One year on, Japan remembers tsunami victims

A young girl holds a flower at a memorial ceremony in Rikuzentakata, Japan © Getty Images

19,000 people were killed when a huge tsunami hit Japan on March 11th last year. Now, the survivors are still counting the cost of the disaster – and of the nuclear emergency that followed.

Earthquakes are commonplace in Japan. So when the ground started shaking on the afternoon of March 11th last year, many were unconcerned. It was only when buildings began to fracture under the force of the tremor that people realised this time might be different.

Their fears were tragically justified. Out at sea, movement of the Earth’s crust had unleashed a massive quake measuring nine on the Richter scale. Ten minutes later, a ten-metre high wave swept over north-eastern Japan, flattening coastal towns. 19,000 people were killed.

Worse was to follow. The tsunami caused a critical failure in cooling systems at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant. The reactors there quickly went into meltdown, leaking deadly radiation and sparking a nuclear crisis.

Exactly one year on, Japan is still dealing with the aftermath of the disaster. In the town of Rikuzentakata, for example, 2,000 of its 23,000 population were killed by the tsunami. Thousands more have left, and one third of the remaining inhabitants are now homeless, dealing with the crushing reality of lost parents, children and friends.

In all, more than 340,000 people across Japan are living in temporary accommodation. With no way of knowing whether they will ever be able to return home, they are living in limbo, unable to return to how things were before, but unable to build new lives.

Many are reluctant to go back at all. Most local industry is in ruins, and young people see few opportunities in their battered hometowns. Factories were flattened, workers killed, and miles of farmland poisoned by salt water: now, contamination means just 35% of farms can start producing crops again.

And radiation dangers mean the area around the stricken Fukushima plant is scattered with ghost towns, perhaps too dangerous to ever be inhabited again. 78,000 people are still unable to return to their homes. And the crisis has crippled Japan’s nuclear industry: of 54 nuclear reactors in the country, just two are now operating. At least 12 will never open again.

Eyes on the storm

During this year of crisis and reconstruction the international media have been absent. Many think we have failed Japan by not paying attention. Sudden, dramatic events make headlines, but the long-term tragedy of homelessness, grief and shattered lives may be more important in the end.

Others say it is right that news concentrates on big events. Dramatic tragedies unfold on an almost daily basis all over the world. To focus on gradual change in one country does nothing to support Japanese recovery – if anything, it might distract from the crucial and world-changing events happening elsewhere.

You Decide

  1. Should the news concentrate on long-term problems, as well as dramatic events?
  2. Does the global community have a responsibility to help Japan in its recovery?


  1. Write a fictional account of the moment the tsunami hit, based on what you have read and watched.
  2. Create a three-step plan for reviving one of the towns affected by the tsunami.

Some People Say...

“The news ignores what really matters.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What’s the cost of this outside of Japan?
Anxiety about nuclear power is the most tangible global result. Between 2008 and 2010, construction started on 38 nuclear power plants around the world; in the last year, the figure was just two. This could have serious implications for the future: without nuclear power, reaching international targets to reduce carbon emissions could be much harder.
What can I do to help?
Aid agencies are still actively seeking donations to help with their crucial aid efforts. So far they have raised $87 million, thanks to normal people as well as governments giving money. Much of the recovery effort, too, is down to normal people, banding together as volunteers, to help house vulnerable people: many homeless shelters are being run by local pensioners.

Word Watch

Richter scale
The strength of earthquakes is measured on the Richter scale, named after American seismologist Charles Richter. The scale is what scientists call a ‘log scale’. In a log scale, each number on the scale represents a value ten times higher than the number before it. So, a magnitude nine earthquake is ten times bigger than a magnitude eight earthquake.
A tsunami is a huge wave, caused by a large earthquake happening far out to sea. The word comes from the Japanese tsu, meaning harbour, and nami, meaning wave. Japan is the country most commonly affected by the phenomenon, but the most destructive was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed an astonishing 230,000 people.
Nuclear meltdown means the core of a nuclear power station accidentally melting, often because the cooling mechanism of the plant fails to function. And if the reactor melts, radioactive material can leak into the surrounding environment, contaminating water or soil.


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