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New Year's Earthquake: Disaster Resilience is a Societal Responsibility

The Noto Peninsula earthquake struck as families gathered to celebrate the New Year. As survivors grieve their loss, society must extend all the help they need.



People walk past a collapsed building in Shika, Ishikawa Prefecture on January 2. (©Kyodo)

It was shortly after 4 pm on January 1, as the family gathered at my in-laws for the New Year's Day feast. Amid conversations between siblings, cousins, nephews and nieces, and grandparents, I felt a mild tremor in our otherwise safe neighborhood in eastern Hyogo Prefecture. I looked at my brother-in-law to see if he noticed it and when he and the others hadn't, I raised my voice. Moments later, he pointed out hangers and other items that were shaking along the wall of his and my wife's childhood home. Subsequently, we checked our cell phones and then the television news and learned about the unfolding of the Reiwa 6 Nen Noto Hanto Jishin, the name subsequently given to the 2024 Noto Peninsula earthquake.

For the next few hours, we discussed the earthquake and approaching tsunami from the relative safety of the living room. My brother-in-law spoke from his experience working for the largest electric power company in the area (while communicating with his office about responses) and I from my experience as the political advisor to the Forward Command Element of United States Forces Japan in Sendai during the response to Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. Additionally, I have conducted research on natural disasters and crisis management in Japan for nearly two decades.

The Noto Peninsula earthquake caused large cracks to appear on the road in Anamizu, Ishikawa Prefecture, on January 2. (©Sankei by Yoshinori Saito)

Evacuate Immediately From Coastal Areas

Our discussions took place in front of our children, his college-age daughter, and my slightly older children, all now young adults. My daughter previously worked for Japan's premier disaster response organization. She was involved in the flood relief operations in Kumamoto in July 2020, the first disaster in Japan to have to work under COVID restrictions.

One of the things we discussed was the need to evacuate in a calm manner from coastal areas after an earthquake, regardless of its magnitude or whether a tsunami warning was issued. In the event of a tsunami warning being issued, it is also necessary to expect the worst — that the tsunami height will be higher than what is predicted. 

Foreshocks and Aftershocks

A second thing we discussed was that sometimes an earthquake is not the main quake, but a pre-quake, portending greater shocks to come. An example of this was the Kumamoto earthquakes in April 2016. A big earthquake happened on April 14. But after things began to settle down nearly two days later, the second, bigger quake happened. It did even more damage, both physical and psychological.

A road blocked by collapsed houses on April 15, 2016, in Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture. (©Sankei by Masamichi Kirihara)

Sometimes it happens the other way. Following a big earthquake, aftershocks come that feel just as big as the first one. But even if they are not as big as the first one, the damage that was already done structurally to homes and buildings has weakened them so much that a less powerful earthquake could still cause the structure to collapse. This is what happened in Kobe in January 1995. Two hours after the first earthquake at 5:46 am, a second one came almost as large. People who had gone back into their homes to begin cleaning up or searching for family members or pets were killed by the collapsed roofs.

Fire Hazards

We also talked about how the numerous fires that started would also do much damage. I explained how at the time of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake most of the deaths were caused by fire. This was due in part to the housing materials at the time, but also the timing of the earthquake. It happened around noon when lunchtime meals were being prepared on gas stoves.

The same phenomenon could be said to happen in the Hokuriku area, where the Noto Peninsula is located. It is normally a very windy area. In the middle of winter, on a day when many families are gathered at the ancestral home, gas and kerosene stoves for heating were certainly in use in older homes. These homes are made of wood with paper shoji doors and flammable fusuma room dividers with tatami mat floors. 

Comparison of Past Disasters

This led to a discussion about the causes of death in natural disasters in Japan. I explained a comparison between the Great Kanto earthquake, the Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake (otherwise known as the Kobe earthquake), and the Great East Japan Earthquake. In the Great Kanto earthquake, which affected Yokohama and Tokyo the most, fires took the lives of many of the overall 100,000-plus killed, as mentioned earlier. (A typhoon on the Sea of Japan side had caused winds to be particularly strong at that time.) 

Fires caused by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 in Tokyo's Yurakucho district. (©Sankei)

But there were others who died when they were crushed in building collapses or in the tsunami that occurred at the time. The tsunami hit Kamakura especially hard, but also Zushi, Atami, and Fujisawa in Kanagawa Prefecture, as well as Susaki and Tateyama in Chiba Prefecture.

Just days before, I had spoken with my son about how Kobe grew in the wake of Yokohama's destruction following the exodus of foreign businessmen and their families to the other big port area. While there likely won't be a large transfer of people from the Hokuriku area because of this disaster (population decline has already set in), we may expect such to be the case following a future earthquake in Tokyo.

In the case of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, most people were killed when their homes or structures collapsed. And as everyone knows, during the Tohoku Earthquake, most people were killed in the tsunami that followed the Magnitude 9.1 megaquake. 

A part of the elevated section of the Hanshin Expressway in Kobe collapsed during the Great Hanshin earthquake (Kobe earthquake) on January 17, 1995. (©Sankei).


A sad trend, I pointed out to the family, has been emerging with deaths in recent disasters. Namely, that of kanrenshi, or deaths related to disasters by illness and suicide, the latter being the most prevalent as people have lost hope or their homes and loved ones. In the Kobe earthquake, 14 percent of total deaths are attributed to kanrenshi. In the Tohoku earthquake, 17 percent are attributed. So we see a slight rise in the number of deaths by illness and suicide. 

However, the number became really worrisome in the aftermath of the Kumamoto earthquake eight years ago. Some 80 percent of total deaths are attributable to kanrenshi. This is particularly sad as people who have physically survived a natural disaster lose hope in the days, weeks, and months afterward. 

I told the family that this was not a personal problem of the victims themselves, but a societal one, and needed to be addressed. We should not have to read in the future that people died due to loneliness, depression, and loss of hope after the Noto Peninsula quake or future ones. All of us have the resources to help in our own ways the victims recover as quickly as possible and make the area more resilient in the future.

This will be a New Year's Day that few will ever forget, especially the victims of the earthquake and tsunami. I hope, too, that the next generation that was sitting in our discussion yesterday not forget what they heard and act on it now and in the future.


Author: Robert D Eldridge

Eldridge is a former associate professor of Japanese political and diplomatic history at Osaka University, and also the translator of numerous books, including "Watanabe Tsuneo, Japan's Backroom Politics: Factions in a Multiparty Age" (Lexington, 2013). Read his essays and analysis in English on JAPAN Forward.


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