Constructing Our Understanding of Quake: Tsunami Disaster

BBC Sandy: New York devastation mapped Image 3

BBC Sandy: New York devastation mapped Image 2

BBC Sandy: New York devastation mapped Image 1from BBC News

Although people in North America are in holiday season mentality right now, a lot of people must still remember the images of devastation caused by super-storm Sandy. When I read “Sandy: New York devastation mapped” on BBC News, I remembered writing a post for a course blog back in March 2011 after the Tohoku tsunami and earthquake. Google’s recent project “Memories for the Future” is an interesting digital archive project, and I should look into it in response to my below post. Anyway, I thought I should publish the original post here. I deleted some broken links from the original post but otherwise I did not modify it dramatically.

Originally posted on March 11, 2011

Before I start this entry, I would like to extend my sympathy, concern, and condolences to those who were affected by Friday’s earthquake and tsunami. We can donate to support survivors of this disaster in many ways, but the Red Cross may be one of the best places to donate as the Japanese Red Cross Society and other Red Cross offices are under the worldwide network of the Red Cross. For those who are in Canada, you can donate to support the people who have suffered these catastrophic disasters here.

If you have checked any kind of news websites, you may likely have read, watched, or seen earthquake and tsunami related news, videos, or images. The first clip I saw on The New York Times website was something similar to this. My first reaction after watching the clip sounds imprudent, but I thought it looked like Godzilla’s movie: what’s going on in the clip looked hyperreal, particularly the disasters caused by tsunami. I told this to my roommate who survived the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which killed over 6,000 people, and she agreed with me. After going through so many articles on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, I found this reaction wasn’t unusual.

This is an excerpt from the statement on the Liverpool Football Club website:

Liverpool Football Club is immensely proud to have supporters all over the world and on Friday, the thoughts of everyone at Anfield were with our fans in Japan.

Like everyone else, staff at the Club looked on in disbelief as the news pictures came through on our screens of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

As we watched the waves crush everything before them from the safety of the Club’s offices, it looked like a scene from a disaster movie. For our supporters in Japan, it was a very different experience – as these emails to the Club testify.

The Ottawa Citizen‘s news article characterized the disasters caused by the earthquake and tsunami as the following:

From this side of the world, the pictures of Japan’s devastating earthquake and tsunami looked like something out of a Hollywood disaster movie.

Also, the Telegraph reported the following comment by Kumi Onodera, 34, who must have been in an affected area when the earthquake hit:

[I]t was “like a scene from a disaster movie” adding: “The road was moving up and down like a wave. Things were on fire and it was snowing.”

My description of the clip as Godzilla-like might be a sincere reaction shared by many. Instead of studying for this week, I have kept reading and watching news  in English and in Japanese on the latest situations in thee affected areas. The more I keep reading, the more I have started wondering what would be the most effective and efficient ways to understand the impact of this quake-tsunami disaster on those who have been affected, and where the cinematic plays a role in helping us understand the impact. I am still struggling to grasp the situation fully so I can only provide my observations so far at this moment.

1) Statements by Institutions

As soon as I checked the clip on The New York Times, I left for work. I work on the premises of another university, and my co-worker, who is an international student studying there, told me that she received an e-mail from the university regarding the earthquake and tsunami. As expected, neither my university nor its international student centre e-mailed even its international students about the disasters in Japan. After I came home, I checked several university websites to see if they had posted any statements regarding the earthquake. For example, McGill, Toronto, and UBC issued official statements on the earthquake by Saturday morning.

Before UBC eventually issued a statement by the President, the statement started as followed:

We want to express our sadness and concern for the people affected by the catastrophic earthquake in Japan. Our thoughts are with the people of this region.

Toronto issued a similar one:

The University of Toronto community expresses its sympathies and condolences to families and communities throughout Japan and the Pacific region who have been devastated by this morning’s earthquake and tsunami. The effects of natural disasters like these are felt world-wide as people with family, friends and loved ones in affected regions hear news of the impact of this morning’s events.  The impact has been further magnified as subsequent tsunami warnings and advisories have been issued for countries and regions bordering the Pacific Ocean.

Unlike these two universities, McGill issued a less sympathetic statement:

The extent of devastation and loss of life from the enormous earthquake that struck Japan Friday morning (eastern time) may not be known for a number of days.

Many members of our McGill family may be concerned about loved ones, friends or colleagues who may have been affected by this disaster.

An interesting contrast comes from the statements by several US university websites that I checked. While some of them express their concern, sympathies, and/or condolences to those who are affected by the quake, many of their statements seemed to focus more on providing information about the safety of their students, faculty, and staff in Japan.

How do the statements by educational institutions like universities influence our understanding the Sendai earthquake? As a student, as a staff member, or as a faculty member, how should we respond to such a statement?

