At 2.46pm on 11 March 2011, Japan was struck by an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 – the biggest in the nation's recorded history and one of the five most powerful recorded ever around the world. The epicentre was located about 70km east of Tohoku in Miyagi prefecture, north-eastern Japan. The six-minute-long tremor and its thousands of aftershocks shook buildings across much of northern Japan and the nation's capital. 11 March 2011: Gas storage tanks explode after the earthquake hit the Cosmo oil refinery in Ichihara city, Chiba Prefecture Asahi/Reuters 11 March 2011: Buildings burn following an earthquake in Yamada, Iwate prefecture Yomiuri Shimbun/Reuters
The energy released by the earthquake produced a huge tsunami. Within an hour of the earthquake, towns lining the shore were flattened by the massive waves. Successive waves up to four to five metres high crashed through homes and fields. At its highest, the tsunami reached over 40 metres in Miyako, Iwate prefecture. The tsunami was the cause of the majority of the loss of life that resulted from the disaster. Entire towns were destroyed.
11 March 2011: A huge whirlpool is seen in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Oarai, Ibaraki prefecture Kyodo/Reuters 11 March 2011: A powerful wave crashes onto a street in Miyako in Iwate prefecture, sweeping all before it Mainichi Shimbun/Reuters 11 March 2011: Enormous tsunami waves hit the coast of Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture Jiji Press/AFP 11 March 2011: The sea sweeps far inland in coastal areas of Iwanuma, Miyagi Prefecture Kyodo/Reuters 11 March 2011: Toya Chiba, a reporter for local newspaper Iwate Tokai Shimbun, is swept away by the tsunami as he was reporting at Kamaishi port, Iwate prefecture. Chiba managed to survive by grabbing a dangling rope and climbing onto a coal heap Kamaishi Port Office via Kyodo/Reuters 11 March 2011: Huge waves sweep ashore and flood Sendai Airport Kyodo/Reuters 11 March 2011: Fishing boats and vehicles are swept away by a tsunami wave at Onahama port in Iwaki city, Fukushima prefecture Jiji Press/AFP 11 March 2011: Houses that caught alight during the earthquake are swept out to sea by the tsunami in Natori, Fukushima prefecture Kyodo/Reuters 11 March 2011: Cars and aeroplanes are jumbled up among debris at Sendai Airport Kyodo/Reuters 12 March 2011: Total devastation is seen in an area of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, the day after the earthquake and tsunami Jiji Press/AFP 12 March 2011: People paddling a floating container in Miyagi prefecture are rescued Kyodo/Reuters 12 March 2011: A soldier carries an elderly man on his back to a shelter in Natori, Miyagi prefecture Yomiuri Shimbun/Reuters 12 March 2011: A picture taken from a Japan Ground Self-Defense Force helicopter shows the town of Minamisanriku in Miyagi prefecture, thea day after it was flattened by a massive tsunami Kyodo/Reuters 12 March 2011: A huge ship is washed up onto shore next to damaged homes in the city of Kamaishi in Iwate prefecture Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP 12 March 2011: A man looks out over an area devastated by the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Sendai Kyodo/Reuters 12 March 2011: A derailed train and a car are seen at a devastated station in Shinchi, Fukushima prefecture Kyodo/Reuters 12 March 2011: People paddle small boats down a road flooded by the tsunami waves in the city of Ishinomaki in Miyagi prefecture Jiji Press/AFP 12 March 2011: People waiting to be rescued spell out the letteres 'SOS' on top of a building in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP 12 March 2011: Smokes rises from the badly damaged town of Yamada in Iwate prefecture Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP 13 March 2011: A plane and vehicles lie among the rubble outside Sendai Airport, Miyagi prefecture Mike Clarke/AFP 13 March 2011: A woman cries while sitting on a road amid the destroyed city of Natori, Miyagi prefecture Asahi Shimbun/Reuters
13 March 2011: A victim's hand sticks out from the rubble in Rikuzentakata Toru Hanai/Reuters 13 March 2011: A woman wrapped in a blanket surveys the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Ishimaki, Miyagi prefecture Yomiuri Shimbun/Reuters 13 March 2011: One building rests on another in Minamisanriku, Miyagi Prefecture Kyodo/Reuters 13 March 2011: Debris covers a large area in Natori, Miyagi prefecture Mike Clarke/AFP 13 March 2011: A house is seen adrift in the Pacific Ocean off Sendai US Navy/Reuters 13 March 2011: The roof of a building is seen buried amid the rubble in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture Lee Jae-won/Reuters 13 March 2011: A woman walks towards an overturned squid fishing boat that was tossed onto land by a tsunami in Hachinohe, Aomori prefecture Kyodo/Reuters 13 March 2011: Train cars that were swept away by a tsunami wave are seen in an aerial view of Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture Kyodo/Reuters 13 March 2011: An aerial view of people waiting for water at a school in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture Kyodo/Reuters 13 March 2011: Sixty-year-old survivor Hiromitsu Shinkawa is rescued by members of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force about 15km off Fukushima prefecture. He was spotted clinging to the roof of his house two days after the tsunami swept him out to sea Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force/Reuters
