Expert Commentary

History of tsunami research and countermeasures in Japan

2009 report in the Proceedings of the Japan Academy detailing the nature of tsunami disasters over time and Japan’s responses.

Japan sees more local and distant tsunami events than any other country — indeed the very term “tsunami” comes from the Japanese language. The massive quake and tsunami in March 2011 that have devastated northern parts of that country are situated in a long natural and cultural history that has prompted Japan to take ever-more elaborate preventative measures.

A 2009 report from Nihon University in Tokyo and Japan’s National Defense Academy published in the Proceedings of the Japan Academy, “A Short History of Tsunami Research and Countermeasures in Japan,” explores the history of tsunami events, forecasting, and societal response.

The report notes that:

  • The scientific study of such events in Japan began in 1896, following the Meiji Great Sanriku Tsunami, which claimed 22,000 lives and saw water cresting as high as 38 meters.
  • Following major tsunami events in 1923, 1933, 1960, 1983, and 1993, Japanese society progressively implemented more sophisticated responses, including relocating houses and employing forecasting methods.
  • After the 1933 tsunami, one non-technical “countermeasure” proposed was erecting monuments to increase awareness of the dangers of such events.
  • The 1960 Chilean Tsunami originated with an earthquake off the coast of South America, arriving in Japan without any formal warning being issued and bringing waves from three to six meters along the entire coast.
  • Seawalls constructed after events in 1960 and 1983 were built at 4.5 meters above sea level, but the 1993 Hokkaido Nansei-Oki Earthquake Tsunami saw water heights of more than 11 meters.
  • After the 1993 tsunami, a comprehensive strategy was finally put into place in Japan involving defense structures, tsunami-resistant town development and evacuation procedures based on forecast warnings.

A related study on the cultural history and linguistic evolution around the phenomenon can be found in Notes and Records of the Royal Society“Tsunami: A History of the Term and of Scientific Understanding of the Phenomenon in Japanese and Western Culture.”

Tags: disasters, Asia, safety, oceans

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