10 March 2011; Parallels between northern Japan before the Great Eastern Japan earthquake and the Pacific Northwest of the United States

Andrew Moore, Geology, Earlham College


The 11 March 2011 Great Eastern Japan earthquake and tsunami struck probably the most tsunami-ready coastline in the world. That 16,000 people were killed represents, perhaps, an indictment of the structures designed to save lives, but perhaps also a best-case for how many people we can expect to lose even under the best of circumstances.

This case study focuses on what preparations were in place _before_ the tsunami. What structures were built, why were they designed the way they were, and what past events were modeled as likely precursors to this event? In short, what was Japan's design philosophy coming into the 2011 earthquake and tsunami?

This has ramifications far beyond Tohoku. The Pacific Northwest of the US faces a nearly identical hazard, with a similar recurrence interval. What affects US design philosophy, and what lessons can be learned from the Japanese experience?

Individuals with expertise/responsibilities in the following areas have helped create the case study:
  • Fumihiko Imamura. Tohoku University. Tsunami engineering expert.
  • Yuichi Nishimura. Hokkaido University. Tsunami geology expert.
  • Kenji Satake. University of Tokyo. Seismologist.

Key teaching points:
  • The importance of previous events to understanding Japanese planning (e.g. 869 Jogan, 1896 Meiji Sanriku, 1960 Chile).
  • The cultural bias towards hard structures as a design philosophy for tsunami mitigation.
  • The complex nature of what happens _after_ a tsunami warning is issued.

How this example is used in the classroom:


Supporting Files