List of 19 Worst Natural Disasters in the History of Japan

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Worst Natural Disasters in the History of Japan

Japan is known for its frequent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and typhoons. Have you ever wondered which was the worst of all these disasters? This article will give you all such facts through a list of the most tragic calamities that Japan has suffered over the centuries.

Did You Know?

The 2011 Tohoku Earthquake in Japan was so powerful that it created low-frequency sound that could be heard even in space.

Japan has historically been hit by a spate of natural calamities. The disastrous 2011 tsunami has brought the country’s vulnerability to nature’s fury to the forefront. Since the past 1,000 or more years, Japan has suffered thousands of disasters, most of which were earthquakes and tsunamis, along with typhoons and volcanic eruptions. The reason for this is, Japan lies in a region called the Pacific Ring of Fire. This zone suffers the most number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions since prehistoric times. The frequent quakes are due to regular collisions between parts of the earth’s crust, called tectonic plates. If the quakes occur below the ocean, they trigger massive waves called tsunamis.

Japan sits on the top of four tectonic plates which collide frequently. The disasters of the past have reshaped its history, culture, science, and even mythology. On several occasions, these disasters have brought its economy down to its knees. The construction practices of the country are also unique, in that, they are designed to withstand earthquakes and other natural disasters. Statistics show that 2 out of the 5 most expensive natural calamities have occurred in Japan. Stating all the disasters that Japan has suffered will need a long list, but the most tragic ones have been listed below, in no particular order.

Worst Natural Disasters in Japan

1783 Tenmei Eruption

Type : Volcanic Eruption
Casualties: 21,400
Location: Shinano Province
Date: May 9, 1783

Mount Asama erupted in 1783, sending huge columns of smoke and fire several miles into the sky. The eruption lasted for three long months. It directly killed a large number of people by destroying villages located on the slopes of the mountain. A portion of the volcanic flow blocked the flow of the Agatsuma river, changing its course and sending it gushing into Edo Bay, where several villages were washed away.

The main catastrophe caused by the eruption was the aggravation of the Tenmei Famine. The ash from the volcanic eruption blocked out sunlight, causing huge damage to food crops, and lowered temperatures which destroyed rice plantations. The effects of the eruption on the famine resulted in the deaths of around 20,000 people. The eruption was notorious, in that, it killed more people by causing a famine rather than by the eruption itself.

1792 Mount Unzen Earthquake and Tsunami

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: 15,000
Location: Shimabara, Kyushu
Date: May 21, 1792

The year 1791 was marked by a number of earthquakes, which were progressing closer and closer to the city of Shimabara. On the night of May 21, 1792, earthquakes occurred near the mountain itself, causing the lava dome of Mayuyama to collapse. This instantly triggered a landslide, killing 5,000 people on the spot.

The landslide entered the bay, which led to a tsunami in Higo Province, killing around 5,000 people. Another ‘returning tsunami’ hit the city of Shimabara, taking another 5,000 lives. This is regarded as the worst volcanic eruption in Japanese history, and the deep mark left by the collapse of the Mayuyama lava dome can be seen even today.

2006 Typhoon Ewiniar

Type: Typhoon
Casualties: 181 (official), 10,000 (unofficial)
Location: Ryukyu islands
Date: June 29, 2006

Ewiniar was a typhoon that developed in the Pacific ocean and moved in a northerly direction. Caused by a tropical depression, it affected a number of countries besides Japan, such as the Philippines, China, South Korea, and North Korea. It lasted for 12 days, a considerably long lifespan, and damaged many coastal towns, leading to high-speed winds, torrential rains, and flooding.

Mountainous regions had the first brush with the disaster, causing large-scale destruction of public facilities. Flooding claimed the maximum number of lives in North Korea, where unofficial figures put the number of dead at 10,000, with around 4,000 people reported missing. A large number of mudslides were also reported during and after the typhoon.

1995 Great Hanshin/Kobe Earthquake

Kobe Earthquake

Type: Earthquake
Casualties: 6,434
Location: Kobe
Date: January 17, 1995

On the morning of January 17, 1995, an earthquake shook the city of Kobe. The actual epicenter of the quake was the northern tip of Awaji islands, which was about 15 miles from the city. The high population and close proximity of Kobe to the epicenter cost 6,434 lives, besides large-scale destruction of highways and gas and electric connections of homes. Moreover, 300,000 people were left homeless.

Buildings that were constructed using the construction code of 1981 suffered little damage, while older constructions, especially containing wooden frames, were destroyed. The earthquake was the most powerful one to hit Japan since the great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. One of the reasons that contributed to the deadliness of the quake was its unexpectedness. The area had seen several low-intensity earthquakes, and no one thought a quake of such a high magnitude could occur.

