On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck northeast Japan, quickly followed by a devastating tsunami and nuclear plant crisis. For the 12 months since this triple disaster, Japan has been grappling with what then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan rightly described as the nation’s darkest hour since World War II. The Diplomat looks at Japan’s recovery efforts over the past year – at the extraordinary resilience shown by the Japanese, the country’s crisis of leadership, and what may happen next.
March 11, 2011: a date that will forever be etched into the Japanese consciousness. A powerful, magnitude 9.0 earthquake – the fourth largest ever recorded – shakes the northern coast of Japan, triggering seven tsunami waves within a six-hour period. In the Tohoku region, the worst-affected area, thousands of houses and roads are swept away. The initial quake was so powerful that it moved Japan’s main island by 8 inches, and is said to have shifted the Earth on its axis.
But even before the full scale of the tsunami disaster is known, the country is plunged into a new crisis with an explosion at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Plant. Soon, the plant’s Unit 1 is registering radiation levels eight times higher than normal. Cooling systems at the Unit 3 nuclear reactor fail, leading to hydrogen explosions at the Unit 2 and Unit 3 reactors. Radioactive water begins to leak from the plant, and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. works desperately to bring the plant under control. Then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan later admitted that he considered calling for an evacuation of Tokyo.
As the emergency services respond, including the dispatch of 100,000 Self-Defense Forces, the government is confronted with a devastating humanitarian disaster: early numbers show 8,000 dead, 12,000 missing and 360,000 displaced. Countries around the world, including the United States, Britain, Australia and South Korea dispatch relief teams to support Japan’s response to what Kan rightly refers to Japan’s darkest hour since World War II.