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  • Writer's pictureOlivier

Japan: The Great Tsunami of 2011, Already 10 Years

Updated: Mar 6

On March 11, 2021, Japan commemorates the 10th anniversary of the most significant tsunami in their history. On March 11, 2011, a violent earthquake in northeastern Japan generated a major tidal wave that struck the coasts of numerous regions in Southeast Asia and the Pacific coast of Tohoku. Japan, being on the frontline, suffered immense human losses and incalculable damage from which the country has not yet recovered.

Japon: The Great Tsunami of 2011, Already 10 Years

The Tohoku region was the hardest hit. The tsunami left a path of destruction in its wake. Villages, various types of buildings, and landscapes were annihilated in an instant, swept away by the force of the waters that advanced massively inland at an impressive speed.

Facts and Figures

The Great Tsunami of 2011, also known as the Tohoku Earthquake, occurred on March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m. local time. It was triggered by an undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0-9.1 on the Richter scale, the most powerful ever recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful in the world since records began in 1900. The epicenter was located about 70 km east of the Oshika Peninsula at a depth of 32 km.

The earthquake generated waves reaching heights of up to 40.5 meters in some places. The wall of water crashed onto the east coast of Japan, devastating entire cities and causing enormous material damage. The tsunami also damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, leading to leaks of radioactive materials and the most severe nuclear crisis since Chernobyl in 1986.

My Equipment: URTH - Night Filters

My Equipment: URTH - Night Filters

Key Figures:

- Over 15,000 people were killed, 2,500 people are still missing, and around 6,000 people were injured.

- Approximately 228,000 people were displaced or became internal refugees.

- Material losses were estimated at about $360 billion USD, making it one of the most costly natural disasters in history.

Technical Elements:

- The fault that triggered the earthquake had a length of 500 km and a width of 200 km.

- The earthquake moved Japan 2.4 meters to the east and even slightly altered the Earth's axis of rotation.

- Tsunami warning systems were largely ineffective due to the speed at which the waves reached the coast, often in less than 30 minutes.

This event had repercussions not only in Japan but also worldwide, leading to a reevaluation of seismic risks and safety standards for nuclear power plants.

In my bookcase: The Cambridge History of Japan

My library: The Cambridge History of Japan

The Willpower to Rebuild

In 2014, I had the honor of being invited to bear witness to the herculean efforts that had been underway for already three years to rebuild and sanitize the region. I was able to observe immense resilience on the part of the local population as they attempted to "forget" this tragic event and set about rebuilding.

During this initial 2014 visit, I could especially notice the titanic work of soil regeneration. The salty waters that had inundated the lands during the tsunami had rendered them unfit for cultivation. The task at hand was to replace the polluted soil with arable land brought in from elsewhere.

Massive conveyor belts suspended above the roads and preserved dwellings had been constructed, connecting the coast to the hills and forests located several kilometers inland.

Healthy, arable soil was harvested from the forests and brought to the coast to be spread, thus recreating conditions conducive to agriculture. Several hundreds of thousands of cubic meters were extracted, transported, and spread throughout the affected region. It was a gargantuan task, but one that bore fruit.

Japon: The Great Tsunami of 2011, Already 10 Years

A Landscape Annihilated in Seconds

Beyond the victims and material damage that the country had to endure, which we all lament, there were also landscapes of great value that have been wiped off the map forever.

The tsunami caused extensive damage to the surrounding nature, which will require several decades, if not centuries, to be repaired and allowed to regenerate at its own pace. Here too, residents have organized to cut down dead trees, remove them, clean up, and replant these landscapes that were the richness of the region.

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The Coasts of Rikusentakata, located 145 km from Sendai, boasted a rich pine forest that extended as far as the eye could see along the beaches.

These significant trees formed a massive wooded belt that protected the inland areas from the harsh ocean winds. The tsunami instantly reduced this vast pine forest to heaps of trunks and branches scattered across the ground for kilometers.

The Miracle Pine Tree

More than 70,000 trees were swept away, uprooted by the violence of the impact. Only a single pine tree survived and, for unknown reasons, remained standing without suffering any apparent damage. However, the saltwater irreparably damaged its root system, and the pine was doomed to perish quickly.

Japon: The Great Tsunami of 2011, Already 10 Years

This tree was named the "Miracle Pine Tree" (Kiseki no Ippon Matsu) by the Japanese, who saw in it symbols of strength, resilience, and life that motivated them to rebuild.

The Japanese government immediately decided to preserve this tree in memory of this tragic event. Unfortunately, as the salty water had infiltrated the soil in large quantities, the tree's survival was compromised. Special work began to transform this pine into a sculpture. The tree was cut into three parts, which were then taken to a specialized facility. The two trunk sections were dried in large ovens and subsequently underwent high-pressure resin impregnation.

The tree's foliage was completely reconstructed. Artificial needles were implanted to exactly replicate the original version. The trunk sections were then returned to the site, thereby reconstructing the transformed tree as it had been before.

The result is striking, and the appearance seems completely natural. However, this action, undertaken at great expense by the government at a time when the population was mourning its dead, has been strongly criticized.

In my bookcase: The Gardens of Japan

My library: The Gardens of Japan

A Preserved Ruin

In the immediate vicinity of this Miracle Pine was a housing building (youth hostel) that partially collapsed under the force of the tsunami. The government also decided to preserve this building (one of the few concrete structures) as it was found, in commemoration of the disaster.

Together, they now constitute the only visible traces left, apart from painted lines on the walls of surrounding rocks and hills. These lines represent the water level reached during the tidal wave. The unimaginable proportions leave one speechless and serve to measure the scale and devastating impact of this tsunami.

Japon: The Great Tsunami of 2011, Already 10 Years

The Takatamatsubara Tsunami Reconstruction Memorial Park

A commemorative site has been created to welcome all those who wish to pay their respects at the location. The site also hosts an Education Center aimed at educating future generations about the significance of these natural disasters and how to prepare for them. It is located in the immediate vicinity of the Miracle Pine and has become the most-visited tourist site in the region.

How to Get to the Miracle Pine Site in Rikusentakata

The Tsunami Reconstruction Memorial Park is approximately 145 km away from the city of Sendai, a drive of about 2 hours and 20 minutes. There is no direct train service to Rikusentakata. The terminal station of the region's only railway line is Kesennuma Station. From there, you must continue by car. However, it's preferable to drive directly from Sendai along the coast.

As you approach the Rikusentakata region, you can gauge the scale of the disaster through numerous signs posted along the road, indicating the water levels reached during the tsunami. Various affected sites (parks, etc.) can also be visited along the way.

The Tsunami Reconstruction Memorial Park offers a large free parking area where you must park. The Miracle Pine is located just a few minutes' walk away.

Japon: The Great Tsunami of 2011, Already 10 Years

Accommodation Options

The region is particularly rural and does not have many hotels. One recommendation is the "Capital Hotel 1000." Located just a 5-minute drive away from the Memorial Park, this modern hotel was built post-disaster to accommodate scientists from around the world. It offers all the necessary comforts for a stay. You can spend one or two nights there, giving you ample time to explore the region.

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My equipment: GITZO Ball Head S3. The ultra-stable and versatile head with friction control. The ultimate in smoothness and precision of movement. A durable reference for landscape photography and long exposures.



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