The Fifth Anniversary of the Tōhoku Earthquake

Remembering Loss in Japan

I would venture a guess that most readers don't know what the Tōhoku earthquake is offhand. The gargantuan 9.0 quake happened five years ago this week off the eastern coast of Japan, killing almost 16,000 people and displacing over 225,000.

The combined damage from the earthquake and the tsunami reached $235 billion, making Tōhoku the most expensive natural disaster in world history (in terms of economic impact, if not human toll).

And yet, as we know, the Tōhoku earthquake was overshadowed immediately and permanently by the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. This despite the fact that the radiological impacts of Fukushima will have effectively zero impact on human health. Still, a Google search on March 10, 2016 yielded 18,100 results for "Tōhoku earthquake" and 1.2 million results for "Fukushima nuclear." It's clear which event the world is remembering this week.

Obviously the meltdown had impacts. People were forced to leave their homes, turning villages like Okuma into ghost towns. Many Japanese died in the process. And that's precisely the point. As the BBC asked last week, "is the Fukushima exclusion zone doing more harm than radiation?"

"In my opinion yes it has," radiation expert Dr. Geraldine Thomas told BBC reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes. "The radiation has not been the disaster. It's our response to the radiation, our fear that we've projected on to others, to say this is really dangerous. It isn't really dangerous and there are plenty of places in the world where you would live with background radiation of at least this level."

It's a difficult epidemiological and psychological terrain to traverse. As Dr. Thomas relayed in another interview this month with John Humphrys, evacuation wasn't necessarily the wrong response to Fukushima. "I think anybody in that situation would have done exactly what happened post-Fukushima," she says. "But with hindsight we can look back and say: do you know what, we overestimated the damage we were doing by staying there and actually it would have been far better to treat this as if it was like a chemical toxin."

There are lessons we should learn from Fukushima, especially for an ecomodern vision of a high-energy, low-footprint planet. One lesson is to design and deploy safer nuclear reactors with lower risk than the (already very low) current risk of melting down. Another is to better communicate the benefits of nuclear power and the real dangers of radiation, which have been mythologized and exaggerated for decades.

But it would be a mistake, I think, to let this anniversary pass by focusing on the the bombastic nuclear event and ignoring the much larger losses endured by the people of Japan. The earthquake and the tsunami caused massive direct damage in death and destruction, in addition to less direct damage in the form of trauma, displacement, and loss. As America panics over miniscule radiation leaks thousands of miles from our shores, the people of Japan are still rebuilding their infrastructure and adjusting to the changing landscape of their home country.

Photo credit: Christopher Johnson - Flickr: IMG_0166, CC BY-SA 2.0,