Before, During, and After the Magnitude-8.9 Earthquake that Hit Japan in 2011

The Ring of Fire is a term used to refer to the horseshoe-shaped section following the border of the Pacific Ocean. At this zone, a large percentage of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes experienced by the world occur. In fact, the US Geological Survey, or USGS, states that about eighty percent of the largest recorded earthquakes on earth centered within this area.

Given Japan’s location along the Ring of Fire, the country is susceptible to experience some of the most disastrous shakings in the world, which it, unfortunately, has seen more than its fair share throughout the course of history.

Event after event, Japan has continued to learn and move forward, no matter how unpredictable and destructive Mother Earth may be, as it was in 2011 when the country was hit by an 8.9-magnitude earthquake.

The 2011 earthquake stands as the most powerful one to have ever hit Japan. Its effects were felt across the globe for several more years after, while Japan continues to recover up to this day.

An Overview of the Magnitude – 8.9 Earthquake that Hit Japan in 2011

By own work [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The magnitude – 8.9 earthquake that hit the northeastern portion of Japan on March 11, 2011, a Friday, is also referred to as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. According to recent research, the earthquake was caused by stress between the Pacific and Eurasian plates which had been built up for several centuries. These tectonic plates collided in such a way that the Pacific plate dove under the Eurasian plate.

Japan had been expecting to be hit by the “Big One” soon but was not able to properly respond to this particular earthquake. A group of scientists had already been keeping an eye out for possible warning signs and predicted that a smaller earthquake would hit the northern area of Honshu, Japan’s main island.

However, these scientists were not part of the officials that were in charge of assessing earthquake hazards in the country. As such, their findings were ultimately ignored.

The early warning system of Japan meant for earthquakes alerted residents of the upcoming shake moments before it happened. Through this and the seismic building codes followed by many of Japan’s structures, the number of casualties was kept to a minimum.

30-Ft Tsunami, Aftershocks, and the Nuclear Power Plant Meltdown Following the 2011 Japan Earthquake

By Eastwind41 (JMA1, 2, 3, 4) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, the magnitude – 8.9 earthquake was only the beginning of a string of unfortunate events.

In less than an hour, a tsunami hit the coastline of Japan. This was followed by a series of tsunami waves, the largest of which measured 39 meters above sea level and traveled through the city of Miyako for as long as 10 kilometers towards Sendai.

An estimated total of 561 sq. km. was flooded by the tsunami waves. At several locations, these waves were able to destroy and overtop the existing protective seawalls of Japan meant for tsunamis. Huge whirlpools were also seen near Oarai, videos of which are available online.

Overnight, the prefectures of Niigata and Nagano were hit with a magnitude – 6.2 aftershock. By Saturday morning, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was issued with a nuclear emergency. According to news reports, the tsunami had seized the electrical power and backup generators of the power plant, causing a failure in the cooling system.

Less than an hour later, another aftershock with a magnitude of 6.3 hit the coast of Honshu. Officials from the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency announced that the radiation levels at the plant were increasing, as three of the nuclear plant’s four cooling units ultimately stopped functioning properly.

The next day (Sunday, March 13, 2011), government-ordered evacuations began within 10-20 kilometers of the Fukushima power plant while plant workers continued to try and keep the nuclear reactors at bay.

An explosion occurred at one of the power plant’s reactors (No.3), the following day, on March 14, 2011, a Monday. This explosion caused one wall of the plant to collapse which injured six people. Remaining residents within thirty kilometers of the nuclear plant were ordered to stay indoors.

Another reactor (No. 2) lost its cooling functions and officials immediately responded by pumping seawater into it, similar to how the other two reactors had been kept under control since the initial disaster. The fuel rods of reactors No. 3 and No. 1 rapidly started heating which had workers struggling to cool them down.

On Tuesday (March 15, 2011), another explosion occurred at the power plant, causing significant damage to reactor No.2’s suppression pool. Officials continued to pump in water as a means to keep the radioactive material cool.

White smoke was seen rising above the power plant on Wednesday (March 16, 2011), which canceled the plan of using helicopters to shower the fuel rods with water. An increase in radiation levels was recorded which prompted Emperor Akihito to give a message of hope to the nation – a rare event often reserved for extreme situations such as war.

Come Thursday (March 17, 2011), high levels of radiation were recorded at the power plant, reaching up to 20 millisieverts/hour. Several helicopters handled by the country’s Self-Defense Forces dumped loads of seawater on the plant’s reactor (No. 3) to prevent it from overheating. The Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency increased the threat level to five on Friday (March 18, 2011).

Within a month, particularly on April 12, 2011, the agency once again raised the threat level from 5 to 7 which put the crisis at par with the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Reactors No. 1, 2, and 3 experienced a full meltdown on June 6, 2011. More evacuations were ordered in a wider range, which continued up until the end of June. By mid-July, only 18 out of 54 nuclear power plants in Japan remained operational.

Later that year during the month of October, Yasuhiro Sonoda, a government official, drank decontaminated water that was taken from a puddle at the Fukushima power plant to ease the worries of the nation. On December 16, 2011, the Prime Minister announced that the temperatures at the Fukushima plant had become stable, putting it in a state of cold shutdown.

Aftermath of the 2011 Japan Earthquake - Death Toll and Damage Costs

By Morio (photo taken by Morio) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

At present, the total number of casualties from the disastrous events caused by the 2011 earthquake is recorded at 24,608. This figure consists of 2,562 missing people, 6,152 injured people, and 15,894 deaths.

Normally, Japanese funerals consist of elaborate ceremonies that follow Buddhist practices including cremation. However, the fatalities of the events were too much for existing morgues and crematoriums to handle.

The military forces and regional governments of Japan had no choice but to bury the majority of the bodies in mass graves. Families of the deceased were reassured that the bodies would later be cremated.

According to reports, there were also deaths outside of Japan that were caused by the 2011 tsunamis. A person from Indonesia had been swept to sea and died in Jayapura, Papua.

In California, another man had also been taken by waves while trying to take a photo of the oncoming tsunami. His body had been swept to Oregon and found on April 2.

In terms of damage, the 2011 earthquake and tsunamis added up to a total cost of about 300 billion dollars. Around 45,700 buildings were reportedly destroyed on April 3, 2011, while 144,300 other structures in the prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate, and Miyagi suffered damages. An approximate total of 230,000 vehicles was either destroyed or damaged.

Other damages which have already been restored or repaired today include:


After the earthquake, all of the ports in Japan were shut down for a brief period of time. The ones located in Tokyo and down south re-opened earlier than the others. 

Several ports located northeast were destroyed such as those of Ishinomaki, Onahama, Sendai, and Hachinohe, while the ports of Chiba, Hitachi, Soma, Shiogama, Hitachinaka, Kesennuma, Miyako, Kamaishi, and Ofunato suffered significant damages.

In total, 319 ports, which make up ten percent of Japan’s fishing ports, had to be closed or repaired. Almost all of them were restored and could operate again by late April of 2012.


Sukagawa’s irrigation dam had ruptured because of the unfortunate events of 2011. This prompted the inspection of 252 other dams, six of which were seen to have shallow cracks, while one gravity dam showed a mild, insignificant slope failure. 

All six damaged dams were able to continue functioning without any problems.


After the 2011 earthquake, tsunamis, and nuclear meltdown, several other power plants went offline, causing about 4.4 million residences under the service of the Tohoku Electric Power (TEP) to have no electricity. Consequently, the total capacity of Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) was reduced by 21GW.

On March 14, 2011, a series of rolling blackouts began because of this power shortage. These blackouts continued until May, while TEPCO struggled to find a solution. Prefectures that experienced these blackouts include Gunma, Tochigi, Saitama, Ibaraki, Chiba, Yamanashi, Shizuoka, Kanagawa, and Tokyo.

