Japan has had a deep history of natural disasters, ranging from tsunamis to earthquakes; Japanese citizens are no strangers to extreme weather. However, persistent torrential rain triggered catastrophic mudslides across the country since early July, which have led to at least 48 deaths, as well as evacuations and search and rescue missions.
At first, the most significant damage occurred in Atami city in the Shizuoka prefecture, but as mudslides progressed, the most affected areas shifted to the Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Saga, and Nagasaki prefectures in the northern Kyushu region of Japan.
In Atami, as of July 5, around 80 people had gone missing due to the excess soil deposition, and three people had been confirmed as dead. After the missing persons had been found, the death toll rose to 26 people. Since July 10th, the heavy torrential rain in the Kagoshima prefecture on Kyushu island resulted in major flooding and the evacuation of 300 people. Later in the summer, heavy rains set off additional mudslides in the southwest region of Kyushu, specifically near Fukuoka and Saga, as well as in Tokushima in the Shikoku prefecture. In the Fukuoka region, one of the three victims who suffered from a cardiopulmonary arrest due to the mudslide was pronounced dead, bringing the total mudslide-related death toll in the Fukuoka region to twenty-two.
The mudslides continued to destroy homes and cities in Japan even after July. Towards the end of the summer, Yushi Adachi, an official at the meteorological agency, said, “ Unprecedented levels of heavy rain have been observed,” and “It’s highly likely that some kind of disaster has already occurred. The maximum alert is needed even in areas where risks of mudslides and flooding are usually not so high.”
Mudslides like these are often triggered by extreme weather patterns, like torrential rains, earthquakes, or typhoons. Several sources, including the Meteorological Agency of Japan, have linked climate change with the increase of these extreme weather patterns; this has, in turn, led to the increase that we are observing in dangerous mudslides. In 2018, due to heavy torrential rains in western Japan and a major earthquake in Hokkaido, 3,459 mudslides occurred throughout Japan.
As a result of increasing mudslides and extreme weather events, Japan has upgraded its dam system to enlarge its holding capacity and lengthen dam life. Private companies have also aided in mudslide prevention, such as through Kawasaki Geological Engineering Co., Ltd.’s newly developed technology to examine soil foundation for mudslide prevention and create evacuation/warning systems. In addition to this, Japan observes a “Disaster Prevention Day” every September first to raise awareness about natural disaster safety protocols.
Though climate change plays a big role in Japan’s vulnerability to natural disasters, the island’s location also plays a part. Japan is located on top of the “Ring of Fire,” also known as the Circum Pacific Belt, which is a path along the Pacific Ocean characterized by active volcanoes and recurring earthquakes. Along the Ring of Fire, many tectonic plates overlap at subduction zones, an area where tectonic plates converge, and thus one plate moves under the other one and promotes magma to come to the surface.
Since August, the mudslides have ceased; however people are still dealing with the aftermath. Ceremonies honoring the victims of the mudslides took place on October 10th, exactly 100 days after the last mudslide. Many victims are still rebuilding their homes after the damage caused by the mudslides. It’s unclear what the future holds for the victims, and rebuilding the affected cities will be a challenge.
Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on the mudslide season in Japan? How do you think this affects us on a more global scale?
“The fact that I didn't hear about this incident until months after it happened is very telling in and of itself. In recent years, the effects of climate change on our environment have sparked outrage in both media and politics, and at the same time (almost contradictorily) become just another part of our everyday lives. These days when I see articles about wildfires on the west coast of the US I tend to scroll past them, and I'm not nearly as rapt when yet another shrill voice condemns someone for their massive carbon footprint. Because of this, it's especially important to note that while climate change has become a routine part of life for many, it still has (and will continue to have) massive effects on individual people, infrastructure, and migration and settlement patterns. Soon there will be increasingly large numbers of people injured, killed, or displaced by events like this one in Japan - climate refugees that will have to be addressed sooner or later.”
— Emi Blakely, 16, 11th grade, Hong Kong International School, Hong Kong
“As an international student, my family and I are always traveling, so I have seen first hand the effects of climate change in different locations. It has affected places that are closest to my home, like Beijing, the most. I have even had to skip recess as a kid, cancel training and games after school, and sometimes not even come to school because the pollution was so bad. I bring this up because though I have seen and experienced the effects of climate change, the natural disasters occurring in Japan, such as the recent mudslides are not things I have dealt with first hand. In light of empathizing with the citizens struggling with damaged property or missing loved ones, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how natural disasters brought about by climate change marginally impact poorer citizens. This is one factor people must consider when discussing the urgency of climate change, and, with Japan already being so vulnerable to natural disasters that have the ability to displace many, a pressing issue that requires more attention.”
—Scotia Edwards, 16, 11th Grade, Hong Kong International School, Hong Kong