Understanding the Effects of Japan's 2011 Earthquake

Published 11/02/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Christina Vourakis | 11/02/2022

During my travels I not only had the opportunity to engage in a culture completely unknown to me, but I had the chance to hear about the devastation of the 2011 earthquake along with observe the changes actively being made to avoid subsequent devastation.

This past March, I was fortunate enough to travel to Tokyo as part of the Harvard College in Asia Program, which collaborates with a total of eight international universities across Asia. Prior to this trip I had a keen interest in the Japanese culture and traditions, cuisine, art and architecture. Though I was going into the program discussing Equality, Tolerance and Freedom: the effect of culture and policy in a globalized world, I was not entirely prepared for the all-encompassing experience I was lucky to partake in. A large area of our discussion on the effect of culture and policy in Japan revolved around the earthquake in 2011. Though I had been aware of the earthquake that took place in Japan in 2011, I had no idea as to how substantial the devastation was which occurred. 

Seeing as the country falls on a fault time, Japan has been experiencing earthquakes for thousands of years. In the recent past, however, the earthquakes have been especially devastating to the nation. Prior to my visit in March of this year, the most recent and devastating earthquake occurred in March of 2011, causing catastrophic damage mostly to the eastern Japanese prefectures—Iwate, Fukushima, and Miyagi. Its devastation was not only a result of the shaking grounds, but also a result of the tsunami to follow hours after. Though this earthquake was not the largest or most deadly Japan has experienced, it came at such an unexpected time that the devastation felt was quite massive especially to those eastern regions, which were on the coastline. This level of surprise and unpreparedness set the country in a worse state than if they were to have had better systems in place for spontaneous disaster response. Through group fieldtrips to earthquake education centers in Japan it became evident that insufficient preparedness, warning systems, and overall earthquake education were substantial reasons behind the magnitude of the tragedy.

Through our program we learned that recent improvements have been made to the emergency systems and research capacity within Japan. With help and advice coming from abroad, Japan has managed to improve its tsunami warning systems, research being conducted to measure the strength and timing of future earthquakes, the durability of rebuilt architectural structures, and has made overall infrastructural improvements. Though we discussed all these infrastructural improvements actively being made within Japan, we never formally discussed the improvements being made in the healthcare sector, which is as an aspect of disaster response that intrigues me. Given my curiosity, I made an active effort to learn of the efforts having been made in Japan to prepare for times of crisis and to respond during these emergency situations.

Explaining the level of devastation to the eastern costal regions, the program informed us of how these regions did not have proper infrastructural aspects like secured communication lines or established transportation reliant on anything but land vehicles. So once the earthquake and tsunami hit, communication lines were cut and transportation to the most affected areas was very limited. With such limitations the local governments in these prefectures struggled with fully assessing and responding to the need within their respective regions. Furthermore, basic necessities like water, gas, and electricity were cut for a prolonged period of time within the coastal regions affected most by the natural disaster, making the situation more dire. It was the overall destruction at the local level and the lack of strengthened emergency response protocol that resulted in the significant damage observed in the eastern Japanese prefectures.

With my curiosity to learn more about the health response during the disaster, it became evident that aside from damage to the basic infrastructural aspects at the local level within those regions most affected, there was significant damage inflicted to the healthcare of those coastal regions, which warranted the need for improvements in this area. As a note, several hospitals and clinics in the coastal prefectures were either completely destroyed or significantly damaged. More so, healthcare personnel were also affected by the tsunami so the sheer manpower behind providing the needed care was reduced. Though there was damage to healthcare facilities and reduced personnel in these regions, healthcare workers from around Japan and from abroad still managed to provide the appropriate medical emergency care to those who did not perish from the disastrous event. Aside from emergency medical care being provided, long-term health services like sanitation services and public health systems were involved in the post-disaster response to minimize the effects of damaged sewage systems, clean water sources, and power systems. Even with this response however, it became evident that better communication systems and information sharing needed to be implemented within Japan. In addition to physical health systems needing improvement, with a tragedy as large as that experienced in 2011, it is of significance to note the importance of mental health services as a means of helping surviving victims heal in an overall sense.

Hearing about the areas of improvement to the healthcare system in Japan, I next inquired about the steps being undertaken to make significant changes since the tragedy and recognition of these necessities. Fortunately following the tragedy, hospitals in the coastal regions have been rebuilt with consideration for non-vehicular transportation to more inland regions and have managed to supply themselves with larger amounts of emergency supplies for the next earthquake/tsunami duo. In terms of communication systems, the Japanese recognized a need for more diversified channels and have since implemented radio, satellite mobile phones, portable satellite radios, marine radios, and other systems. When referring to the significant mental health concern in Japan, it is interesting to note that there has been recent recognition that females and males in Japanese society seek out help differently in times of distress, with females seeking informal resources and men seeking professional help. Recognizing this difference in behaviors, the Japanese have been making active efforts to provide both informal and formal mental health services for survivors to utilize. Overall, though Japan was tremendously affected by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 it has since learned from its past and actively works towards making sustainable and dynamic improvements to its disaster response. 

After learning about the different systems improved upon following the natural disaster in Japan, it became clear that despite however advanced a country may be in technology or development, there will tend to be those regions most vulnerable to disaster and which are in need of the greatest improvements in infrastructure. Arriving in Tokyo, I was prepared to be in awe of the culture, the food, the architecture, and the overall overwhelming experience of it being my first time in Asia. But this trip meant more to me than just an incredible cultural experience. It was an opportunity for me to learn about how disaster tragically affected an incredible country like Japan and how the nation has since learned from its dire past to create more efficient and constantly improving infrastructure and systems.