRCS