Japan Tsunami - March 2011

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Five years on

The tsunami saw a vast amount of material washed out to sea - about 20 million tonnes. Read these stories of objects from Japan washing up on these distant shores, some of which have later been reconciled with their owners. (BBC, 09.03.16)

This website illustrates the progress of reconstruction to affected areas through aerial images taken periodically over the past five years.

The fall and rise of Onagawa, documents the re-building of the town since the tsunami through the eyes of local residents.

Journal articles

Teaching Extremities: The 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami - Anne Dolan

Post-disaster recovery in ageing and declining communities: the Great East Japan disaster of 11 March 2011 - Peter Matanle

Japan earthquake and tsunami

On Friday 11 March 2011 at 2:46pm local time, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake struck close to the north east coast of Japan approximately 250 miles from Tokyo. The quake triggered a huge tsunami which swept inland near the city of Sendai in Miyagi prefecture.

The weekend of 12 and 13 March has been dominated by regular updates from the region of Japan that was most badly affected by the earthquake (which has been upgraded to a magnitude 9) and the ensuing tsunami and aftershocks.

The GA offers its condolences to everyone affected by these tragic events.

Geological information

The earthquake occurred as a result of thrust faulting on or near the subduction zone interface plate boundary between the Pacific and North America plates. (USGS, 11.03.11)

According to scientists Japan has moved approximately 8 feet (2.4m) closer to North America and the force of the quake has caused the Earth to shift between 4 and 6.5 inches (10-16cm) on its axis.

The scale of the disaster

News footage has shown the astonishing scale of the devastation, and the power of water in a highly urbanised area. In places the tsunami waves reached as far as six miles (10k) inland and entire towns such as Minami Sanriku have virtually disappeared.

At the time of writing tens of thousands of people are still missing and a massive international relief effort is underway to rescue and help survivors.

As a result of the tsunami, Japan is also facing a nuclear disaster after reactors at Fukushima power plant were damaged in the floods.

Although relatively unaffected during the initial earthquake, Tokyo continues to experience strong aftershocks and scientists have warned that another powerful earthquake could hit the city very soon.

In a speech to the country, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan called the disaster the 'worst crisis since World War II'.

Being prepared for earthquakes

Sitting on the edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, tectonic activity is part of everyday life in Japan and with hundreds of earthquakes taking place every year, it is one of the best-prepared countries in the world.

Videos showing swaying skyscrapers in Tokyo provide a reminder of the efforts that have been made to protect buildings from potential earthquakes. This, combined with regular drills, will have had an effect on overall casualty numbers and it is worth remembering that it was the tsunami, not the earthquake, that caused the vast majority of damage.

Despite their experience and preparedness, some videos show a remarkable nonchalance as people filmed boats being washed under the very bridges they were stood on.

Economic impacts

The combination of hazards has had wider impacts on the country's economy - links to global markets, car exports and manufacturing have been suspended, insurance claims will run into billions, and there are forecasts of rising energy prices.

Fukushima and Miyagi prefectures are responsible for over 40% of the Japanese economy, and most manufacturing has ceased. Food rationing is taking place and water supplies are cut in many parts of northern Japan.

A large percentage of Japan's energy comes from nuclear power and electricity is currently being rationed in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures as a result of problems at several nuclear plants. A rolling programme of blackouts is planned for the next few weeks.

Oil refineries have been affected, and many petrol stations have closed, with long queues at others. Many rail services have been suspended to reduce power consumption and avoid potential chaos in the event of further quakes.

In the longer term there will be a stimulus for the construction industry as the infrastructure and many buildings will require reconstruction, but this is a long way in the future...

Thoughts on pedagogy and potential activities for geography teachers

The challenge for geography teachers in the next few weeks will be to pick an appropriate route through the large number of potential resources and activities that could be selected. Teachers as 'curriculum makers' have difficult choices to make, even more so than ever where this event is concerned.

Students are likely to come with questions, and anxieties, and teachers will need to tackle these sensitively. They are likely to form the basis for the response - a lesson that is planned too rigidly might not enable some of these important questions to be answered.

Try to ensure that at least one computer with internet access is available for research. It may be possible to access the live news stream from NHK news.

Understanding the scale of the disaster

Some sense of the scale of the disaster might be appropriate to explore using Google Earth or other mapping software (e.g. GIS mapping). You could a free tool such as ESRI's ArcGIS online explorer - several maps of the recent earthquakes in Japan have already been made.

Many 'before and after' photographs have been published showing satellite imagery of the areas affected by the tsunami including these selections from the New York Times and BBC News. The images can also be downloaded as a KML file for viewing in Google Earth.

Student journalists

Students could perhaps be placed in a 'newsroom' hot seat - maybe preparing materials for the Google Crisis Response website. Alternatively they could interview a survivor, or prepare questions for a rescue worker on their way to the disaster area.

They might be asked to prepare / design applications that would be useful for residents and other people in the affected areas.

