Eliza Scidmore and Earthquakes in Japan

Last Friday a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck in the seabed of the Pacific Ocean about 150 miles off the northeastearn coast of Japan. It caused severe shaking, but no reported deaths, along a coastal area known as Sanriku.

That’s near the region devastated in March 2011 by the catastrophic 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that killed about 19,000 people and caused meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Aftermath of earthquake and tsunami along Japan’s Sanriku coast, 1896 (Photo from “National Geographic”)

Sanriku lies in an area of the world prone to earthquakes because of the underlying plate tectonics. More than a century ago, Eliza Scidmore reported on the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck the Sanriku coast on the evening of June 15, 1896. Her article appeared in the September 1896 issue of National Geographic.

The 1896 earthquake erupted many miles offshore, triggering a wave of water that swelled as high as 80 feet by the time it hit land in some places.

The news of the disaster was slow to reach Tokyo and Yokohama. Eliza was in Japan at the time, and after reports began filtering in, she wrote an article for National Geographic.

Fishermen who were far out to sea were oblivious to the event when it occurred, she noted. Some later reported feeling only a slight wave passing beneath their boats. It caused little alarm because tremors were common in the region. Returning home the next morning they found the shore littered with their splintered homes and the bodies of their loved ones.

The giant wave of water leveled everything in its path for 175 miles along the coast. More than 20,000 people lost their lives.

Those who survived, Eliza wrote, described how they ran to high ground crying “Tsunami! Tsunami!” (See my article about it on National Geographic’s website.)

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