Five years ago today on March 11, 2011 an earthquake off Japan’s northeastern coast triggered a tsunami that caused catastrophic destruction. Around 19,000 people died, and it is etched in all our memories because the waves’ encroachment was televised live.

The events of March 11, 2011 played out on the world’s media, providing among the most powerful images of an unfolding natural disaster ever seen.

The earthquake that caused the tsunami was magnitude 8.9 at a depth of 20 miles with the epicentre 250 miles away from Japan’s capital Tokyo. It was 8,000 times stronger than the one that had rocked Christchurch, New Zealand, the previous month.

It also triggered the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Water inundated the plant, taking cooling systems offline which set off a series of meltdowns.

The Japanese government called for international assistance. ShelterBox had response team members from the UK, Australia, France and the USA in Japan within a day – one of the first aid organisations on the scene. Over the following weeks they distributed ShelterBoxes and other lifesaving assistance aid to tens of thousands of people.   

Although the Japanese government made no specific request for emergency shelter, it did put great value in international aid agencies operating autonomously and self-sufficiently, as ShelterBox did. Only four days after the tsunami the first consignment of ShelterBoxes arrived in Japan. The  response team worked  alongside the British Embassy and the British and US military. Conditions were difficult with roads damaged, power disrupted, regular snowfall and plummeting temperatures. Local Rotary groups made an initial request for 100 ShelterBoxes for each of five northern cities.

Hashimoto-san, a local politician from the Iwate Prefecture who lent his expertise and local network to help ShelterBox’s efforts said at the time,



It’ll be up to three months before temporary housing can be made available to those displaced by the tsunami. Many individuals who have been forced to choose between crowded displacement centres or dependence on the hospitality of friends and neighbours will prefer the independence and privacy afforded by the ShelterBox solution.

By April 1, 2011, less than a month after the catastrophe, over 1,500 ShelterBoxes had been distributed to families, and thousands more were on standby. To guard against the bitter winter more than 10,000 ShelterBox winter gloves, scarves and hats were made available.

In the town of Yamamoto, ShelterBox members Ian Neal from the UK and Mark Dyer from the US found thirty families living in cars outside an evacuation centre, as they had been ever since the tsunami struck. ShelterBoxes were delivered to all thirty as they attempted to rebuild their lives.

Chris Alderson acted as a guide and translator for the charity in Japan following the disaster. He and his colleagues made this video below, in which he recalls the devastation, and Cornwall’s response to it.

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Emperor Akihito will mark the anniversary today and honour the dead at a memorial in Tokyo, and join a moment of silence nationwide at the exact moment the quake hit.