Japan has always been known as one of the countries most likely to experience geological disasters. The Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 highlighted how Japan, with its resources, training and technology achievements, is not infallible when it comes to earthquake and tsunami preparation. I will analyse, through the PAR model, the causes of this vulnerability will be analysed under social, economic and political perspectives.

*DISCLAIMER: This article is adapted from one of my university essays. Links to sources are included to download or purchase (no affiliate). The article is, as the title says, an analysis based on sources and it DOES NOT express a judgement, which would be inappropriate. I profoundly love Japan and believe they have the best emergency responding teams and technology in the world. And they know how to use it. One of my goals is to travel through Tohoku and share stories of life and reconstruction. My thoughts are with victims and affected families who lived through such an event.*

The PAR model

Since the nineteenth century, the growth in population, associated with industrialization, the development of science and medicine, has increasingly altered the balance achieved over thousands of years. After World War II, the territory of many countries underwent a twofold transformation. On the one hand the abandonment of agriculture and the growth of the industrial society led to a mass urbanization; on the other, individual transport opportunities caused a macroscopic expansion of the built areas. Financial speculation has further fostered this phenomenon of urban growth that was then disconnected from the actual housing demand. This social transformation, from a system essentially based on agriculture to an urban population in increasingly larger cities, has worsened the relationship between man and environment. The uncontrolled development of urbanization in high-risk areas has exposed an increasing number of people to the consequences of disasters (Douglass, 2016).

Based on the definition provided by the UNISDR (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2009), risk is the combination of the probability of occurrence of an event and the likelihood of negative consequences occurring, i.e. potential losses. It is indicated by the equation R = H x V (Risk = Hazard x Vulnerability). To reduce the destructive outcomes of natural phenomena, interventions focus on vulnerability (of people, buildings, infrastructures, economic activities) as the propensity to suffer damage as a consequence of the stresses induced by an event of a certain intensity.

There has always been a great interest in methods to analyse vulnerability in its social aspect. What was missing was the development of a general theory capable of orienting the use of quantitative and qualitative. Among the conceptual models that have tried to lay the foundations for the analysis and assessment of social vulnerability, there is the pressure and release (PAR) model.

The PAR model examines the pressure due to dangerous natural phenomena and the conditions that led to the disaster showing the relationship between vulnerability and social exposure (Wisner et al., 2003). It studies pressure as an evolutionary temporal process (see Fig 1) starting from pre-existing circumstances (root causes) that generated social vulnerability and fragility, identifying the conditions of insecurity (dynamic pressures), classifying unsafe conditions in the physical environment (unprotected structures and infrastructures), local economy (low level of income), social relations (specific groups at risk) and institutions and public actions (lack of policies for emergency response practices).

par model wisner 2003
Fig 1 – Pressure and release model (Wisner et al., 2003)

In many areas the causes of vulnerability are largely social, so human and infrastructural damages after a disaster are a consequence of choices, well identifiable actions and resources. Different socio-economic groups have different levels of vulnerability, as also confirmed at international level. The same capacity for resilience – that is, the ability to face and overcome a critical event – includes the availability of social and material, as well as psychological resources and an acceptable level of health services and wealth (Wisner et al., 2003).

Background to the Great East Japan Earthquake

On March 11, 2011 at 14:46:24 JST (05:46:24 UTC), a magnitude 9.1 Mw earthquake was reported near the east coast of Honshu, Japan (USGS, 2011).

Following the quake, a tsunami warning was issued at 14:50 JST by the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA, 2011), with an initial estimated wave height between 0.5 and 6 metres. Apart from Japan, the tsunami was experienced in many Pacific countries (see Fig 2 below). On March 25, the Port and Airport Research Institute (PARI, 2011) published the results for an urgent survey on wave height at major ports, finding values between 4 and 15 metres. It was later reported the maximum height was 40.5 metres (Xu et al., 2019), while NOAA registered it at 38.9 metres (NOAA, 2011).