When it comes to politics, diplomatic ties to Japan change statement tones. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford issued the following statement:

On behalf of City Council and all Toronto residents, I want to extend my deepest sympathies to the people of Japan, especially in the areas devastated by today’s earthquake and tsunami.

I have contacted Mr. Tetsuo Yamashita, Consul General of Japan in Toronto, and have offered my condolences and support during this time.

How about the statement by Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson?

On behalf of the City of Vancouver, I offer my deepest condolences to the people of Japan at this difficult time as they cope with the devastating effects of the recent earthquake and tsunami.


Vancouver has close ties with Japan, and Yokohama has been our sister city for over 45 years. We stand by the Japanese people as they work to overcome this tragedy and our thoughts go out to all who are affected by this natural disaster, especially those who have lost loved ones. And our hearts are with the many Canadian citizens of Japanese heritage who have family ties in Japan.


Vancouver’s Urban Search and Rescue Squad, which has been deployed to disaster areas in the past, is prepared to assist in any way necessary if called upon by the Government of Canada.

Interestingly, Toronto has Sagamihara, a city just northwest of Yokohama, as its friendship city, but Rob Ford didn’t mention the city at all. Since many Japanese immigrants used to live in B.C., it may make sense that Robertson’s statement sounds more compassionate.

As Robertson states, the Government of Canada is the governmental unit that will decide how Canada can help Japan. The difference between Ford’s and Robertson’s statements also stem from their diplomatic relationships with Japan, and you can see a similar difference between the statement by Prime Minster Stephen Harper and that by President Barack Obama as well.

Have institutions to which you belong made any statements regarding the Sendai earthquake yet? If so, has it reflected or influenced your understanding of the disaster?

2) Geographic and Indexical Images

In order to understand the extensive impact of the earthquake and tsunami, seeing geographic and indexical images, or simply some kinds of maps, helps us easily see the impact. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Center for Tsunami Research calculated the maximum tsunami amplitude plot using The MOST (Method of Splitting Tsunami) model. The following is the image:

And, you can see how the tsunami caused by the Sendai earthquake propagated through the ocean in the video by the NOAA Center for Tsunami Research:

These images are representative of the numerical data calculated by the model. With the merely numeral information, we may not be able to grasp the propagation of the tsunami fully, but representative images on geographical maps instantaneously make us (re-)realize the effect of tsunami caused by the earthquake.

The New York Times has some interactive images and representative maps: How Shifting Plates Caused the Earthquake and Tsunami in Japan. And its interactive map and photographs of locations for the damage cased by the earthquake is very interesting: Map of the Damage From the Japanese Earthquake. This page allows us to see satellite images taken before and after the disaster: Satellite Photos of Japan, Before and After the Quake and Tsunami. With these images, it is easy for us to imagine not only the extent of the earthquake and tsunami but also the critical condition of the disaster.

3) Video Clips and Images of the Disaster

Many video clips vividly depict the disastrous conditions of streets, houses, towns, and cities, and shows us the people suffering and experiencing such conditions at the present.

jp-japan-2-popupfrom The New York Times


article-1365546-0D94AB66000005DC-284_968x645from the Daily Mail

The images I’ve seen so far make me realize how catastrophic the disastrous condition caused by the Sendai earthquake is. Although I could keep describing what I see in these images, the situation depicted in each image is beyond expression.

Compared to photographic images, maps, and other representative images, video clips contain sound, and the combination of visual and auditory elements likely makes the viewers believe that the Sendai earthquake was an actual event and that the disaster shown in the clips did happen and its aftermaths are still there.

4) Remarks

What we have read, watched, or seen in these categories have provided us with what the Sendai earthquake and tsunami have caused so far, but the aftermath of this disaster is beyond imagination. From Monday, Tokyo Electric Power is conducting rationing of power in the Greater Tokyo Area (GTA) due to the power shortage. Many subway and train lines are reducing their services or closing some or entire sections of the line. Furthermore, many schools in the GTA have canceled classes because of the power shortage.

Soon news media will find more “interesting” topics to cover, and most people who don’t have any connection or other relationship to Japan will forget this disaster just as we have started to forget the Christchurch earthquake. Maybe, we don’t need to remember exactly what kind of disaster the Sendai or Christchurch earthquakes caused, but should instead learn and remember how catastrophic a natural disaster can be. In order to do so, we need a very effective and efficient way to make us understand the whole image of this kind of disaster, including what happened, what is happening, and what will happen. Maybe, the cinematic in the domain of “new” media can help us achieve it.

Don't give up, Japan. Don't give up, TohokuFrom “Don’t give up, Japan. Don’t give up, Tohoku.” on The Independent



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