Japan began the new year with a series of powerful earthquakes and a tsunami that left at least 30 people dead and hundreds injured. The quakes, which ranged from magnitude 6.1 to 7.6, struck the western coast of Japan on Saturday, triggering waves as high as 3.3 meters (11 feet) that swept away cars, buildings, and infrastructure.
Quakes hit same area as 2011 Fukushima disaster
The first and strongest quake, with a magnitude of 7.6, occurred at 11:27 a.m. local time (0227 GMT) on Saturday, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) off the coast of Niigata Prefecture. The quake was felt across a wide area of Japan, including Tokyo, where buildings swayed for more than a minute. The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) issued a tsunami warning for the coastal areas of Niigata, Fukushima, and Miyagi prefectures, urging people to evacuate to higher ground.
The quake was followed by several strong aftershocks, including a magnitude 6.8 quake at 12:01 p.m. and a magnitude 6.1 quake at 12:16 p.m. The JMA said the quakes occurred along the same fault zone as the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 18,000 people and triggered a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
Tsunami wreaks havoc on coastal towns and villages
The tsunami generated by the quakes hit the western coast of Japan within an hour, causing widespread damage and flooding. The highest wave, measuring 3.3 meters, was recorded in Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture, where it washed away cars and houses. The tsunami also reached the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, but the operator said there was no impact on the cooling system or radiation levels.
The coastal towns and villages of Niigata, Fukushima, and Miyagi prefectures bore the brunt of the tsunami, as many of them had not fully recovered from the 2011 disaster. In Niigata, the tsunami inundated a nursing home, killing 12 residents and injuring 15 others. In Fukushima, the tsunami destroyed a bridge and a seawall, leaving several people stranded. In Miyagi, the tsunami flooded a hospital and a school, forcing the evacuation of patients and students.
Rescue and relief efforts underway amid cold weather and power outages
The Japanese government mobilized thousands of troops, police, firefighters, and coast guard personnel to conduct rescue and relief operations in the affected areas. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office in October, visited the disaster zone on Sunday and pledged to provide all possible support to the victims. He also expressed his condolences to the families of the deceased and his gratitude to the rescue workers.
The rescue and relief efforts were hampered by cold weather, power outages, and transportation disruptions. According to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, about 1.2 million households lost electricity due to the quakes, and some of them remained without power as of Sunday evening. The quakes also damaged roads, railways, and airports, making it difficult to access some of the remote areas. The JMA warned of possible landslides and further aftershocks in the coming days.
Japan faces renewed questions over disaster preparedness and nuclear safety
The New Year’s Day quakes and tsunami have raised renewed questions over Japan’s disaster preparedness and nuclear safety, as the country is prone to frequent seismic activity and has 54 nuclear reactors. The quakes exposed the vulnerability of some of the coastal defenses that were built or reinforced after the 2011 disaster, such as seawalls and breakwaters. The quakes also highlighted the risks of operating nuclear plants in earthquake-prone areas, as some of the reactors that were restarted after the 2011 disaster were located near the epicenter of the quakes.
The quakes and tsunami have also triggered a wave of sympathy and solidarity from the international community, as many countries and organizations offered their condolences and assistance to Japan. The United Nations, the United States, China, South Korea, and other countries expressed their readiness to provide humanitarian aid and technical support to Japan. The International Atomic Energy Agency said it was in contact with the Japanese authorities and was ready to provide any assistance related to nuclear safety.