The 8.9 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Japan on Friday, triggering a tsunami, is the worst natural disaster in modern history for this earthquake-prone nation. The east coast of the country, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, continues to be under emergency alert for additional tsunami activity and aftershocks.
This is likely to be a humanitarian relief operation of epic proportions. Information remains scant about the full extent of the damage, and casualty reports are only beginning to come in. The northern Tohoku region seems hardest hit; the city of Sendai with a population of 2.3 million has been devastated; and already police are confirming hundreds of deaths. Regions in the north report that a massive tsunami of ten meters swept miles inland to devastate large swathes of Japanese coastal areas. Fires have broken out across towns in Miyagi prefecture.
Already struggling with a protracted process of political transition, the Japanese government will be sorely tested by this disaster. In 1995, the government response was severely criticized for being too little, too late, when the 6.9 magnitude earthquake struck Kobe.
But the government response today has been all-out and rapid. The government has mobilized almost ten thousand Self Defense Force personnel, as well as Coast Guard, fire, and disaster response teams in a mammoth disaster relief operation. Hundreds of military aircraft and over sixty ships are already deployed to northern Japan for relief operations. All major highways north have been reserved for emergency use, and various organizations are rapidly consolidating emergency relief supplies. Consultations with U.S. forces stationed in Japan are already underway to organize emergency relief support by them.
The economic impact on Japan's economy will be devastating. The Nikkei stock market has already begun to dip precipitously in the world's third largest economy. The long-term economic blow to a country already struggling to lower its budget deficit, which is now close to 10 percent of the GDP, will be significant. The 1995 earthquake in Kobe cost Japan $132 billion in damage and was the world's most expensive natural disaster.
One other concern is potential danger from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility in north-central Japan, and an emergency evacuation has been ordered for those within three kilometers of the facility. While all Japanese nuclear facilities across the country have reportedly shut down automatically, and at this time there seems to be no danger, the government has declared a nuclear safety emergency as a precaution.
The United States has mobilized additional military support to assist the Japanese government effort. President Barack Obama announced that the United States "stands ready to help the Japanese people." The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan has changed course to bring helicopter and other support in case of a Japanese government request for assistance. Likewise, three U.S. Navy warships already in Asia are readying in anticipation of humanitarian assistance.
While initial alerts were posted for tsunamis across Asia, at this time there seems to be little danger of damage in other countries. The recent aftershock that wreaked havoc in Christchurch, New Zealand, however, suggests that the potential for further damage in Japan and beyond is real.