Use the Sky News homepage or the Newseum website to explore the front pages of newspapers in the UK and around the world.


Using the headlines found in the previous activity, students could construct a Wordle to explore the language of tragedy and consider how to work on some of these issues to raise the morale of people in the affected areas.

Alternatively, take a Japanese poetry form, the haiku, and ask students to write a response to what they have seen and heard, perhaps adding a hopeful note.

It's likely that students will encounter vocabulary in news reports that they're unfamiliar with such as 'prefecture', 'temblor', 'meltdown' and 'microsievert'. As a class compile a list of unusual words and task students with finding explanations.

The movement of the tsunami

Immediately after the tsunami hit Japan alerts were in place around the Pacific including the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hawaii, Australia, Russia and North and South America.

The map at the top of this page was created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center to show the expected travel time of the tsunami around the Pacific coast.

Did the tsunami reach these shores at the anticipated times?

An additional map showing the expected wave height was produced by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. How much impact did the tsunami have on other countries? Consider the effects in Hawaii and California where the waves were not as big as expected.

There could also be an exploration of how the shape and height profile of the coastline of Japan may have funnelled the waters further inland and at a faster rate in certain locations.

Other considerations

Teachers should perhaps take a lead from students at the start of the lesson to assess the possible focus:

  • What do they know?
  • What would they like to know?
  • What should they know?

If we are having a debate about core knowledge in geography, should 'tsunami' be included?

Remember geographical enquiry - when choosing stimulus material identify appropriate images that offer potential for research and reflection.

Is it perhaps too early to be dissecting the disaster?

Tsunami resources by geography teachers

Andy Knill, who teaches in Essex spent most of the weekend compiling a tremendously useful Google Document. This contains a large collection of possible sources of information and Twitter feeds to follow for updates.

Becky Pook from Peacehaven School was quick off the mark with a creative and well-referenced Slideshare resource which explores not only the physical background to the event but also the emotional response. It includes some interesting ideas for model making and creative use of images. Many thanks to Beccy for sharing.

Effat Saleh made this Slideshare presentation which contains a range of images.

Ollie Bray wrote a blog post which concentrated on the efforts of Google and other technology firms to update their imagery as quickly as possible to enable assessment of the damage and provide before/after comparisons.

Mark Howell blogged his thoughts in the days following the tsunami - another example of the importance of teacher blogs. Some interesting thoughts on the issues of teaching a fast evolving news story.

Jo Blackmore prepared these lesson ideas and accompanying card sort activity.

Year 6 at Heathfield School, where blogging is embedded in the curriculum, created this blog post on the day of the tsunami - thanks to @DeputyMitchell on Twitter.

The British Red Cross have prepared these 'Tsunami in Japan' assembly and classroom activities which include a video report and follow up questions.

Links to a number of French, Spanish and German tsunami resources have been compiled on the Hampshire MFL website.

Esri UK have put together an information page called 'How GIS can help when disaster strikes' which explains how GIS is used to provide up to date mapping of affected areas following a disaster like the Japan tsunami.


Media coverage

ABC News - Japan Earthquake: before and after - striking before and after aerial photos

BBC - Japan earthquake: video reports - a map of the affected area and linked video reports

BBC 'Live: Japan tsunami' - live video report and news feed

BBC Special Report: Japan earthquake - comprehensive set of articles, photos and videos

BBC - Tsunami hits north-eastern Japan after massive quake - news report

BBC - Tsunami hits Japan after massive quake - image gallery

BBC - Tsunami hits Japan after massive quake - article explaining the size of the earthquake

CNN - Blast, cooling system breakdown spread fears of nuclear radiation

CNN - Japan earthquake live blog - news updates and video reports

Daily Mail - Man is rescued ten miles out to sea after clinging to roof of his obliterated house for two days

Guardian - Japan's 8.9 magnitude earthquake triggers tsunami - video footage

Guardian - Powerful earthquakes hit Japan - news report

MapAction - many resources related to MapAction's Japan deployment

National Post - Photos: Massive quake unleashes tsunami on Japan - selection of photos

New York Times - Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami - includes slider functionality to help compare images

NHK WORLD TV - live news streaming from Japan

Reuters - Hawaii orders evacuations in Pacific tsunami threat - news report

Sky News - Tsunami Hits Japan After 8.9 Megaquake - news report and live updates

The Daily Telegraphy (Australia) - Minami Sanriku - the town that disappeared in the Japan earthquake

The Daily Yomiuri - Massive quake strikes northern Japan - news report

The Independent - Fear for islands as whole of Pacific placed on alert - news report

The Telegraph - Japan earthquake and tsunami: live - live updates

Scientific information

BBC - Japan's earthquake and tsunami explained - video of a seismologist explaining what happened

British Geological Survey - Honshu, Japan Earthquake Magnitude 8.9 - brief summary of earthquake and downloadable seismograms

ESRI Japan Incident Map - locations of earthquakes and nuclear plants plus links to video footage

