Tsunami vs Japanese Harbor

[video link] This eyewitness video of the March 11 tsunami striking Japan shows how, in under 10 minutes, a harbor in Oirase Town, Aomori Prefecture goes from business as usual to, well, gone. While other videos have shown massive destruction or endless floods, this one shows a huge dry area that completely fills with water, making it easy to see just how much water was being pushed around. It's so hard to believe this actually happened. The guy filming it must have been scared to death.


  1. Wow. I so totally do not have a videographer’s instincts. In case of emergency, I will be running away, and I probably won’t even know where my camera is.

    1. Considering what is happening around him, I’d hope you’d grant a little slack in the expectations of amazing camerawork…

  2. Yeah, I wonder at what point the person taking this video thought “Oops, I’ve stayed too long” because I think I would have thought that at about 2:00.

    1. It looks like he didn’t really have an “Oh, sh*!” moment until near the end of the video, when he had to climb up the 2nd ladder. It looks like he was actually on the tidal side of the seawall in the first part of the video. I got the impression they were on something like a lighthouse or a drawbridge control tower. They certainly acted like they felt in control.

  3. In comic books and so forth Tidal Waves are portrayed as being about 50 ft high and all the damage is done by the vertical slap of this wall of water. Looks like in real life they’re only about two metres high and a couple of kilometres wide: deadly enough.

    1. Think about the word you used, *Tidal* Wave.
      In people’s imaginations (and in the cultural imagination) they appear, like you said, as a huge breaker, but it’s more like a tide that just keeps coming in and in and in.

  4. I can only assume that the white van (toward the end) was hurled over the seawall. The fact that the van and its occupants fate is not shown, is one of the most terrify things to me about this video.

    1. I ran the video a second time just to see if the van is there at the beginning (it is). I think what we are seeing is the headrests of the van that is parked on that rise in the roadway. I hope that the people were long gone before it was swept away at the end.

    2. Agreed… this is what makes my stomach cold in a lot of these videos. Cars and trucks in the corners of the frames that you just know are unlikely to have been able to outrun the water. I mean, this video went from bone dry riverbed/harbor to overflowing in well less than 10 minutes. Terrifying.

      One of my brothers and I were talking about that question of when to get out and how its in different folks natures to react in radically different ways to emergencies and events of this nature. Rush into danger, or rush out. And given similar circumstances I am afraid I’m just too curious and would likely be out there taking photos or videotaping too and might not realize the danger before its too late. The scale (size, speed, destructive power) of this event is also something that’s its so hard to wrap one’s brain around, even after the fact… so I “get” why this guy would be out there videotaping. Hopefully I won’t ever need to test that nature, and perhaps just having given it some forethought is enough but I do feel like I understand the impetus.

  5. Man, this is absolutely horrifying. I was caught in a (thankfully weak) riptide years ago while travelling in Costa Rica, so I know firsthand how forceful and, indeed, terrifying water can be – especially huge volumes of it moving quickly. Those poor people!

  6. I thought I saw someone in one of the boats the first time I saw it but I can’t find it now. And looking at the white van…it’s parked I think. It’s there at the crest of the road the whole time. Hopefully it was empty.
    And my God, look at difference in sea level between :42 in and 8:42. And it just kept going!

  7. Possible titles:

    “Sailors always wear their brown pants after earthquakes”


    “Don’t make that anchor chain TOO strong”

    definitely great instructional material for seamanship training.

  8. This person does have a 2nd video, but it’s only 25 seconds, and I think he was located much further out in the harbor. He must have made it out, but what a story he has.

  9. One of the things that fascinated me about this was how it was multiple waves. Two meters, pause, another 2 meters, pause, another 2 meters, just relentless.

  10. Hmmm… land lubber question: so if you own one of those boats, and you’ve got a short warning before the tsunami – would it be possible to jump in the boat and head out to sea as fast as possible?

    1. With tsunamis, when they are out in deep water, the wave is not very high. When they come in to land and the sea floor rises up, the wave slows and the wave height increases significantly. There is a video of a Japanese coast guard vessel out at sea that navigates directly at the oncoming wave, cresting it safely – although it looked like a bit of a roller-coaster ride for the sailors aboard. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5La0MQfz8Vo

      The earthquake that triggered the tsunami was so close to land that there was only about 10 minutes warning before it hit.

      So, if you were on a boat and knew that you had 10 minutes or less to get to much deeper water, you might be able to crest the wave rather than be pummelled. But how likely is it that safer deep water is just 10 minutes away?

