Philip Patrick Philip Patrick

Japan’s earthquake has brought back painful memories

Damaged homes in Wajima, Ishikawa prefecture following the earthquake in Japan (Credit: Getty images)

The year 2024 began in the worst possible way for Japan. At least 30 people were killed by a powerful earthquake which struck the Ishikawa prefecture on the west coast of the country in mid-afternoon on New Year’s day. The death toll is expected to rise considerably.

The quake registered 7.6 on the Richter scale, making it one of the most powerful in recent history. To give you some idea of the magnitude, it is a level that will knock you off your feet – I was unnerved enough by the swaying I felt in a Tokyo department store 180 miles away to hold on to a rail. Japan’s geospatial information authority has stated that the quake may have shifted land near the epicentre up to 1.3 meters to the west.

The dramatic footage of toppled buildings and fleeing residents has evoked powerful memories of 2011

The extent of the damage caused by the main shock and the more than 140 tremors that have been detected since (with more expected) is becoming apparent with every passing hour. Half of the deaths have come in Wajima, a historic city in the Noto peninsula where fires have been raging since Monday’s quake. In the coastal town of Suzu, near the epicentre, it is estimated that up to 1,000 homes have been destroyed. Suzu’s mayor Masuhiro Izumiya has described the situation as ‘catastrophic’. To add to the horror, at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport five men on a Japan coast guard plane preparing to fly west and join the relief effort are believed to have died after a collision with a passenger plane this morning.

Power remains cut off to 33,000 households in Ishikawa while the Japanese broadcaster NHK has reported that most areas in the north Noto peninsula have no water. Adding to the misery the weather is bitterly cold. 500 people are stranded at Noto airport due to cracks in the runway, sheltering in buses or rental cars in the parking lot.

The official response has been swift and, so far it seems, appropriate. The Japanese government ordered 100,000 people to evacuate their homes and flee to higher ground on Monday night fearing tsunamis that had been predicted to reach up to 5 metres high. Prime Minster Fumio Kishida has dispatched thousands of military personnel, firefighters, and police to affected areas. A multilingual helpline has been set up but with people stranded in hard-to-reach areas and rail services suspended Kishida has said: ‘The search and rescue of those impacted by the quake is a battle against time’.

As for the public, the Japanese are used to natural disasters and tend towards the stoical and practical rather than hysterical. People are going about their business but keeping a keen eye on the news, where the reports are dignified and calm and the presenters wear hard hats, out of sympathy and solidarity it seems, rather than genuine danger.

However, the dramatic footage of toppled buildings, flattened houses, massive cracks in roads and fleeing residents has evoked powerful memories of 2011 and the great east Japan earthquake. It was this earthquake that unleashed the tsunami that led to 20,000 deaths.

That disaster came in three forms: quake, tsunami and potential nuclear disaster when the Fukushima plant’s turbines and reactor buildings flooded, and radioactive contaminants were released into the surrounding environment. No one actually died as a result of radioactive leakage from the Fukushima incident but its impact on the industry was profound. Japan shuttered its nuclear programme for a decade as a consequence and has only just begun to restart operations.

Close attention is being paid to the nuclear plants in the regions affected by this latest earthquake. The timing is sensitive: only last week Japan lifted an operational ban imposed on the world’s biggest nuclear plant, Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, which has been offline since the 2011 tsunami. It was also just a few months ago that treated wastewater from the Fukushima plant was released into the sea, causing a diplomatic spat with China which has yet to be resolved.

So far, no damage has been reported at any of the reactors along the Sea of Japan, which includes five active plants in the Fukui prefecture which borders Ishikawa to the north. If that situation persists it may even strengthen the pro-nuclear case in Japan, as the plants’ resilience in the face of a quake will have been proved. But if even minimal damage is reported, it will likely reignite the whole debate and put pressure on the government to rethink their strategy.

That is for the future, though. At the moment, the thoughts of the Japanese are with the bereaved and the displaced, and those suffering stoically in dire conditions, patiently awaiting rescue.