Eliza Scidmore and Earthquakes in Japan

Last Friday a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck the northeast coast of Japan, in a region known as Sanriku. The eruption, originating on the ocean floor 150 miles away, caused severe shaking but no reported deaths.

The catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, which killed about 19,000 people and caused meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant, occurred in the same region. The magnitude of that earthquake was 9.0, one of the worst on record.

Sanriku lies in an area of the world prone to earthquakes because of the underlying plate tectonics. More than a century ago, Eliza Scidmore reported on the aftermath of a disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck the Sanriku coast on the evening of June 15, 1896.

Her article appeared in the September 1896 issue of National Geographic.


National Geographic tsunami article 1896tsunami 1896

This photo appeared in “National Geographic” in September 1896, with an article by Eliza Scidmore on a deadly tsunami along the Sanriku coast of northeastern Japan.


The 1896 earthquake erupted many miles offshore, triggering a wave of water that swelled as high as 80 feet by the time it hit land in some places. The giant wave of water leveled everything in its path for 175 miles along the coast. More than 20,000 people lost their lives.

National Geographic 1896 tsunami textonlaThe news of the disaster was slow to reach Tokyo and Yokohama. Eliza was in Japan at the time, and after reports began filtering in, she wrote the article for National Geographic.

Fishermen who were far out to sea were oblivious to the event when it occurred, she noted. Some later reported feeling only a slight wave passing beneath their boats. It caused little alarm because tremors were common in the region. Returning home the next morning they found the shore littered with their splintered homes and the bodies of their loved ones.

Those who survived, Scidmore wrote, described how they ran to high ground crying “Tsunami! Tsunami!”

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