2011 Great East Japan/Tohoku Earthquake

Tohoku Earthquake

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: 15,889 (official) 18,000 (unofficial)
Location: Honshu, Tohoku, Pacific rim
Date: March 11, 2011

The Tohoku Earthquake was a massive 9.0 magnitude quake, the largest ever to hit Japan till date, and one of the top 5 high intensity quakes ever recorded since 1900, the year quakes began to be documented. The epicenter of the quake was a point 43 miles to the east of Oshika peninsula of Tohoku. The catastrophe began with a powerful quake originating off the country’s northernmost island of Honshu, which in turn led to a huge tsunami that caused massive destruction, most notably in the Tohoku region.

It is estimated that close to 18,000 people may have lost their lives, mostly because of drowning, though official sources put the death toll at 15,889. More than 120,000 buildings were completely demolished and several hundreds of thousands were left only partly standing. Infamously, the tsunami damaged several nuclear stations in the country, the most notorious being Fukushima which suffered a meltdown.

1771 Great Yaeyama Tsunami

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: 13,486
Location: Ryukyu islands
Date: April 24, 1771

At around 8 am on April 24, 1771, an earthquake originated in Yaeyama islands, which is a part of the Ryukyu islands. The quake was mild in intensity, but it caused an ensuing tsunami which reached heights ranging between 30 – 85 meters. The tsunami battered the islands of Miyakojima and Ishigaki, killing around 13,486 people, with scores missing after the disaster.

More than 3,000 houses were destroyed along with agricultural land. Legends state that the waves even brought huge rocks from the sea bed and dumped them on land. The epicenter was about 25 miles southeast of Ishigaki island which is relatively close, making the island a sitting duck.

1896 Sanriku Earthquake

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: 22,066
Location: Sanriku coastline
Date: June 15, 1896

On the evening of June 15, 1896, villagers on the Sanriku coastline were caught unawares by a low intensity quake while they were celebrating the return of their soldiers from war. Tragically, they did not give it much thought and were left at the mercy of the enormous tsunamis that followed in series, wiping out entire towns and villages.

More than 22,000 people were killed. Ironically, fishermen were at sea, as was usual at that time, and they were left unscathed as the waves were about 15 inches in height in deep water, and only grew larger as they approached the coast. The waves reached around 38 meters in height, and a few waves even reached the island of Hawaii, causing minor damage. So devastating were the waves, that victims were found with their body parts broken off by the tremendous force of water.

1923 Great Kanto Earthquake

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: 120,000 to 140,000
Location: Honshu
Date: September 1, 1923

Around noon on September 1, 1923, the colliding of two massive tectonic plates coupled with development of a low pressure area in the sea led to an enormously powerful quake to hit the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area. The tremors led to overturning of cooking stoves in houses, causing catastrophic fires, which ironically claimed more lives than the falling houses themselves. Thousands of people were incinerated at once when fires spread through Tokyo, reducing almost the entire city to a heap of rubble and ash.

The temperatures were so scorchingly high, that they even caused the tarmac on the roads to melt, trapping and killing many. The earthquake was one of the strongest ever to hit Japan. Furthermore, the quake unleashed tsunamis that killed thousands of people.

1498 Nankai Earthquake

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: 31,000
Location: Nankaido
Date: September 20, 1498

An 8.6 magnitude earthquake fueled a tsunami that lashed the coastal town of Meio Nankai, leading to huge destruction, and taking anywhere between 26,000 to 31,000 lives. The waves were believed to be 56 feet high, hitting a region that was already earthquake-prone. Local myths attributed it to a giant catfish lashing in the ocean.

1611 Sanriku Earthquake

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: 5,000
Location: Iwate Prefecture
Date: December 2, 1611

According to old documents, on the 2nd of December in 1611, there were three distinct tremors. This was followed by 8-meter waves that struck the Sanriku coast at around 2 pm. The actual epicenter was off the Sanriku coast in Iwate Prefecture, making the closest city a soft target.

This incident was probably one of the first recorded tsunamis, and even the word ‘Tsunami’ was used for the first time. Most deaths occurred in the Sendai, Nanbu, and Tsugaru regions, and were attributed to drowning. Along with humans, even thousand of horses formed part of the death toll. The tsunami caused more havoc than the quake.

1703 Genroku Earthquake

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: More than 100,000
Location: Edo
Date: December 31, 1703

On the last day of 1703, a 6-8 magnitude earthquake shook Sagami Bay, an area 25 miles to the southwest of Tokyo. The quake caused a tsunami that washed away towns lying on the coast, though the epicenter of the quake was the city of Edo. It demolished thousands of buildings and sparked a fire that ravaged the town. The exact death toll is uncertain, though various sources state figures of 5,233, while others believe around 100,000 to 200,000 lives may have been claimed or went missing.

