Earthquake in Japan

March 11, 2011 • 6:28 am

I woke up to the dismaying news that a huge earthquake struck Japan at 2:46 Toyko time, with the epicenter 80 miles off the northeast coast.  With a magnitude of either 8.8 or 8.9. that makes it the fifth biggest earthquake recorded this century.   The good news—if you consider anything good about such an event—is that deaths will be considerably fewer than in previous quakes in Japan, perhaps numbering in the hundreds rather than hundreds of thousands (as in the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923).  Japan now has strict earthquake building codes and everyone knows what to do when the tremors hit.

Our thoughts are with the people of Japan, and with our readers who live there.  Our official Japanese correspondent, Yokohamamama, is visiting California without her husband and three kids, and has posted updates on her website.  She was up all night, frantic, waiting to find out if her family back home was all right: there was no internet or power in Yokohama, and cellphone service was out.  I was speaking with her, however, at the moment when her husband managed to get through on Skype and assure her they were all okay. What a great relief!  She still can’t return home, though, as all airline flights have been canceled. If you live in Japan and are reading this, let us know how things are there.

The New York Times already has posted a page of videos of the quake, which show the great power of such a thing and of its attendant tsunami, which at this moment is working its way across the Pacific at five hundred miles an hour.

As I said, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), this is the fifth largest earthquake recorded in the past century. Here are the top six with their magnitudes on the Richter scale and links to their descriptions.

Here’s a USGS map of the fifteen strongest earthquakes of the last century, all but one on striking on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur.

A side note:  as Yokohamamama was sitting in her hotel lobby, where she had spent the night (internet reception was better there), desperate with worry, she was approached by a group of young Christians.  They sat with her a while, trying to be helpful, and—when she still hadn’t learned the fate of her family—told her that “everything happens for a reason.”  The reason, though, was not what they thought: it was simply the slipping of tectonic plates.

61 thoughts on “Earthquake in Japan

  1. Delighted that she is OK – & if anyone goes to her page, heartily agree with her comment about Pat Robertson.

  2. “everything happens for a reason.”

    What a sucky comment to make to someone in distress.

    Yokahamamama was one of my first thoughts when I heard the news this morning. I was so glad to hear she and her family are OK. I can’t imagine being so far from my family at this time.

  3. Sitting on a mountainside in eastern Oahu, scared for family, hoping for best. thank goodness for technology for the heads up.

  4. The good thing is that Japan, perhaps more than any other country, is prepared for earthquakes. The building codes are earthquake-centric, and earthquakes are faily common, although this is obviously far more severe than normal. I lived in Tokyo for many years and can still remember my first earthquake (only a 5).

    Yoko, I’m glad your family is safe.

    1. We can be thankful for science and technology and engineering which is saving lives there.

      Also, we can be thankful for communication to get more people out of the way of the tsunami in the next dozen hours.

      1. Exactly. Science and engineering saved countless lives. But christians will thanks their imaginary father figure.

  5. Yeah, “everything happens for a reason”. Another of their mantras. It’s “God’s will”, rephrased. Things happen. We react to them. Sometimes, out of that, you can find something new and good. But often you can’t, either.

  6. As terrible and awful as it is…I really must congratulate the people of Japan on their preparedness. An 8.9 earthquake and a death toll “only” in the hundreds? Mere decades ago, such a quake would have been as devastating as a war.

    Another thought strikes me. The whole coast from Alaska through the Panama Canal is unrepresented on that map. When the San Andreas finally does cut loose, it’s really gonna be a doozy. And I suspect we might find out that preparations in North America aren’t up to Japanese standards.

    Someday — maybe not in my lifetime, but someday — quakes like this will be a thing of the past. Seismologists will trigger small stress-relieving quakes at two in the morning with several weeks of advance notice, and such quakes will be no more remarkable than a thunderstorm.

    If there is to be “reason” why this quake happened, we must make the reason for ourselves. And, sure enough, that’s exactly what we do: learn as much from it as possible so we don’t get bitten quite so hard the next time.

    A god that actually gave a damn about us and had the power to do something would protect us from such quakes the exact same way we protect our children by putting them in car seats and teaching them not to chase balls into the road. Or, more to the point, a creator god would create equals, not fragile and crippled pets to be abandoned.


    1. learn as much from it as possible so we don’t get bitten quite so hard the next time.

      One of the many problems with all religion, even the “progressive, moderate” variety is that it teaches people to be content with bromides and platitudes like “everything happens for a reason,” and “this is so complex and mysterious, god must have done it.” No learning happens. And as a result we get bitten.

    2. “Someday — maybe not in my lifetime, but someday — quakes like this will be a thing of the past. Seismologists will trigger small stress-relieving quakes at two in the morning with several weeks of advance notice, and such quakes will be no more remarkable than a thunderstorm.”

