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Tsunami in Japan

A man looks for his personal belongings at a collection center for items found in the rubble of an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Natori northern Japan 12 April 2011© InfoOne of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded struck on Friday 11 March 2011 off the north eastern coast of Japan. It caused widespread loss of life and severe damage. The earthquake also triggered a tsunami, a destructive wave of water that washed away everything in its path - homes, buildings, vehicles and people.

Days after the event, the exact extent of the loss of life, damage and personal suffering was unknown. Large areas where the tsunami impacted had not been reached by journalists. Roads were blocked and communication systems destroyed. It was clear that many thousands of people had died. Some survivors were without the basics of life - food, water and shelter.

One year on

When the world's media moved on after the massive earthquake and tsunami that brought destruction to north eastern Japan, local people continued to clean up the devastation and to try to adjust to their changed worlds. Mark the anniversary with activities exploring personal loss and uncertainty and ways to express the scale of the destruction.

Note: Teachers may find it helpful to read the  emotional support and  bereavement briefings before using this resource.


Search and recovery

After a disaster one of the first tasks is to find survivors and bring them to safety. It is called search and rescue.

After a few days, depending on circumstances, the chance of finding more people alive becomes very remote. At some point, this search and rescue effort will become recovery work: recovering the bodies of those who died, rather than finding survivors.

Explain this to students. Talk briefly about the implications of the change in effort. How will friends and relatives of the missing feel at that point? What about the rescue workers? Then ask:

  • How long after a disaster involving loss of life is the recovery effort likely to last? Make an estimate – in days, weeks or months.

After discussion, tell the group that the recovery phase following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami is still active. That is a full year after the disaster.

Play this audio clip , in which a BBC world service reporter talks to those organising a search.


A year on, 153 from this small town, are still missing. But they haven't given up on finding them. A dozen divers are going out today to search the bay.

"Why are you doing this work? Why are you carrying on, so long after the tsunami?"

"As long as the families of the missing want something back, anything to remember them by, even a fragment, we will continue with our search."

Ask questions:

  • Were students surprised at how long the desire for recovery lasts?
  • Having thought about it can they now understand why the desire might last for ever? Could they explain it in their own words to someone else? Why does the fact that the recovery work continues bring comfort to the bereaved?
  • What other examples can students think of of searches for people that lasted a very long time?
  • Some people have suggested that, now it has been a year, the searches should stop. Ask students to say whether they agree or disagree with this, and why.

Uncertainty increases suffering

More than 3,000 people are reported missing following the Japanese tsunami. They are in addition to the known death toll of nearly 16,000.

Invite students to think for a moment about the friends and relatives of those 3,000 people. How might their feelings have changed over the past year? At the beginning they may have had hopes that their loved-ones had survived. How would that affect their daily lives? How long would it have taken for those hopes to fade? What would they be replaced with?

Reflect on significant aspects of losing someone in such a disaster. Such as:

  • the suddenness of the loss
  • the unexpectedness
  • the lack of time to adjust
  • the absence of any official notification of death
  • the absence of a body for a funeral or other ceremony.

Use this list to explore why many of those who are grieving have such a strong desire to find a body.

Students can be helped to appreciate how uncertainty increases stress by looking at where it occurs in their own lives. For instance, they may have experienced:

  • having an undiagnosed disease or symptoms you can't explain
  • a toddler running out of sight, even for a few minutes
  • waiting for a friend to phone or text – but you hear nothing
  • for parents, when teenagers are out in the evening and not back at the agreed time.

Discuss how people deal with these kinds of everyday occurrences. What helps – such as having the support of others who understand?

Talk about how removing the uncertainty changes things. Why is it easier to deal with an illness when you know what it is? How does this relate to the need of families to know the fate of their relatives?


Meaning from numbers

Many statistics are quoted at the time of an anniversary. They are used to communicate something about the event. They can be difficult to comprehend and visualise. Try to bring them to a human level. Show students these figures below, which are examples of what is being reported one year after the tsunami:

  • Nearly 16,000 people died in the earthquake and tsunami.
  • More than 3,000 are still missing.
  • More than 330,000 people unable to return home are still living in temporary accommodation.
  • More than 500 people are still in evacuation centres.
  • The government has built more than 50,000 prefabricated homes.
  • In the three worst-affected areas 25 million tonnes of debris was deposited by the waves.

Which of these is most striking to students? Which do they think is useful for explaining to someone the scale of people’s suffering and the devastation? Could they be presented so they were more easily understood?

  • Ask students to choose one or more statistic and devise comparisons or some other context to make the figures more vivid, memorable and meaningful.
  • Create an infographic-style representation with the above information, for display.

    Minamisanriku video

    Read the above or a similar report to set the scene about the event. Then prepare students to watch the five-minute video. (Note: watch it first to assess its suitability. There is a section at 4:00 which shows the wrapping up of dead bodies.) Say that while the reality it reports is distressing, the video is also a moving depiction of the dignity and humanity of those who survived.