The tsunami also led to a nuclear disaster when the Fukushima Daiichi power plant was inundated by waves, causing a cooling system failure, followed by a nuclear reactor meltdown and the release of radioactive materials. Tens of thousands of people were forced to evacuate an area 20km radius around the reactor. The plant's owners, Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) said 45 metric tons of radioactive water were released into the ocean. Five years on, the operator continues to struggle with the crippled reactor. Tepco has began the first steps in the long and hazardous process of decommissioning the facility, extracting four fuel rods from their container for later removal. Decommissioning four reactors is likely to take decades and cost tens of billions of dollars. 13 March 2011: Damaged reactors are seen after an explosion at Tokyo Electric Power Co's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant Kyodo/Reuters 14 March 2011: A girl who was isolated at a makeshift facility to screen, cleanse and isolate people with high radiation levels, looks at her dog through a window in Nihonmatsu, Fukushima province Yuriko Nakao/Reuters 20 March 2011: An aerial view of damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Air Photo Service/Reuters
At the latest count, 15,894 people were killed by the earthquake and tsunami, and 2,562 are still not accounted for across 12 prefectures. More than 65 percent of casualties were elderly men and women who were not able to run to higher ground or swim to safety.
14 March 2011: A survivor pushes his bicycle through the remains of the devastated town of Otsuchi in Iwate prefecture Damir Sagolj/Reuters 14 March 2011: Boats that were washed ashore by the huge waves are seen in what remains of a residential area near Sendai in Miyagi prefecture Noboru Hashimoto/AFP 14 March 2011: Destroyed houses and boats lie in a mass of splintered wood in Yamada, Iwate prefecture Kyodo/Reuters 14 March 2011: A patient's dead body lies in the hallways of a hospital in Minamisanriku Adrees Latif/Reuters 14 March 2011: A house drifts in the ocean east of Sendai US Air Force/Reuters 14 March 2011: Members of the Japanese Self Defence Air Force check a Mitsubishi F-2 fighter after it was pushed by the tsunami into a building, at the Matsushima Air Base at Higashimatsushima city in Miyagi prefecture Jiji Press/AFP 14 March 2011: Oil leaks from boats that were capsized by the tsunami in Fudai Village, Iwate Prefecture Yomiuri Shimbun/Reuters 14 March 2011: A man walks past the destroyed local government building in Tanohata, Iwate Prefecture Kyodo/Reuters 14 March 2011: A Japan Self-Defence Forces officer smiles as he holds a four-month-old baby girl who was rescued along with her family members from their home in Ishimaki City, Miyagi prefecture Yomiuri Shimbun/Reuters
15 March 2011: Members of Japan's Self Defence Force walk past the covered body of a woman in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture
15 March 2011: Rescue workers search through twisted wreckage in the fishing town of Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture Aly Song/Reuters 15 March 2011: South Korean rescue workers walk past a car on the rooftop of a house in Sendai Jo Yong-hak/Reuters 16 March 2011: Heavy snow falls as rescue workers search a devastated factory area in Sendai Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters 16 March 2011: Rescue workers search for bodies and survivors in the rubble in Kesennuma, Miyagi province Paula Bronstein /Getty Images
16 March 2011: A woman cries as she holds the hand of her dead mother who was buried in the mud in Rikuzentakata City, Iwate Prefecture Kyodo/Reuters 17 March 2011: A man cycles through an area hit by earthquake and tsunami in Kesennuma Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters 17 March 2011: Covered bodies lie on the street after being recovered from the rubble of destroyed houses in Rikuzentakata, Iwate prefecture Kazuhiro Nogi/Reuters 17 March 2011: A man cries next to his destroyed house where his dead mother was still buried in the rubble in Onagawa town, Miyagi Prefecture Yomiuri Shimbun/Reuters 18 March 2011: Toyoki Sugawara looks out from his destroyed liquor shop in Kesennuma as he collects items he can salvage Paula Bronstein /Getty Images 20 March 2011: A ship crushes a house in the port town of Higashimatsushima, Miyagi prefecture Mike Clarke/AFP 22 March 2011: A car is seen on top of a building in Minamisanriku town, Miyagi prefecture Carlos Barria/Reuters 22 March 2011: A man walks his dog along a path cleared through rubble in a destroyed residential area of Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture Issei Kato/Reuters 26 March 2011: A wrecked train carriage lies over a cemetery in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP 26 April 2011: People look at a boat that was swept onto the roof of a tourist hotel in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture Toru Yamanaka/AFP The disaster is believed to be the most expensive in history, costing an estimated $300bn (£212bn) so far.