The March 11 Earthquake in Japan

Q1: Where did the earthquake occur, and how much damage did it inflict?

On March 11, 2011, at 14:46 JST, a 9.0-magnitude earthquake (according to the Japan Meteorological Agency) struck 81 miles east of the city of Sendai on the Pacific coast of northeastern Japan and set off a tsunami that swept some coastal villages out to sea and caused major damage along the coast. The earthquake also damaged nuclear power plants in the region, and thousands of citizens have been evacuated as authorities work to prevent a nuclear meltdown at those facilities. This was the fifth most powerful earthquake in the past century and the most powerful on record in Japan. Some Japanese media reports suggest the death toll could soon surpass 10,000. On Sunday, Prime Minister Naoto Kan called this the worst crisis Japan has faced since the end of World War II.

Q2: How is the government responding?

The government has mobilized over 150,000 personnel from the Self-Defense Forces and the police to conduct relief efforts in the region and has requested support from other nations. After a massive earthquake struck the Kobe area in 1995, the government was criticized for lack of preparedness and poor coordination with the Self-Defense Forces and international relief efforts. Since then, the government has passed crisis management legislation and drilled extensively in anticipation of future natural disasters. As a result, the response to the March 11 disaster has been prompt and effective, though the magnitude of the damage has the government struggling on many fronts, from preventing the nuclear reactor core from melting down at Fukushima Daini plant to managing energy output and providing food and water to the hardest hit areas. President Obama spoke to Prime Minister Kan on March 11 and offered to provide whatever assistance was needed, and the U.S. military has mobilized various assets to the affected region in support of search-and-rescue operations and humanitarian relief efforts. Dubbed “Operation Tomodachi” (Japanese for “friend”), the effort includes reconnaissance operations by the U.S. Marines to establish a land-based supply and refueling base west of Sendai. Naval operations are being led by the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, and the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan is to serve as a hub for refueling aircraft and a base for search-and-rescue operations. The USS Tortuga is expected to arrive in northern Japan on Tuesday to further support these activities, and other vessels are en route from Southeast Asia.

Q3: What is the potential impact of the earthquake on the Japanese economy?

The Kobe earthquake of 1995 killed more than 6,000 people and caused over $100 billion in damage, equivalent to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product. It is too soon to predict the potential impact of this disaster, but Fiscal Policy Minister Kaoru Yosano stated that the total cost could exceed that of the 1995 quake. Yosano noted the government has ¥1.3 trillion ($15.8 billion) in discretionary funds in the current budget for the fiscal year ending March 31 that can be allocated toward earthquake relief. The government is also working to compile a supplementary budget package to fund recovery efforts, and over time reconstruction projects could provide an economic boost. The Bank of Japan today offered to pump $183 billion of liquidity into the financial markets to maintain financial stability and expanded an asset purchase program established last year to prevent deterioration in business sentiment. The Sendai area struck by the quake is not a major center of Japanese manufacturing, in contrast to Kobe, but approximately 20 factories have been shut down, and there will be energy shortages, so there will be some short-term impact on manufacturing exports.

Q4: How has the Japanese political leadership approached this crisis?

Prime Minister Kan is presiding over a tumultuous period in Japanese politics marked by disputes within his ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and bitter partisanship in a divided parliament. Kan was under pressure to pass budget-related legislation for the next fiscal year beginning April 1 but met fierce resistance from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which was pressuring him to dissolve the legislature and call a general election. The disaster has caused all parties to set aside partisanship, and LDP president Sadakazu Tanigaki has vowed to work with the government to pass a supplementary budget as soon as possible.

Q5: Is there a strategic impact?

This earthquake struck at a time when Japan’s struggling economy, aging society, and political paralysis were fueling a narrative of national decline. In fact, Japan remains a technologically advanced nation with the third-largest GDP in the world. Historically, the Japanese people have proven remarkably calm, determined, and resilient at times of national crisis. They are already displaying that same national character in the midst of the current disaster.

Michael J. Green is a senior adviser and holds the Japan Chair at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nicholas Szechenyi is deputy director of the Japan Chair at CSIS, where he is also a senior fellow.

Critical Questions
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