Google Maps - recent earthquakes in Japan with live updates from USGS

Japan Meteorological Agency - The 2011 off the Pacific coast of Tohoku Earthquake second report - updated information about aftershocks

Japan Meteorological Agency - current tsunami and earthquake warnings

Japan Meteorological Agency - Tables explaining the JMA Seismic Intensity Scale

Japan Meteorological Agency - Illustrated poster explaining the JMA Seismic Intensity Scale

NOAA West Coast & Alaska Tsunami Warning Center - Japan earthquake - tsunami alert information and maps

Other websites

Anne Kaneko's Blog - daily updates from Fukushima prefecture

British Red Cross - Red Cross responds to Japanese earthquake and tsunami

Google Blog - links to resources and information created by Google

Google Crisis Response - links to resources, information and video clips

Operation Tomodachi - Flickr photos from the US Pacific fleet aid mission


<<< Back to Earthquake and tsunami page

Comment on this page

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sahara desert Guest

very hepfull but how does the government help in the tsunami

GA Member

Thanks for the comments - this page will be updated through today to take account of the developments over the weekend. There is live streaming of local news on: www.ustream.tv/channel/nhk-world-tv which provides a more 'local' angle on the response in Japan.

Sahara Desert: do you mean the UK or the Japanese government? Or both?

Rachel Bowles

Rachel Bowles GA Member

Brilliant both Anne and Alan. Thank you. Relatives in northwest Tokyo report they are fine - just upset by not only the main earthquake but also the very strong aftershocks - and not looking forward to the electricity cuts. We are just thankful that contact has been made comparatively easily. The aerial and ground images and maps speak for themselves - but we must not forget that the Japanese are a very 'contained ' and disciplined people and one must not underestimate their reactions or the effect of this catastrophe in all its aspects, upon not only the Pacific rim but also worldwise over the next months. No.1 son compliments Alan on finding the best, of several, streaming 'local' links .

GA Member

Thanks Rachel, I'm glad you've found the page useful. I'm currently working with Alan on some updates to the page which will be live later today.


GA Member

Thanks Rachel. A number of other colleagues have family connections with Japan: another reminder of the interconnected world which reaches into many schools. I have blogged some further conversations that I have had with colleagues this morning, and am impressed with the sensitivity of approaches that have been used.

Kate Russell

Kate Russell GA Member

A truly wonderful and comprehensive collection of resources and ideas - many thanks to everyone concerned.

There is a lesson on www.sln.org.uk/geography too.


Eleanor Buchan Guest

Excellent list of resources. Thank you for making them available so soon so they can be used immendiately in the classroom.

Jaroslav Vavra

Jaroslav Vavra GA Member

Thanks a lot for the page. I wish Japanese people recovering from the tragedy soon!


Rachel Adams Guest


Margaret Roberts

Margaret Roberts GA Member

Congratulations to the GA on providing so much information and so many links on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and their impact.

GA Member

Thank you everyone for your comments - we're really pleased that you've found the page so useful!

GA Website Manager


courtney Guest

this is realy helpful with my school work but such a loss for japan

Stephen Scoffham

Stephen Scoffham GA Member

I;ve just used the website with a postgraduate group and it was wonderfully useful. I used the video clip of the tsunami as the introduction, the students then drew 'consequence diagrams' which led them to ask questions and develop their subject knowledge. This led us back to the GA site where the teaching ideas and other information about the quake and its effect gave real substance to our discussions. I expected to spend about half an hour on the tsunami but we ended up taking well over an hour. One of the students emailed me today to say how grateful they were that we had covered this.


News Collective Guest

Is The Radiation Menace Low In Japan?

Shelagh Waddington

Shelagh Waddington GA Member

Many thanks for this useful set of links - my PGDE students are all most grateful


andy! Guest

very interesting and really helped my class i would recommend it!!!


souvanik kundu Guest

very helpful


gill Guest

really an awesome article.
but can anyone tell me about any fukushima's surviver's name.


ipsita Guest

thanx for such nice information


Dave Newby Guest

A more simple to use resource would be helpful with some key facts. There is way too much info here.


RAwr Guest

i don't see iny convo. w/the japanese people.


guest Guest

Helpful! :D


Beth curtis Guest

i feel 4 the japanese best wishes 2 them this is helpful


prachi Guest

tis is very helpful


senorita Guest



peerson Guest

verry verry goooooood


esmeralda Guest

very helpful


guest Guest

very helpfull


milly Guest

OMG What A Good Resource!!!!! (:


personyoudontknow Guest

helped me so much on my homework ahaha


annonymous Guest

hi this helped me too much for my hw



update NOW PLS


jay ozenbrook Guest

it is bad


- Guest

Fabulous set of resources, so so useful


Sam Guest

cheers for the help on my school prodject


livefree Guest

This really shows how powerful nature is...


Ajay Guest

Great, very helpful, no one can't do anything in front of disaster but these and help will put up humanity a step ahead, many many wishes from Website designing company in delhi


yvette sanchez Guest

this helps me a lot thanks

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