The Recent Earthquake Wave on the Coast of Japan

A resident stands among wreckage at Kamaishi. Photographer not credited.

Eerily reminiscent of recent headlines, this one is actually from the September 1896 National Geographic Magazine concerning a tsunami that also struck Sanriku and killed over 27,000 people. A story featured on NPR today cites this article with introducing the word “tsunami” to U.S. readers. To read the first page of this vintage piece, please check out today’s story on National Geographic’s site.

An associate editor for the magazine, Eliza Scidmore, first visited Japan in 1885 and became entranced with the country, especially the flowering cherry trees that bloom every spring, and Washingtonians are indebted to her for planting the seed, so to speak, that would result in today’s Tidal Basin ringed with ornamental cherries.

In her report, Scidmore does not say where she was based at the time of the tsunami, but there is no indication she was in the vicinity–her descriptions are secondhand but vivid nevertheless:
“Only a few survivors on all that length of coast saw the advancing wave, one of them telling that the water first receded some 600 yards from ghastly white sands and then the Wave stood like a black wall 80 feet in height, with phosphorescent lights gleaming along its crest.”

Sketch Map of Japan Showing the region devastated by the earthquake wave of June 15, 1896.

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