      Not until after I have my jet car.

    3. Actually, an earthquake on the San Andreas is not likely to be a doozy, if by doozy you mean very high magnitude. The San Andreas, which runs through California, is estimated of being capable of kicking out at most an 8.0 earthquake. Which, of course, is plenty big, but just not in the league of the one that just hit Japan.

      This doesn’t mean that damage won’t be high–what makes the San Andreas so dangerous is that we’ve actually built right on top of it. (I myself live a mere 7 miles from it.) And we aren’t nearly as well prepared as Japan.

      Now, north of the San Andreas,
      off the coast of Oregon and Washington, there is a subduction zone that is capable of kicking out a monster of an earthquake–9.0 or above. Seattle and other major cities on the coast would stand a good chance of being devastated.

  7. My inlaws live in Kyushu so they were not close to the major damage and friends in Tokyo seem to have be unaffected apart from the travel disruption. Unfortunately news reports are coming in of large numbers of bodies being found in Sendai, just one of the cities closest to the epicenter so it looks like the death toll may end up being much higher than the initial estimates.

    1. The rest of my husband’s family is in Kyuushuu, too–so they’re all fine. He’s also heard from his brother in Tokyo finally–their family is alright, too. He just told me the death toll estimates on Japanese news are about 1300. I don’t want to think about how many of those are children.

  8. A 6.3 pretty much flattened Christchurch the other week, and a 8.9, ignoring the Tsunami damage, left most buidings standing in Japan. They’ve done something right ! The initial death numbers remind me of the first estimates after the 2004 Tsunami, however…Worse is to come, it has to be feared.

    1. It matters too where it is localized… the 6.3 was just a few miles below the surface of Christchurch, so it behaved like a much, much worse earthquake… I’ve never heard of liquifaction happening with such a low intensity quake before.

    1. Or in the ‘non-fairy’ world, indifferent nature has places that are attractive to live yet are sometimes thwacked.

  9. I have to admit, the first person I though of was Yokohamama. The second is a friend on the Big Island, which had a 4.5 quake this morning also. Glad to hear she is safe and sound with her family.

      1. to make it happen and be able to say: “Did not I tell you so?”
        Last year (I live in Chile) we had to listen to this kind of *** from the christians. From the native, we got the “Mother Nature is angry because of the geothermic project” reason.
        Neither the first one nor the other were helpful, but both turned people crazy.

  10. The BBC news looks pretty grim. I’m afraid that a lot of people were caught in the tsunami.
    I worked in Tokuyama for a few months some years ago. Japan is a wonderful country. I know they will pull together and recover from this, but it is a major blow.

  11. “With a magnitude of either 8.8 or 8.9. that makes it the fifth biggest earthquake recorded this century”.

    Wouldn’t it be the second largest?

  12. “Everything happens for a reason”

    Why do the fundies and their ilk come out with such smarmy glop? This, more than anything else I can remember, highlights their robotic nature: they have been programmed with a bunch of rather threadbare memes, and instead of using their brains, they auto-regurgitate meaningless canned phrases.

    God (did She exist) would be weeping at the failure of the stupids to utilize their natural gifts of intelligence and insight.

    1. Yes, I was in a really bad car accident 4.5 years ago and got told this countless times by Christians. I’ll spare you the details of the accident, but I’ve decided that nothing insults my intelligence more than people trying to insert God into the explanation of it. It was because of all that that I decided to become a more outspoken atheist, encouraged, of course, by the writings of the Gnus…

  13. I’m glad to hear that Yokohamamama and her family are fine. I, too, am out of Japan, about to do a performance in London with my wife if the laryngitis I got on the plane over allows me to; my wife’s cousins in Yokohama are all right, but I am worried about our place in Tokyo – we can’t get through to our neighbours.
    Regarding Yokohamamama’s experience, how typical of the Xtians to come up with a comforting words of this nature: God did it, in his mysterious and destructive way, and therefore we can feel better about it…

  14. I’m surprised that so few people (well less than 1000) were reported missing so far. I hope that’s accurate.

    They really are the best prepared country in the world (AFAIK) for this sort of thing, but the magnitude and speed of that tsunami would overwhelm just about any preparation. There was just very little time to get people out of harm’s way.

  15. Yes, the Japanese know what to do when an eathquake occurs onshore; run to the bamboo grove!But that old idea is no good for offshore quakes and the resulting tsunamis.

  16. Thank you all– I can hardly express what it means that you thought of me when you turned on your news and heard. Mr. Harris–I am beyond thankful that you are already in England and safe and that your family is also safe. I will hope the best for those in Tokyo–as far as I know, power is still out in Tokyo (we haven’t heard from my husband’s brother, although it is now in the middle of the night).