    The video is a Channel 4 news report, fronted by presenter Alex Thomson in Minamisanriku, a small town on Japan's north eastern coast which was very badly hit by the tsunami.

    Read the transcript.

    Use the following headings to structure thoughts about the report and the disaster. In the classroom, these could be given to students in advance of viewing the film. For an assembly, they could be used to direct thoughts after the viewing. Select carefully, bearing in mind the group and their maturity and experiences.

    What in the report shows the following?

    • Respect for the dignity of the dead
    • The destructive power of the tsunami
    • How people are pulling together
    • The continuing danger

    Respect for the dignity of the dead

    See the section in which a body is "quietly" removed, "with whatever dignity an old blanket can provide". Also the sequence in which the necessary bureaucracy of identifying then wrapping and labelling the bodies is taking place. Note the reporter's comments, "this is a small town, they know these people".

    The destructive power of the tsunami

    Many long shots of the landscape indicate this, some pointed out by the reporter as he tries to show how far the wave washed through the area. Note the focus on personal belongings now lost - such as the photograph of a bride among the rubble.

    How people are pulling together

    The reporter remarks on the self-help and dignity of the survivors in very difficult circumstances. Note, for example, the group waiting patiently for rescue, one man carrying an elderly and possibly injured woman on his back. See the school, now used as a centre, sheltering people from the town. There is now no hospital, so people are improvising as best they can.

    The continuing danger

    Point to two instances - first where filming is interrupted by a tsunami alert and again as people are urged up and up to higher ground.


    Further exploration

    Other striking moments which could form the basis of exploration include:

    • The way the eyewitness, a teacher, recalls seeing a man standing on a roof. "I couldn't do anything to help him." Discuss the distress that this kind of helplessness causes.
    • The reported astonishment that the outside world should care about what has happened. Alex Thomson reports that "a woman hugged us and said I can't believe you've come all the way from England." How important is it in a crisis to feel that you are not alone? Even if people can be no practical help, what difference does it make to know that they care?

    Earthquake warning

    Explore the Japan earthquake with students using this simple activity. It is suitable for upper primary, as well as secondary school students. It starts with a short audio quiz. The further ideas and material can be introduced as appropriate to the age and interests of the group.

    (Note: Some students may have heard this or similar sounds in a real-life context, so be clear that it is part of the lesson, without revealing the answer.)

    The sound you are about to hear has been described as scary. It also saves lives. What is it?

    Play the sound.

    After discussing students' ideas, explain or confirm that it is an earthquake early warning system. It has been regarded as effective in saving lives in the recent massive earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan on 11 March.

    The sound is regularly broadcast on radio, television and through mobile phone alerts. It is played just before a tremor to give people a chance to get into a safer position when the quake begins. There have been many aftershocks in the days following the major earthquake.

    Ask students to listen to the sound again, this time knowing that it is a warning.

    Depending on how far from the centre of the quake they are, people get a few seconds warning. Is that enough time to reduce the chances of a serious injury? Yes. Here are some ideas:

    • If you are in a lift, you would get out of it.
    • If you are near a desk, you would get under it.
    • If you are on a bus, you would hold tight onto a strap or rail.
    • If you are standing by a cliff, you would move away.
    • If you are driving a train, you would slow down or stop.
    • If you are riding a bike, you would get off it.
    • If you near a building site, you would move away from large cranes.
    • If you were cooking a meal, you would turn off the heat.

    Invite students to add to the list. Be inventive. Spend some time thinking about how you would respond right now in the classroom, and in different circumstances.

    Is the alert also scary? Yes, say some people who have been hearing the sounds regularly since the 11 March earthquake and the series of aftershocks. Talk about why. Then read out some of these comments from social networking sites:

    “The sound of the Earthquake Early Warning still scares me, and my hands start shaking when the television plays it and my cell phone starts buzzing.”

    “I'm so tired… just heard the Earthquake Warning again in Nagano Prefecture. The sounds coming from my cell phone … scare me. The magnitude isn't always big but we don't know when the next big one will come. It frays my nerves each time the Warning on my cell phone rings…”

    “...when I was in the Keikyu Train, different earthquake warning sounds started ringing from everyone's cell phones at the same time. An extreme sense of urgency filled the train.”

    “In our workplace, everyone's cell phones started ringing at once, making a sound that had never been heard before. It was the Earthquake Early Warning. We continued to work although we were terrified. Everyone is okay. It's wonderful to be alive, isn't it?!”

    “I duck underneath the table every time I hear the Warning. It's like an air-raid siren. Securing food, trying to confirm the safety of loved ones, unfounded rumours, a feeling of scarcity… it's like the world of the wartime stories that my grandmother used to tell me.”

    • Talk about this last one. What was the air-raid siren of the war like in the UK? How might people have felt when they heard it? What if they were apart from their families and friends at the time? How would the all-clear siren have sounded to them?
    • Can the earthquake early warning sound be altered to make it less scary? Or would any sound become scary? 

    Action project

    Finish by asking students what message they would send to the people of Japan now. Ask for written contributions, then mount them on a display or upload them to a website.


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