japan earthquake tsunami 2011
10 years on, Japan’s Tohoku region is still recovering. Photos: Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP

Then and Now: The Scars of Japan’s 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami

A decade has passed since the triple disaster that devastated Japan’s northeastern region.
March 12, 2021, 9:57am

It all started with an earthquake. 

At 2:46pm, the ground underneath Japan’s Tohoku residents convulsed for 3 minutes. The 9.0-magnitude earthquake, the strongest on record in Japan, triggered a tsunami that measured as high as 30 meters in some areas. That’s a 9-story building. Waves rippled inland, swallowing homes, schools, people in its wake. The natural disasters killed more than 18,000 people and triggered the meltdown of nearby nuclear power plants. The triple disaster forced more than 160,000 to evacuate. 10 years later, a quarter of residents still can’t return home. 

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These photos compare how much wreckage Japan’s Tohoku region endured. A decade on, residents are still recovering. 

Minamisōma, Fukushima Prefecture

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The tsunami hitting the shores Minamisōma, Fukushima Prefecture. Photo: STR / JIJI PRESS / AFP

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Minamisōma, Fukushima, today. Photo: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP

Kensennuma, Miyagi Prefecture

The earthquake, tsunami and widespread fires killed 1,152 people in Kensennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. 214 people are still missing.

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A ship was washed inland by the March 11, 2011 tsunami in Kensennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. Photo: Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP

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The same road in Kesennuma, Miygagi Prefecture. Photo: Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP

Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture

Over 3,000 died in Ishinomiyaki, Miyagi Prefecture. This district lost more lives than any other.

On March 15, four days after the triple disaster, the Japanese government urged Japanese citizens nationwide to stop panic-buying food and supplies. Officials were worried hoarding would affect the government’s ability to deliver emergency supplies to disaster zones.

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Debris blocks a bridge for residents in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Photo: KIM JAE-HWAN / AFP

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The bridge has not been completely rebuilt. Photo: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images

Natori, Miyagi Prefecture

Reconstruction efforts during this past decade have rebuilt some towns devastated by the disaster. But for some regions, empty roads and open fields are now the norm.

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Satellite images of Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, before the calamity on March 11, 2011. Photo: AFP PHOTO / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

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Satellite image of Natori, Miyagi Prefecture today. Photo: AFP PHOTO / Satellite image ©2021 Maxar Technologies

Namie, Fukushima Prefecture

Namie town in Fukushima Prefecture was inside what officials designated a “difficult-to-return” zone. Areas within 20 kilometers of the Daiichi nuclear power plant were evacuated, in fear of nuclear poisoning. In 2017, these restrictions were lifted for Namie town, but 90 percent of residents haven’t returned.

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Debris pile-up in Namie, Fukushima Prefecture. Photo: Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images

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Namie, Fukushima Prefecture today. Photo: Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture

In Rikuzentakata, where more than 1,700 residents died, a tree dubbed “Miracle Pine” stands as a symbol of hope for the region. The lone pine tree survived the tsunami 10 years ago, and now serves as a memorial.

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The "Miracle Pine" in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. Photo: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP

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A family walks through the destruction in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture. Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

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The town of Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, slowly being rebuilt. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Okawa Elementary School in Ishinomaki, Iwate Prefecture

Okawa Elementary School lost 74 children and 10 staff on March 11, 2011. About 4 kilometers off the coast, the school was overwhelmed by the tsunami before many could escape to higher ground.

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Japanese self-defense forces cleaning up around Okawa Elementary School, where 74 children and 10 staff were killed by the natural disasters. in Ishinomaki, Iwate Prefecture. Photo: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA / AFP

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Okawa Elementary school in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture today. Photo: Behrouz MEHRI / AFP

Reconstruction efforts for Japan’s Tohoku region are far from over. 2,525 people are still missing, over 40,000 are still relocated. The region looks for hope, amidst the rubble, but never forgetting the suffering they endured.

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