    That the quake struck off the coast and not right under the city is unbelievably lucky (if I can even use that word in connection with what’s happened). The is the Big One–only everybody thought it would hit Tokyo or Yokohama. I, and others in Yokohama and Tokyo, are simply fortunate. Don’t be fooled by the low death toll right now. The bodies have only begun to wash ashore. They had only minutes to react–there just wasn’t any time for anyone in the coastal villages or even Sendai to escape unless they happened to be already on very high ground.

    The kids who told me “everything happens for a reason”… well, I don’t live in America, so I’m not bombarded with that canard so constantly, so it doesn’t irritate me as much. They weren’t more than 14 or 15 and stumbled into the rec room with a crazed-looking hyperventilating woman watching CNN and frantically typing on her computer… I had to tell them what had happened, and I could see the helplessness and shock on their innocent faces. They sat for quite a while with me so I wouldn’t have to sit alone. I took that to be the comfort they intended. It’s hard to feel utterly helpless in the face of disaster.

    1. sorry for typos–my hands are still shaking. Never did sleep. And to those who gallantly leapt to take on Pat Robertson–I glory in the mental image of that smug face re-arranged.

      1. I hope you can relax now that you know your family is safe.

        My prescription: several ounces of alcohol (pick your favourite flavour), do something relaxing like watching a comedy film, and get at least 8 hours of sleep.

        Dr. Ray (not a real doctor, but meaning well)

  17. Yes, Yokohamamama is right: don’t be deceived by what seems to be a low death-toll; it is mounting by the minute – it is that tsunami that is the real killer.

    1. I saw a video of helicopter footage of the advancing tsunami that was carrying along a burning house. There was a car that made a three-point turn a couple hundred meters in advance of the wave. I’m not sure the driver of the car was able to escape.

      It really drives home the point that, if you’re anywhere near a coastline and you feel an earthquake no matter how minor you need to immediately drop whatever you’re doing, head for high ground, and then check the local emergency broadcast system to learn if there’s a tsunami inbound.

      We seem to have, as a civilization, done a pretty good job at protecting ourselves against earthquakes, but tsunamis are entirely different…and, short of impossibly massive stormwalls, I don’t think there’s anything that physically could be done aside from immediate evacuation. And, logistically, immediate evacuation might not even be possible in many densely-populated port cities.


      1. I think the fact that there was just a ten minute gap between the quake and the tsunami probably rules out escape to higher land that might be many kilometerd from these flat coastal plains. Looking at the helicopter images it was clear that the best solution would be to have some sort of reinforced evacuation tower for the locals of each town or village to climb above the wave.

    1. Yes, I checked on Maru, too — he is the only living creature I know in Japan. The tsunami videos are so sad. So many deaths caught on film. It just makes my stomach knot.

  18. Very happy to see that yokohamamama’s family is safe and hope madamx’s family is spared. But no one here has mentioned the situation with the Daiichi and Daini nuclear power plants located 10 miles apart in Fukushima Prefecture about 150 miles north of Tokyo. The cooling systems have broken down and there are massive evacuations taking place with reports that the radiation levels were 1,000 times above normal in a reactor control room at Daiichi facility. It’s not as serious as the near core meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, but it’s not good.

  19. I found myself having to remind myself about the victims – the footage shown on the BBC was awesome in the true sense of the word; it inspired awe. One interviewee on the radio described how he had to ask “is that really happening” because the pavement was rippling like water.

    I googled to see if any stupid statements had been made (cf Haiti – they had it coming). HuffPo (I know, I know…) reports a Mr R Limbaugh

    He is one of your most admired broadcasters right? I understand he has a lot of people who support him.

    1. Limburgher sez:

      “This has to be a tough call out there for the environmentalists around the world,” Limbaugh said. “They’re scrambling now to blame this on global warming…much of the damage seems to have happened in that part of Japan most heavily involved in manufacturing cars. So do environmentalists cheer or do they pretend to be saddened by this? It’s a legitimate question.”

      It’s a legitimate question???

      FFS, how exactly does one get this detached from reality and not be admitted for evaluation?

    2. He is one of your most admired broadcasters right? I understand he has a lot of people who support him.

      to the first:

      not hardly

      to the second:

      sadly, yes.

  20. I, too, immediately thought of yokohamamama at first hearing. So glad to learn all is well with you and your family, ym!

    The tsunami and destruction pictures are horrific. One almost dreads updates…

  21. Why don’t our politicians take a stronger position on stopping plate tectonics ?

    That is one thing advantage that the flat earth society and those tea party members who support it, it does not acknowledge the so called theory of plate tectonics.

    So who pissed off the Turtle ?

    1. Sarah Palin should demand a return to the geology pre-1950, before liberal scientists forced plate tectonics on the people of the world. If Obama doesn’t stop this it just proves that he is a Muslim, who allows earthquakes so that America will be destroyed.

Leave a Reply