1707 Hōei Earthquake

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: 30,000
Location: Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu
Date: October 28, 1707

On October 28, 1707, an enormous quake measuring 8.6 in magnitude hit the regions of Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. The quake and ensuing tsunami, both are officially the strongest ever to hit Japan after the 2011 Tohoku Quake. In fact, it was so strong that it ruptured all the plates of the Nankai megathrust . It is also believed that this enormous earthquake led to the gigantic eruption of Mount Fuji 49 days later, which damaged the city of Osaka.

1855 Edo Earthquake

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: 7,000 to 10,000
Location: Tokyo
Date: November 11, 1855

At about 10 am on November 11, 1855, a tremor measuring 6.9 to 7.1 in magnitude struck the town of Edo. The tremor was followed by a series of quakes and a tsunami. The destruction caused was enormous and around 14,000 houses are believed to have been destroyed.

The casualties of the disaster totaled around 7,000 to 10,000. Around 1.5 to 2 square miles of the city was completely leveled. The shaking caused a large number of fires to break out, which took a heavy toll. Locals blamed the God Ebisu for allowing his giant catfish Namazu to go free, which caused the earthquake by shaking vigorously.

1959 Typhoon Vera

Type: Typhoon
Casualties: 4,000 to 5,100
Location: Honshu
Date: September 20, 1959

Typhoon Vera is the most powerful and deadliest typhoon to ever hit Japan. This typhoon, designated a super-typhoon, first formed near the US island of Guam and Chuuk in the state of Micronesia, before heading northwards to Shionomisaki in the Honshu region of Japan. It retreated briefly before returning again with decimating force. The storm caused torrential rains, massive flooding, and landfall.

Maximum damage was caused in the city of Nagoya in Ise Bay, where harbors were completely destroyed, and even ships anchored there sunk. 3 – 5 inches of rain was received in a short span of time, destroying around 150,000 homes, and leaving about 1.5 million people homeless. The flooded areas were hit by an outbreak of diseases like gangrene and dysentery. More than 5,000 people were rumored to have been killed, though the official estimate is lower, as always.

1891 Mino-Owari Earthquake

Type: Earthquake
Casualties: 7,273
Location: Nobi plain
Date: October 28, 1891

Early in the morning of October 28, 1891, a quake measuring 8.4 in magnitude occurred in the provinces of Mino and Owari. The quake was one of the most powerful to have an epicenter under the Japanese mainland, and demolished thousands of buildings, starting off fires. Central Japan was the most affected, with cities like Tokyo and Osaka being hard hit. So powerful was the quake that it left miles of visible cracks on the ground and uprooted trees that were near mountains. More than 7,000 people lost their lives in this tragedy.

1902 Hakkoda Mountains Incident

Type: Blizzard
Casualties: 199
Location: Hakkoda mountains, Honshu
Date: January 23, 1902

On the morning on January 23, 1902, a 210-man unit of the Japanese army’s Fifth Infantry set marching from Aomori. Their destination was the Tashiro Hot Spring. It was a training drill aimed at making the soldiers battle-ready in snowy conditions in case they had to fight with the Russians. To get there, they had to make their way through the Hakkoda Mountains, which was supposed to be an easy trek. Instead, the men found themselves in the midst of an intense blizzard, that lasted for days, causing 199 men out of the 210 to freeze to death. So intense was the storm that a search party found a surviving corporal frozen to ground in a standing position. This incident was the worst mountaineering disaster, not only in Japan but in the whole world.

1854 Great Nankaido Earthquake

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: 3,000
Location: Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu
Date: December 24, 1854

At 4 pm on December 24 in 1854, an 8.4 magnitude quake jolted the areas of Southwest Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, and destroyed more than 40,000 buildings, including around 6,000 homes. The quake caused a tsunami that flattened 15,000 houses. The fires sparked by the tremors also took a heavy toll. All in all, the quake and tsunami is said to have killed more than 80,000 people, but official sources peg the death toll to around 3,000.

2010 Japanese Heat Wave

Type: Heat Wave
Casualties: 1,718
Location: Japan
Date:Summer of 2010

An extreme heat wave scorched most of Japan’s cities in the summer of 2010, the hottest in recent years. In several places like Hiroshima, Tokyo, Kyushu, and Osaka, the temperatures were well above 30°C, and even went as high as 39°C in some regions. The extreme heat took 1,718 lives, most killed by a heat stroke, while a few had drowned in water bodies as they tried to escape the heat.

1293 Kamakura Earthquake

Type: Tsunami Earthquake
Casualties: 23,024
Location: Kamakura
Date: May 27, 1293

Around 6 am on May 27, 1293, the Japanese city of Kamakura was struck by a tremor of magnitude 7.1. The quake, which is said to have been followed by a tsunami, claimed an astonishing number of 23,024 lives, completely ravaging the city.

These colossal disasters killed a large number of people, several times leaving whole towns and cities devoid of human inhabitants. However, they also taught man about natural calamities, and how to predict and avoid them. This is why when natural disasters strike today, we are much better prepared to tackle them, than we were decades ago.

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