Tsunami source and water heights over a tsunami travel time (TTT) map
Fig 2 – Tsunami source and water heights over a tsunami travel time (TTT) map (adapted from NOAA, 2011)

After seven weeks, the National Police Agency (NPA, cited in SEEDS Asia, 2011) issued a preliminary report of the total human damage caused by the two disasters, considering the number of people involved by prefecture (Fig 3) and by age for the most affected prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima (Fig 4).

Fig 3 - Number of people involved by prefecture
Fig 3 – Number of people involved by prefecture (adapted from SEEDS Asia, 2011)
Fig 4 - Number of people involved by age for the most affected prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima
Fig 4 – Number of people involved by age for the most affected prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima (adapted from SEEDS Asia, 2011)

The NPA’s update in December 2017 listed 15,894 people killed, 2,546 missing, 6,156 injured (NPA, 2017). Other sources report 19,074 deaths, 2,633 missing people, 6,219 injured (IFSIC, 2014).

The tsunami also caused Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident; although the safety system made the reactors of the then three active units (1, 2 and 3) shut down after the earthquake, the incoming water disabled the cooling system causing the reactors to meltdown (The CNN Wire Staff, 2011). The accident was rated 7 in the INES scale and workers and citizens in a 20km radius were evacuated (IAEA, 2011).

Geography and Economy

tohoku map
Fig 5 – T.Kambayashi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Tohoku region, located at the north-eastern end of the island of Honshu, is an area of over 67,000 square kilometres and which houses almost 10,000,000 inhabitants (Karan, 2004, p. 179). Tohoku is mainly a mountainous and hilly region, and the majority of population is concentrated in plain and coastal areas. Consequently, economy has been based for years on agricultural and fishery activities, although aging population and the need for more suburban housing development (Kanda, 1998) allowed for a decrease in market demand. In the 2000s, Tohoku saw a development in railway infrastructures with the construction of a shinkansen line. There are also at least five nuclear power plants (after the disaster some are not actively used), operating different units each (The Virtual Nuclear Tourist, 2002).

According to the 2011 East Japan Earthquake Bulletin of the Tohoku Geographical Association (Takano, 2012), population density in the local municipalities affected by the tsunami was in the range of 5,000-10,000 people per square kilometre.

Tohoku is home of some cultural (Japan Guide, 2017) and natural attractions, including world heritage forests (UNESCO, 2005) and shorelines, in particular the Sanriku coast spanning the prefectures of Aomori, Iwate and Miyagi, known for its shape, with lots of bays and two national parks (Japan Guide, 2016).


The earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident are often considered three separate disasters. Here, in style with Japanese literature, the nomenclature for the three events falls under the Great East Japan earthquake to avoid repetitions.

