Top 4 Documentaries on the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake

If there’s one good thing we can say about nature’s merciless beating of Eastern Japan on March 11, it’s that this incident became the most studied natural disaster in the world. Aside from Japan’s extensive scientific detection instruments, ordinary people from coastguards to tourists had documented what happened. With all the information we have now, scientists are piecing together important points that help us understand, prevent, or prepare for another such devastating earthquake. Following are some fantastic documentaries that show a great deal of information in a format that’s very easy for the layperson to understand.

I spent a lot of time recently browsing the documentaries that were made to explain what happened on March 11. I’ve come out of it a lot more educated, and surprisingly a little more shocked. I thought I had seen everything already, but we can’t grasp the magnitude of the situation without the explanations provided. You’ll understand what I mean if you watch the videos. For this compilation, I have them ordered in the order I would recommend them to be viewed, not in their quality.

1) BBC Horizon Special: Japan Earthquake

This excellent documentary is divided on YouTube into three 20-minute parts, which I have embedded below. It answers pretty much everything a layperson would want to ask about Earthquake science. The following paragraphs summarize the contents of the videos, which can be viewed below.

In the first part, host Iain Stewart explains the basics of earthquake measurements, as I have attempted in an earlier post, and plate tectonics. Also, the footage they show was astounding. They took footage from YouTube, as well as live TV broadcasts, and explained what was happening as it happened. Even being in Japan at the time, I didn’t get a chance to see some of the footage that was playing on TV (because, if you read my earthquake account, trains were stopped and I was stranded in another city). I was not able to get access to a TV for a while, so it was interesting to see what I missed.

In the second part, they go to seismically active regions in parts of the world outside Japan, such as in California. They also show devastating footage of the massive Kobe earthquake of 1995. But what’s really interesting is when they talk about the technological advances and limitations in earthquake detection. Stewart soberly concludes “Can we predict when the next big earthquake will strike? No. But can we forecast the areas that will need to prepare for one? Yeah, I think we can.” They also show many of the issues with the tsunami, and explain in detail some of the footage that basically everyone who watched it from TV didn’t really realize. Namely, the camera angles generally made the tsunami look smaller than it really was. That is, at least 10 meters smaller. It’s also explained why and when the tsunami was particularly dangerous, which I hadn’t realized until I saw this.

In the third part, of course they delve into the Fukushima incident. Referring to the fact that the Fukushima #1 power plant was prepared only for a M7.9 earthquake and had only a six-meter high protective wall, Stewart says “What this represented was a catastrophic failure of imagination.” He interviews the nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalili who says that we should keep things into perspective, and explicitly states that this is certainly not as bad as Chernobyl. Stewart also discusses how one earthquake can cause another, and how modern Japanese architecture effectively protected people on March 11.

2) Japan’s Tsunami – How it Happened 2011/PBS NOVA – Japan’s Killer Quake

The “Japan’s Tsunami” documentary is very interesting because it shows not only what happened in Japan, but the response to the tsunami elsewhere. They follow the science from the earth’s crust to the places which received the tsunami warnings. They also show footage of some of the lesser-known places in Japan, showing some of the challenges they have to deal with, like huge amounts of left-over water from the tsunami that they can’t simply “get rid of.” The following video contains the entire 45-minute show:

If you prefer to watch this in smaller chunks, PBS NOVA produced an extremely similar documentary (I’m guessing that it wasn’t coincidental) showing much of the same footage and interviews, just with a different (American) narrator. But the NOVA videos are split up into parts on YouTube, so click the following links for part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 if you so prefer. I don’t think it will benefit you to watch both.

3) Nuclear Nightmare Japan in Crisis

In this documentary from the Discovery Channel, the host Paula Zahn interviews several Americans, and the footage they show gives a Western perspective on the crisis. One of the Americans interviewed was actually inside the Fukushima #1 power plant at the time of the earthquake, so it was quite interesting to hear his story. Accounts from other foreigners were also highlighted. I would take some of this information with a grain of salt, though.

4) BBC News Panorama Documentary: Japan Tsunami – The Survivors’ Stories

Six months after the quake occurred, this incredible documentary came out. The filmmakers actually searched for the people in the videos millions of people have seen on YouTube, tracking down survivors to tell their stories. They explain some of the most famous videos from the perspective of the survivors, and interview those lucky ones. You can also see one of the few instances where people were allowed inside the exclusion zone for a brief time to revisit their abandoned homes. The footage shown here is stunning. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this documentary is worth millions:

The interview with the 12-year old was especially terrible (see the last 10 minutes). The teachers in the elementary school in Ōkawa made such a stupid decision to argue about moving to higher ground that it was by far too late by the time they made the right decision.

A Deeper Understanding

From these videos, we see explanations of what happened in Japan as well as outside, and how much we know about the dangers of mother nature. They provide vivid visuals of what happens in an earthquake from scientific models to the real-life experiences that people captured on camera.

On pinpointing an earthquake »

Excerpt from: Award-winning Homage to Trains

Earthquakes result in two types of seismic waves that travel through the earth, “P” (primary) waves and “S” (secondary) waves. P waves travel quickly, and are not very harmful. Trains all over the country are given warnings when they receive P waves, which is what happened on March 11 up to 30 seconds before the quakes began, usually yielding enough time to begin bringing them to a halt. S waves are slower waves (see the animation below to compare), but they are the ones that cause all the damage. The greater the distance from the epicenter, the earlier the earthquake sends its warning.

In fact, any four geographically distinct readings can allow us to narrow down the time and location of an epicenter. Schools, trains, homes, offices, and anyone with the appropriate cellphone applications will get these advanced warnings. The problem on March 11, however, was that trains were halted for hours, leaving passengers stranded wherever they stopped…

There’s no question that the information in the videos above is extremely informative, even today. But since these documentaries were made, we have learnt more still about what happened. Japanese researchers are continuing to find valuable information that can be used to save lives and understand risks. For example, earlier this month, we learnt the measurements of the earthquake. We learnt that the tsunami was caused by a horizontally 50-meter and vertically 10-meter shift in the sea floor, and that it was so devastating because it was a rare case of what’s known as a “double tsunami.” That is, it merged soon after it was triggered, to form a greater tsunami than when it started.

The more time that passes, the more we learn about what happened. But perhaps the most shocking thing about what happened is one of the least-reported things. I’m really not exaggerating when I say: In an upcoming article, I will talk about another documentary that may show a fundamental change in Japanese culture.

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