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.
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.
Modern scientists have estimated that the 1896 earthquake was of 8.5 magnitude. A giant wall of waves reached a height of 80 feet in some places by the time it hit land, leveling 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!” Researchers believe Eliza’s article was the first time the Japanese word tsunami was used in the English language. (See my article about it on National Geographic’s website.)
Sanriku is a ruggedly beautiful region of craggy rocks and jutting bays, with a long “sawtooth” shoreline. Two Pacific Ocean currents collide in the nearby waters, carrying an abundance of food that attracts marine life to the area, making Sanriku one of the best fishing grounds in the world. Fishing was the local way of life.
Fishermen and their families in villages along the coast felt little concern at the tremors because that part of Japan experienced regular earthquakes and the impact on shore was relatively weak. The motion of the rocking sea was so imperceptible at first that fishermen about 20 miles offshore reported later they had felt nothing but a slight wave passing beneath their boats. Returning home the next morning, however, they found the shore littered with their splintered homes and the bodies of their loved ones.
News of the disaster was slow to reach Tokyo because telegraph lines and equipment, along with the operators, had been washed away. The region’s isolation frustrated the disaster response. A high mountain range and steep roads separated Sanriku from the interior of the country, where a railroad line ran along the spine of the island from south to north.
Once the scale of the calamity became known the Japanese government dispatched men-of-war to the area bearing surgeons, nurses and soldiers with supplies to aid to the survivors. Japanese journalists and photographers also made their way to the area, their newspapers soon carrying reports of the horrors they encountered. Eliza Scidmore was in Japan at the time and compiled an article for National Geographic.