great east japan earthquake par model bloomy blaze
The Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami PAR model analysis – bloomyblaze.com
Root causes
  1. The 1955 system: The 1955 System refers to the political party system in Japan in the period 1955-1993, where the political scene was dominated by the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). After World War II, Japan saw its third industrialization movement, mirror of social changes: the number of employed salaried workers rose, while the percentage of agricultural activities dramatically dropped. This situation was also reflected by a rapid urbanization and growth of major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, and it further developed until the 1980s with mass production, general wealth and the construction bubble (Masumi, 1988). The LDP was supported by a wide range of population, including farmers, merchants and business owners (Bajoria, 2009) and it started to gain more and more power, so that its representatives were always elected, except for two periods, in 1993-1994 and 2009-2012. The LDP was responsible for the economic development in the 1960s and 1980s (including urban development in major cities across Japan), facilitated by so called “clientelistic relationships” (Matanle, 2011) with local politicians and groups: these were “societies” that strongly supported one party or the other locally and were a way to guarantee a number of sure votes. Although the Japanese electoral system was revised in 1994 to avoid such relationships and facilitate impartiality by dividing the nation in voting districts, Matanle (2011) asserts that the 1955 System idea is hard to eradicate from people’s mind and that the system is still somewhat accepted.
  2. Public debt: During the 1980s economic bubbles, the nation revenues were extremely high, but quickly slowed down just a few years later. The government actions in the 1990s, like issuing more bonds, only worsened the situation and, consequently, helped creating a bigger public debt. According to Guillemette & Strasky (2014), public debt in Japan had risen from 70% of GDP in 1992 to more than 200% in 2014 and growth has been weak in the last years. The negative aspects include less liquidity and demography, as most of the wealth of Japanese savers invested in domestic debt is in the hands of baby boomers, those born in the 1940s and 1960s, many of whom are close to retirement, when they will stop saving and start spending. Lack of liquidity may affect response and, more importantly, slow reconstruction in case of big disasters, such as the 2011 earthquake: local municipalities are more likely to depend on funds from the government even in normal times, making them weaker in a reconstruction phase, with the inner risk that they might cease to exist (Matanle, 2011).
  3. Overlook in nuclear governance: Since the nuclear program started in 1954, it was under the oversight of three combined powers, namely state politicians and bureaucracy and business sector (Figueroa, 2016). Their governance has been characterized by selling the public a vision where nuclear power would be necessary and managed safely, while they became known for lack of transparency and effective safety assessment of power plants, concentrating decision making processes among them, with local residents having no role in it. Although the government tried to revise nuclear agencies to allow for more skilled and safety-oriented personnel, in effect the overall composition of the workforce and managers wasn’t altered. Plans to ameliorate risk communication also failed, as it was evident in the Fukushima accident, where TEPCO failed to effectively communicate the state of the powerplant to the public (Figueroa, 2016).
Dynamic pressures
  1. Regeneration initiatives crisis: the Japanese government has invested in local regeneration initiatives since the 1970s in response to the rapid depopulation of rural areas (Matanle, 2011). Unfortunately, these projects sorted almost no effect on local communities but made the situation worse, as the focus was mostly on administration changes, which only made Tokyo administration more centralized than before (Fujimoto, 1992). The “one village, one product” project was a private initiative aimed at contrasting the central administration while creating uniqueness (in the form of local products and natural beauty), in villages and smaller towns to attract visitors. However, this project was more effective in strengthening community bonds than in creating an actual revenue. The dependence on one product was limited and it created strong competitions between communities, that started to differentiate by selling smaller amounts of different products, soon finding themselves unable to sell to bigger markets (Fujimoto, 1992).
  2. Population issues: The overall population of Japan is aging and, while the elderly are more likely to spend their lives in the rural areas they were born in, younger generations are constantly migrating to urban areas, prefectural cities or bigger centres like Tokyo. The Japan Times staff (2017) reported that, according to the shrinking process of the last decade, in 2017 there was a “natural population loss” – or the difference between births and deaths – of more than 320,000, while a continuous stream of people is migrating from rural to urban areas. People aged 65+ accounted for more than 27% of all population and, although Japan has put in being campaigns (Rodionova, 2017) to bring foreigners in the nation as skilled workforce and as a way to contrast this shrinking process, the combined number of Japanese and foreigners made the total population still smaller than in 2016 (The Japan Times Staff, 2017). While prolonged working hours and little family help from the government