      1. “So, if you were on a boat and knew that you had 10 minutes or less to get to much deeper water, you might be able to crest the wave rather than be pummelled. But how likely is it that safer deep water is just 10 minutes away?”

        and also, how likely is it your boat can travel faster out to sea than the water is rushing in?
        even if you do get away from land, you’re probably just going to get washed right back in.

        1. Typically the precursor to a tsunami is actually all of the water being “sucked” out to sea. I am talking about within a matter of minutes too. A few sailing friends have told me that was the most terrifying aspect of it.

          I would absolutely, without a doubt, rather be several miles out than in some mooring hole, even if I had warning. That is the general rule, head out to sea immediately after an earthquake.

          The real problem with staying put is that there is just so much mass you are up against once it hits shallow water. When considering hurricane preparations for example, you have to actually calculate the force against your boat and hurricane tackle, adjusting it accordingly with your setup. Tandem anchors, swivels, tying to mangroves etc. The factors with a Hurricane mostly have to do with windage (Things on your boat that cause drag) and of course current.

          With a tsunami however, the actual force of the current is just astronomical when calculating the loads needed to withstand a hit. Your anchor rode is already pushing its limit, then you suddenly have a 6 foot increase in water height. That would do you in. You can actually see all the boats in the above video being popped off their rigs once that tremendous volume of water hits.

          You have to be really lucky and quick thinking to make it through a tsunami sitting in a marina like that.

    2. Here’s a video of some fishing boats trying to escape a harbor. Not an easy thing to do with the strong, chaotic currents caused by the incoming tsunami.

  11. I’ve been wondering how many cameras / video cameras there are lying about in the rubble that have captured even more terrifying events. Events in which the photographer did indeed stay too long and the camera is now the only witness.

  12. I think it would depend on how the slope of the bottom of the sea, but I could be very wrong. I’ve seen footage of a Japanese patrol boat, like a coast guard cutter, riding out the tsunami.

    Unless you have a big boat with a powerful engine, you’d be better off running inland.

    What I can’t imagine is how this video guy is so damn quiet. I’d be screaming my head off throughout.

  13. When I saw Ponyo I thought the waveforms were just fanciful shapes imagined by the animators, but near the end of this video the smooth rounded surge of water over the wall was a perfect echo of the movie.

    Life. Art. Imitation. Horror.

    1. My 3-year old daughter (and my wife and I) love Ponyo, but the last time she wanted to watch it was just after the disasters in Japan, and I couldn’t sit there and watch with her.

  14. Just when it looked like it was subsiding it gathered more energy and power. I can’t imagine standing there and recording the event.

  15. “Looks like in real life they’re only about two metres high and a couple of kilometres wide…”

    Make that two metres high, over and over and over, until you’re 10 meters up, and the houses are floating away.

    Does anyone know what he says (in Japanese) in the middle of the video?

  16. This is amazing. Is there any way BB can find a tsunami expert to provide comments on the video as it plays?

  17. What you’re seeing are the waves after they clear the sea walls – so an 8 m seawall leaves a 2 m wave in the harbour.

    The village of Taro was seen as having the best sea defences in the world, 10 meter high sea walls which sectioned up the village. This was believed to make it invulnerable to tsunami. And yet

  18. In the right weather and season, it’s not very unusual to see something like the start of that video on the north sea coast, a “leaping tide”, supposedly caused by storms far out at sea, which will flood docks, mess up cellars, and leave boats stranded. Once, my parents took me to see the results in the morning, and once, I was stuck all night in a house suddenly surrounded by sea on all sides as one of those autumn storms hit shore. It looks spectacular, but it’s not really dangerous as long as you stay indoors. (But if you try to wade trough it, you’ll never be seen again.) So I can see why he didn’t run – I wouldn’t have.

    But the weather is wrong, eerily calm. And then the sea just keeps coming, and coming… Deeply frightening.

  19. Several of the first-hand videos of the tsunami, including this one, seem to be from people who were either standing on or nearby some sort of solid concrete structure (like a retaining wall or a building), and able to climb up stairs as the water rose.

    However, many of the towns that were flooded seem to have been completely inundated — there weren’t any large hills, or significant structures that people could climb.

    Perhaps this is a dumb proposal, but it seems like a lot more people could have survived if there were some safe places of refuge from tsunamis within a short walking distance in every neighborhood. E.g., a simple concrete or steel raised platform with stairs placed every few blocks.

    Does anyone know if any towns in tsunami-prone areas have anything like this, and if not, why not? Some disadvantages would be the cost of building them, especially the land required, and the fact that they would probably be eyesores.

