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Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, is a country that has seen days of triumphs… and of disasters. It is an archipelago of over 3000 small islands with four main islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. Three-quarters (85%) of the land is mountainous and much of the people settled around the base and along the coast. Japan prides itself on the resiliency of its people – a character borne out of a long history of adversity. One of the nation’s toughest struggles has been its vulnerability to natural disasters. Earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and volcanic eruptions periodically strike the country.

Earthquakes and tsunamis

The earth’s outer layer is made up of irregularly shaped plates that run across, under or past each other. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS), “of the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur along plate boundaries.” Geographically, the nation sits on at least three tectonic plates, one of which is the Pacific Plate, known as the Pacific Ring of Fire and the most active. It is no wonder that twenty percent of the world's earthquakes - and some of the world’s worst - take place in Japan. Most of the major ones triggered fires and tsunamis, leaving a ghastly trail of devastation and tremendous loss o f human lives.

The most powerful earthquake ever to hit the country took place this year on March 11, Great Tohoku earthquake. At magnitude 9, it destroyed 599,950 homes and generated 30-foot-high tsunami waves, washing away everything in its path. Worst hit is the port city of Sendai, in Miyagi prefecture. It left a trail of 30,000 casualties and between $160-250 billion worth of damages that could well reach $500 billion. Moreover, the earthquake triggered a nuclear crisis with the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant. Nearly 90,000 people within the 12-mile zone around the plant were evacuated.

The Great Kanto earthquake on September 1, 1923, is one of the worst natural disasters in Japan's history. With a magnitude of 7.9, it left the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama in devastating ruins. The initial jolts sent 40-foot-high tsunami waves rushing to the shores. The quake hit around the time when people were cooking their noontime meals over the stove and coals. As many of the many of the structures involved were built of lightweight wood or bamboo, it started a wildfire that spread all over the two cities. Not yet done, it caused part of the ground to rise to as high as 24 ft. and settled back only after 72 hours. The ensuing landslides buried the entire village of Nebukawa. Over 500 aftershocks were recorded within five days. When the ground had settled and the smoke cleared, the death toll is a staggering 142,800 and 694 000 houses were partially or completely destroyed.

Typhoons

Typhoon is a low-pressure system over the Northwest Pacific Ocean. It is accompanied by strong winds of up to around 200 km/h, a rise of the sea level and heavy rainfall. The worst could bring flooding and landslides to affected areas. In Japan, typhoons are known by their number instead of by name. For example, the twelfth typhoon of the year is known as "typhoon number 12".

On the heels of the Great Tohoku Earthquake this year, Japan was dealt another devastating blow by Typhoon Talas on September 22. About 1.3 million people in central Japan were urged to evacuate as the typhoon neared. Worst hit are western Japan's Wakayama and Nara prefectures. Thousands of people were isolated, frustrating rescue and relief efforts when mudslide and flood had rendered the access roads impassable. Nationwide death toll reached 46 and 54 other missing.

On the same month in 2004, Super Typhoon Songda claimed 22 lives, 15 missing and injured 700 others. It created a path of destruction as it made its way north from Okinawa up the Japanese west coast with damages worth over $22.5 billion. Other catastrophic typhoons have claimed hundreds of casualties, such as the Isewan Typhoon in 1959, which cost the lives of more than 5000 people.

Volcanoes

Of the nearly 800 active volcanoes in the world, 10% are located in Japan that could erupt at any time. Of these, Fuji, is the most historically important and is considered sacred in the country. Fuji has had 16 eruptions since 781 A.D. one of the more active in Japan, but has been quiet since 1708.  The worst volcanic disaster occurred two hundred years ago with the eruption of Mt. Fugen in 1792. It claimed the greatest damage in the country’s volcanic history. In 1991 it picked up activity again after 198 years of sleep. The resulting pyroclastic and mud flows destroyed 835 homes, killing 41 persons and 3 missing. There were considerable income losses in main industries such as agriculture and tourism.

Japan has relatively few volcanic eruptions. Recently though, the 1,421-metre (4,689-feet) Shinmoedake volcano in the Kirishima range erupted in January. While there had not been any major activity at the site since March 1, access to the mountain had been restricted.

♦  Effects of Natural Disasters

The effects of natural disasters on Japan are manifold. They could potentially create situations that would change not just the economic but the political and social landscapes of the country. The volatile state in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, for example, led to the deaths of an estimated 2,500 non-Japanese immigrants when rumors sparked of Koreans looting businesses and poisoning wells. The economic depression following the devastation gave rise to military power which eventually gained control of the government. The Manchurian Incident of 1931 launched a series of events that culminated in Japan's entry into World War II. While these are extraordinary cases borne out of an extraordinary event, natural disasters have both inherent and potential risks for any nation.

On the economic front, the effects on Japan vary depending on the gravity and extent of the disaster, and the economic foundations in place. The Southern Hyogo Prefecture Earthquake that struck near the city of Kobe on January 17, 1995 sent Tokyo's Average down a thousand points within a week. The March 2011 earthquake, though bigger in scale and magnitude, has economists still upbeat that the country would be able to rebound in the next few months.

Japan as a nation has always dealt with these disasters under realistic terms. Safety drills and information campaigns have been undertaken. The country’s infrastructures are engineered to withstand these occurrences. National discipline is strong and commendable under devastating times. However, some disasters are just too potent for any human preparation to overcome. It can only lessen, but not completely avoid the losses.

The impact of these natural disasters on the country can be presented in direct calculable economic, social and infrastructural costs. However, there are incidental and intangible damages that accrue over time. In the March 2011 earthquake, for example, the effects of the radiation crisis on the residents and the ecology of the area cannot be easily determined nor quantified. Natural disasters create devastations the magnitudes of which go beyond the quantifiable costs of any nation. There will be long-term traumas from displacement, fear, and more keenly, from the loss of loved ones. Yet, just as Japan had risen up, time and again, from the hard blows of nature, so would hope and optimism shine in her dark times. It is, after all, the land of the rising sun.

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