The Top Documentaries on the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake


Just like any other day, people in East Japan were busy with their life and work in the early afternoon of 11 March 2011. Life stood on a standstill for a few milliseconds before an earthquake of magnitude 9 hit the area. For a country that is proudly one of the safest in the world, this was a massive blow. So intense was this earthquake that it moved Japan’s largest island towards East and shifted planet Earth on its axis.

The coastal areas of Tohoku in East Japan were affected by a Tsunami and the death toll reached 15,848. Soon after the earthquake and tsunami, an accident happened at the Fukushima nuclear power plant with the Nuclear Event Scale raised to 7. It was a gloomy time for people in Japan and around the world, because the state of loss and destruction was massive.

Testing Times 

The Great East Japan Earthquake was not the first earthquake to hit Japan. The country and its residents are well aware of this natural calamity and standard operation procedures. However, March 11 became a standalone incident to unlearn from past norms. Coordinating, assessing, helping and evaluating public health risk became a harder task if such incidents were to repeat in the future.

Documenting the Tohoku Earthquake

Researchers from around the world took the opportunity to study the causes and effects of this disaster. Many documentary makers shifted their focus towards the Great East Japan Earthquake. This post contains a list of the top documentary work on the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. The harbor wave that came as a result of the earthquake produced waves that were 132 feet high. Just to give you an idea of the destruction, 15,500 people lost their lives because of the disaster.

Must-Have Eastern Japan Earthquake Documentaries

Surviving Japan 

Written and directed by Chris Noland, Surviving Japan tells the gruesome tale of the Great 3:11 earthquake. It is a true story of an American volunteer who went through the chaos and survived the ordeal with great struggle. Duration of this documentary covers events from March 2011 till September 2011. Christopher Nolan himself volunteered in the earthquake relief projects and met fellow volunteers to investigate the flaws in disaster management. Noland interviewed Mayors, officials, residents and other organizations about their take on the earthquake. This documentary unravels many hard facts on how the government handled the multidimensional chaos and who bore the brunt of the mess. A large part of this documentary covers the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Disaster and its possible effects on the children of the nearby area.

The Miracle of Kamaishi 

An earthquake followed by a terrible tsunami isn’t something you anticipate. However, 600 people in one area managed to evacuate and lived to tell the tale of their survival in this documentary. This is the miracle of Kamaishi where middle school students and teachers remained safe from the clutches of the tsunami despite being so close to the ocean. However, children in the documentary are seen remarking, “it was not a miracle, we survived by helping each other”. Watch this documentary to trace the footsteps of these children that became a miracle in Kamaishi.

Tohoku Tomu 

This documentary that received global attention and more than 30 screenings worldwide is one of the best on the Great East Japan Earthquake. Wesley Juan was touring Japan with his friends when the March 2011 incident happened. One of his fellow teachers lost their life to the earthquake, which was heartbreaking for Juan. He created Tohoku Tomu to grasp the essence of 3:11 and its aftermath on the Japanese residing in Tohoku. Juan was determined to highlight the vigor and perseverance of Tohoku residents who were eager to rebuild life only a day after the incident happened. This heart touching documentary might get you a little teared up and teach you about how death shapes up a new perspective for people.

113 Project 

The director of Tohoku Tomu, Wesley Juan worked with local and foreign directors to launch 113 Project. It is a series of mini documentaries on how the people affected by the Great Earthquake are getting back on track. The short film series brings a fresh outlook towards Tohoku shot by young adults who braced the storm. There are local craftpeople, shop owners and many others telling their stories under the 113 Project. You will get a touch of the ‘Tohoku Tomu Spirit’ which leads residents to hold festivals and enjoy life once again.

49 days of Life and Death 

Shot through the camera of a local newsman in Miyagi, the documentary covers how brutal tsunamis can be. The cameraman is seated near the port with the device in his hand. As the water rises, he keeps climbing stairs to reach higher ground. You experience a devastating tsunami up close in this mini documentary and feel adrenaline rush as the black water wreaks havoc in town. The cameraman helps others to safety on screen and captures post tsunami life of living near the port. For those who want to see the might of a raging sea, this documentary is a must-watch.

Witness: Disaster in Japan by National Geographic

Available on Amazon Prime, this 45-minute documentary presents powerful footage of the legendary earthquake that devastated life in East Japan. While some documentaries focus on the disaster itself, this particular documentary is geared towards street footage, which is why you’ll see shots taken from cellphones of people. The first 15 minutes cover the earthquake, while the remaining time is dedicated to the aftermath and the tsunami. The way it is presented definitely puts the footage in our list of best documentaries on the East Japan Earthquake.


The Great Eastern Japan earthquake was a defining moment in the country’s history. Japan has been resilient to natural disasters, but this one left a mark that is still felt even to this day. That said, the country has been able to recover and has likely worked on emergency preparedness for dealing with testing times. We hope you find these documentaries both helpful and gripping. Here are some more documentaries to follow up on your playlist.