    However, given what we know now, they seem like relatively cheap insurance. I.e., rather than just trying to prevent the flooding through massive flood-walls, have a “Plan B” as well.

    1. Robert, do a google image search for “japan tsunami sign”, they have signs on every block pointing the way to the nearest high ground.
      In places where there is none, there are specially constructed tsunami refuges; this video seems to have been shot from one http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APEsVeE7FGk

    2. There were – the problem was they were built for much lower inundations – I watched an interview with a woman last night who was in a newly built tsunami refuge on the second floor of a building – it filled up with water and out of a room of 60 people only she survived.

      I saw another woman interviewed who was on the third floor of a block of flats with her daughter, when the water came up she got dragged out of the window and she still hasn’t found her daughter.

      Even the people teaching tsunami drills didn’t realise that some of their safe rallying spots would be underwater.

      Check out the link I posted earlier in this thread – the sea walls were 10m high.

  20. The “oh shit” moment doesn’t really come until the very end. The amount of water piling in over the preceding 8 minutes is astonishing, but not particularly frightening (not like the other well-known video from in a town). But the end of this video, and the way it’s cut off before the water stops, is pretty terrifying.

    As for a tsunami expert commenting on the video… I’m not exactly an “expert” but I studied under a geologist who is, so I know a thing or two. There’s not a whole lot to comment on here, except that you’re seeing multiple tsunami waves, and at a couple of points you can see water rushing back out from one of the initial waves. This is interesting because the receding water is going to be partly trapped by the sea wall, meaning subsequent waves get piled higher.

    The sea walls are having a bigger defensive effect than you might imagine, though… the way the water piles up with each subsequent wave isn’t typical. The sea walls really are having a significant impact. Without them, the water would have been up to the point where the guy was standing much, much sooner; within the first two or three surges I imagine, if not the first.

    There are videos from the 2004 tsunami that are worth watching if you want to better understand how these work; it looks a lot different without the sea walls. One of the terrifying things you don’t see in the Japan videos that you see in the 2004 videos is that before the first wave hits, the water will recede from the beach potentially hundreds of feet (which makes sense if you think about the magnitude of the waves; think about regular waves hitting the beach and how the water recedes and scale it up big time). If you don’t know why that’s happening (as most people didn’t in 2004), you may be tempted to walk out far from the shore… which many people did (you can see them doing this in some of the videos).

  21. The scariest thing about it for me is not how fast it happens but how slowly. I imagine that as you stand there watching the building waves you think you’re safe for a long time, but at some point you more or less simultaneously realize: 1) I may not be safe and 2) It’s too late to do anything about it.

  22. It’s hard for me to fathom the unrelenting onslaught of the waves, but this video describes it pretty clearly. It also makes me hurt even more for those who didn’t survive. Facing such an extraordinary force must have been terrifying.

  23. In some of the zoomed views south along the coast you can see the derrick of the Chikyu, the Japanese scientific drilling ship.

    “Drill ship Chikyu (57087 gt, built 2005)[IMO 9234044] was struck by the giant tsunami which hit Japan on Mar 11, as it was positioning itself for drilling off Hachinohe in Japan’s northeast coast. The vessel, which had on board 48 elementary students on an exposure trip, survived the tsunami but lost its navigation equipment. No students were harmed and they were evacuated by helicopter yesterday. The Chikyu, the world’s largest scientific deep sea drill ship, was doing earthquake research when the tsunami struck. The vessel is owned by the Japan Agency for Marine Earth Science and Technology.
    Drill ship Chikyu lost one of its propulsion pods in the tsunami on Mar 11. The ship was in port of Hachinohe on the northern tip of Honshu, when the quake occurred. The ship departed from port with full speed. During this manoeuvre, a propeller nacelle was torn off. The vessel is currently at anchor off Hachinohe. She is still manoeuvrable because of its on the whole six propeller nacelles.”

  24. there was nothing 2-3 meters about that wave. the sea wall and “tsunami” wall surrounding the port is well over 3 if you look at other objects for some relative sizes to compare. the first few waves were smaller, but the followups were deffinitely much larger.

  25. The video spends so much time trying to see everything, that in the end we really see not much at all! Zoom is a video camera holders worst enemy!

  26. From what I understand this guy was at a Tsunami emergency structure, built specifically to escape up to…they have quite a few of them along the harbors

  27. In response to the question about what he’s saying, he’s talking about things getting washed away, but I can’t make out much else — the guy’s got some serious Tsugaru-ben (the local dialect) action going on. Any locals want to pitch in?

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