June 15, 1896: The Sanriku Earthquake and Tsunami


On June 15, 1896, one of the most destructive seismic events in Japanese history occurred when an 8.5 magnitude earthquake happened and triggered 2 tsunamis, their waves reaching up to 125 feet. Until the 2011 Tohuku earthquake, they were the largest waves on record.

After the fact, seismologists discovered that the tsunami's magnitude of 8.2 was far greater than expected, and categorized the event in a completely new, distinct class of events, the tsunami earthquake.


The earthquake and subsequent tsunamis destroyed 9,000 homes and caused approximately 22,000 deaths. (1)

On the evening of June 15, communities along the coast of Sanriku were celebrating the Shinto holiday and the return of soldiers from the Sino-Japanese War. They felt a small earthquake, but it was pretty weak and nobody was very concerned. The earthquake was an 8.5, which is pretty sizable, but the quake itself was off the cost of Honshu and that is why it didn't feel massive to the Sanriku residents. (1)

But after feeling the weak earthquake, the first tsunami wave struck, and another one a few minutes later. Coinciding with high tides, the tsunami was extremely strong and killed thousands. The survivors are a testament to the absolute power of the tsunami, as many were found with broken bones or even missing limbs from the power of the waves. (1)

The local fishing fleets were at sea when the tsunamis struck and could not notice the waves from the deep waters. When they returned the next morning, they found destruction. Thousands dead and houses destroyed. (1)

Waves got up to 30 feet in Hawaii, as well, which destroyed wharves and swept houses away, but the destruction was nowhere near what was felt in Japan. (1)

Another tsunami struck in 1933, and preventative coastal measures were implemented after. Because people were more aware of tsunamis than they were during the 1896 disaster, the casualties were far less. Though 1,522 people were confirmed dead, with 1,542 people missing and 12,000 people injured, those are very small numbers compared to 22,000. (2) However, another tsunami took the lives of nearly 16,000 people in 2011. (3) Unfortunately, it is difficult to prepare for a tsunami, and their unforgiving waves don't care about preventative measures.


Because this happened 124 years ago, there is not a ton of information or any witness stories or survivor accounts. So, in the spirit of not making this article a 2-minute read, let's talk a little bit about the worst tsunamis in history.

I am personally glad to not live in a place where tsunamis are possible because I find them to be one of the most horrifying natural disasters imaginable. Extremely powerful, unforgiving waves destroying your home and dragging you out to the ocean where you will likely drown and may never be found? Nope, no thank you.

In 2004, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake (highest being 9.5) hit in Sumatra, Indonesia. It reached 164 feet tall. This was the most widely recorded tsunami, as people were able to witness it from various different countries and continents. The damages equalled up to nearly $10 billion, and 230,000 people died as a result, making it the worst tsunami in history.

In 2011, a tsunami in Japan killed more than 18,000 people after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, and 452,000 people had to be relocated from their homes due to the destruction. The damages totalled nearly $235 billion.

Tsunamis have been happening for hundreds of years. In 1755, a wave in Lisbon, Portugal killed more than 60,000 people, a Krakatu, Indonesia tsunami in 1883 and ensuing volcanic eruption led to the deaths of 40,000 people, and an 8.3 magnitude earthquake in Enshunada Sea, Japan in 1498 swept away hundreds of homes and killed 31,000 people.

Though floods, earthquakes, cyclones and typhoons take up spots 1-10 on the list of deadliest natural disasters, killing between 229,000 and 4 million people, the destruction of a tsunami cannot be understated. They lead to the damage and destruction of homes and businesses, leave cities underwater and take tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of lives with them.

They are a horrifying natural disaster, and one of them took the lives of 22,000 people 124 years ago today.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1896_Sanriku_earthquake

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1933_Sanriku_earthquake


4. https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/science-environment/2011/03/the-10-most-destructive-tsunamis-in-history/

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