TOKYO – The tsunami raced through the town at eight meters per second, the speed of a gold-medal sprinter. The wave’s height reached 15 meters, towering above even the highest pole-vault bars. Ships were heaved onto hills, and cars floated like boats. After the wave passed, a chaotic mountain of debris was all that was left of Kamaishi, Japan’s oldest steel-manufacturing town, in Iwate prefecture. It looked like the aftermath of the firebombing of Tokyo, or like Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs fell.
Similar scenes can be found throughout the Tōhoku region, along Japan’s northeastern Sanriku Coast. For example, in the quiet rural city of Rikuzentakata, with a population of 23,000, it is believed that 5,000 of its 8,000 households disappeared in the disaster. The only buildings that remain standing are the town hall and one supermarket. Sendai airport, near the coast in Miyagi Prefecture, now looks more like a seaport.
The enormous earthquake that hit the Tōhoku region on March 11, with a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale and its epicenter off the coast of Sanriku, was the largest in Japan’s recorded history. The number of victims and the extent of the damage remains unknown, but the human loss is expected to exceed 23,000, and economic damage is estimated to be around ¥25 trillion.
Tsunami is originally a Japanese word. Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (known as Koizumi Yakumo after his naturalization as a Japanese citizen), an Englishman born on the Greek island of Lefkada, first introduced it in his novel A Living God. Hearn’s depiction of the Meiji-Sanriku earthquake, which in 1896 took 22,000 lives in the same region as the recent quake, was later included in elementary school textbooks under the title of “The Burning of the Rice Field.”