This Day in History, A Huge Tsunami Hit The East Coast Of Japan (1896)


On this day in 1896, an earthquake shook the seabed some one hundred miles off the coast of Japan. It happened at night and it caused tremors in Japanese cities, towns and villages. At first, it did not cause great alarm. However, the earthquake caused a giant series of waves to crash into the coast of Japan.  This phenomenon is known as a Tsunami. They are always caused by a shifting of geological plates, which produce an earthquake and this forces the sea for form massive waves. One in three earthquakes at sea can cause a Tsunami. They are rare but very destructive events.

Tsunami Wall in modern Japan

The tsunami was caused by a geological event in what is known as the Japan Trench. This is some  120 kilometers  east of Japan’s largest island, Honshu.  The Japanese Trench is a huge chasm under the sea and when the Pacific tectonic plates collide this cause a great surge of water to be forced up from the Trench.

The Tsunami formed hit the east coast of Japan during the night and it fell on many villages by the sea  without warning and this was to make it a particularly devastating catastrophe.

In Kamaishi and all along the coast of Honshu, people had been celebrating a religious festival. They felt the tremors of the distant earthquake but they did not seem alarmed. They are used to such tremors in Japan. Then when many had gone to bed the waters by the shore suddenly receded as if the tide had gone out.  Then some fifteen minutes later a huge wave crashed into the coastline.

The waves in one location were recorded as over one hundred feet high. Villages had no chance and they were swept, away, especially if they had been built in low-lying areas near the sea. The whole thing was over in minutes. Many people inland did not become aware of the disaster until the following morning. When fishermen began to go to the shoreline for a day’s work they saw a terrible sight. Ruined villages and dead people lying everywhere. The Tsunami left few survivors.  Entire villages and families had been swept out to sea and drowned. Many of the dead went unburied as they had been swept out to sea and lost beneath the waves. Whole settlements had been destroyed. The Japanese fishing felt also lost many ships, destroyed by the giant waves. The Tsunami was unprecedented in people’s memories.

The exact death toll is unknown but it is estimated that some 20,000 to 30,000 had been killed by the Tsunami.

This east coast of Japan is particularly vulnerable to these Tsunamis. In March 1933 there was to be a similar disaster which killed many people, some estimate that 3000 died. Then in 2011, another Tsunami hit the east coast of Japan, killing several thousand.