have historically contributed to lower Japan’s birth rate, Collins (2017) argues that Japan could turn the situation in its favour, if the problem would be seen under a new perspective. That is, although the author urges the Japanese government to implement policies that can help manage and enhance birth rates, he tries to see the shrinking population as an opportunity, while reminding that “Japan is not self-destructive”. For example, aging population would mean more structures, creating new care-oriented jobs for younger generations, something that is still lacking nationwide and was highlighted by the 2011 earthquake, when groups of elderly were moved for months from one structure to another, kilometres apart, because none had adequate spaces and/or personnel (Matanle, 2011). Atoh (2008) has researched the correlation between changes in values and low birth rates. Access to higher education and jobs for both genders, career advancement and correlated higher salary average, later marriage are only a few of many social changes Japan has faced since the 1970s.
  3. Opposition to nuclear power: As already presented above, residents have no say in nuclear discussions, as these are sole decision of the three powers. Only local governments can participate, but they are likely to support nuclear power, as they would be given several incentives (Figueroa, 2016). Local communities in the form of social groups, for example mothers worried for the effects of nuclear exposition on their children, have been expressing concerns and protesting since the 1990s, but they failed to reach national politics (Figueroa, 2016). There is also a duality of thought among residents living near powerplants: while they worry about safety, some communities highly depend on powerplants to create job opportunities and revenue.
Unsafe conditions
  1. Dangerous location: on a large scale, Japan lies in an area in the Pacific Ring of Fire where four tectonic plates converge, making the country prone to geological hazards. On a smaller scale, the Tohoku region and the Sanriku coast have a long history of higher tsunami waves. The coast was hit by at least four major tsunami since 800 AD: the reason why tsunami can reach height of 30-40 metres is the conformation of the coast, which presents many rias (Fig 6). Rias are features of the Japanese coast, characterized by deep bays with limited flatlands, so that villages are usually stretched in a very small area, and inhabited by communities with fishery as a major activity (Takano, 2012). Because of the conformation of rias, tsunami waves can reach deep into the bay and funnel through the hilly areas, inundating the surroundings.
  2. Unprotected buildings: although it is custom in Japan to build seawalls in the harbour to protect from a tsunami, the ones along the coast of Tohoku proved too small (average height was 5-7 metres) to withstand the power of the waves. In some cases, the seawall was completely destroyed by the tsunami (CBC, 2012). Regarding the seawall at the Fukushima nuclear powerplants, they were considered insufficient to protect the structures, but TEPCO reported them as safe prior to the accident. Seawalls at Fukushima Daiichi were consistent in height with those of the surrounding areas (Figueroa, 2016). The majority of towns and villages along the coast built schools and hospitals, also used as shelters (CBC, 2012), according to the law and to reports on historical tsunami accounts in the past years; it appears evident that they weren’t considering or didn’t know the periodicity of higher waves along the Sanriku coast.
  3. Mistakes in tsunami evacuation: from video accounts (CBC, 2012) it appears that there were some flaws in tsunami evacuation training and procedures. In particular, procedures in place at the time were developed in preparation to a smaller event; people not living in coastal areas were little (or not) able to identify a hazardous situation and didn’t run to higher places; many people underestimate the tsunami and were caught by surprise by the height of the waves, including firemen on patrol.
  4. Social groups at risk: recalling Fig 4, over 65% of total deaths were people aged 60+. Older people may have mobility impairments preventing them from running or move faster to escape the waters, especially if they live alone and/or their families cannot look after them during working hours. Young children below 10 years old accounted for a 3% of total deaths, and the problem of the two age categories could be very similar. Economically, small business owners and fishermen are heavily affected by such an event, losing products or the materials means (an entire new fleet was destroyed by the tsunami) to keep doing their jobs in the immediate (Matanle, 2011). In the Fukushima Daiichi area and in a 45 km radius, citizens were evacuated because of the emissions and they couldn’t get back for a long time, since the radiation were too high and only skilled personnel could entry the radiation zone.

Final thoughts

The Great East Japan Earthquake proved that, even in developed countries with a tradition of effective disaster management, there are still risks and that humans, in the form of society, play an important role with and are heavily affected by their decisions.

Unfortunately, Japanese authors still tend to write in their mother-tongue and English version/translations are often unavailable to make a comparison between these and Western authors. As Japanese have a different vision of things because of socio-cultural background and education, the presence of more sources would be highly valued to many scholars.


Cover photo: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) (Japan), CC BY 3.0 IGO, via Wikimedia Commons

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