Through voluntary electricity reduction usage by those in the Kanto region, the number of households with no electricity was significantly decreased. Due to the difference in frequencies used by the systems of Kansai Electric Power Company (Kepco), TEPCO, and TEP, sharing electricity was not possible.

Fortunately, a couple of substations in the Nagano and Shizuoka Prefectures were able to switch frequencies and, thus, transferred electricity to Kanto and Tohoku from Kansai.

Several efforts have been made by various companies in Japan to resolve the issue on electricity shortage but long-term solutions may take a few more years of restoration and developments.

Oil, Gas, and Coal

Several refineries were set ablaze by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and the aftershocks that followed. Those of JX Nippon Oil & Energy and Cosmo Oil Company suffered greatly, while the productions at other refineries were put on hold for safety reasons.

In line with the efforts to try and compensate for the electricity shortages caused by the closing of several nuclear power plants, analysts predict that consumption of different oils and gases may increase by up to three hundred thousand barrels per day.


The transportation systems and highways of Japan were heavily disrupted during and after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. A lot of sections of the Tohoku Expressway that served northern Japan suffered severe damage, causing it to remain closed until March 24, 2011.

Railway services in Tokyo were suspended, which left thousands of people stranded at stations spread across the city. Some of these services resumed operations just a few hours after the quake, while the rest followed suit the next day. From March 11 to March 12, 2011, about 20,000 visitors were left stranded inside Tokyo Disneyland.

Thanks to the early earthquake warning system of Japan, damages were kept to a minimum. A part of this system automatically halts the operation of all high-speed trains, which led to no derailments.

The airports at Haneda and Narita temporarily stopped operations following the earthquake but did not suffer significant damage. Both airports reopened within a day.


The Matsushima Air Filed in the prefecture of Miyagi suffered severe flooding from the 2011 tsunami. Twelve air crafts were unrepairable, while six were restored. The total cost of repairs amounted to about a billion dollars.

Cultural Properties

Across 19 prefectures in Japan, about 750 cultural properties were damaged, including:

  • 5 National Treasures

  • 160 Important Cultural Properties

  • 6 Groups of Traditional Buildings

  • 4 Important Tangible Folk Cultural Properties

  • Stone Monuments

  • Shrines

  • Temples

  • Gardens

  • Castles

Recovery and Response to the 2011 Japan Earthquake

By David.Monniaux (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

As of today, many of Japan’s residents are still trying to recover from the disastrous events that transpired in 2011. Radioactive water is reportedly still being found from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and a lot of people who lost their households in the earthquake continue to live in temporary homes.

Amidst the massive damages and trauma, the spirit of the Japanese community remains strong and optimistic. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown are seen as lessons from which better systems could be developed. As such, the country now has an advanced tsunami warning system, among many more useful tools.

Other countries also acted accordingly to get a deeper understanding of how earthquakes could be predicted. Various scientists from across the globe came to Japan to drop sensors along fault lines that would measure different forces, while others focused on studying tsunami deposits to be able to monitor deadly waves.

Other Facts about the 2011 Japan Earthquake – Underestimated Epicenter, Shift in Map, Infrasound, Etc.

  • The epicenter of the magnitude – 8.9 earthquake was located to be around eighty miles east of Sendai City, somewhere in the ocean. This area was originally believed to not be capable of storing, let alone unleashing, that much energy.

  • The 2011 Tohoku earthquake was so strong that it shifted and redistributed the mass of the earth. This change reduced the length of a day by one microsecond.

  • Nearly 400 kilometers of the coastline of Honshu dropped by 0.6 meters after the disastrous events.

  • Over five thousand aftershocks have hit the country since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

  • The massive tsunami affected Antarctica’s Sulzberger Ice Shelf by breaking off icebergs.

  • A low-frequency noise known as infrasound was produced by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. The Goce satellite was able to detect this rumble from space.