The extraordinary 2018 typhoon season in Japan has been playing on my mind. The frequency, size and trajectories of typhoons this year, and the level of disruption and damage, has drawn the world’s attention as well. It’s not just that I was going to be back in Japan soon after after the destructive Typhoons Jebi (Typhoon number 21) and Trami (Typhoon number 24) made landfall, with another typhoon on the way. Something is different. Two catalysts have led me to delve more deeply into typhoons as one of the elemental forces that have helped shaped Japan and her people: 1) hearing reports from my friends in Japan about living through these Super Typhoons, and 2) seeing Typhoon Trami from space. From the ‘Kamikaze’ typhoons that were crucial in the defeat of two Mongol invasions of Japan over 700 years ago, to modern interpretations of the Gods of Wind and Thunder at Narita Airport, typhoons play a critical role in the history and culture of Japan.
The 1969 book ‘Geography of Japan‘ (written by Isida Ryuziro) states that typhoons are considered the largest disasters in Japan, because vast areas are influenced, their season occurs while rice is growing, and torrential rains usually accompany them. The author refers to the great damage caused to houses, crops, and communication facilities on land and sea. As demonstrated recently, severe disruption to travel also occurs.
The Geography of Japan documents the significant loss of life and property damage associated with typhoons between 1945 and 1961, as shown in the table below. The Ise Wan Super Typhoon (aka Typhoon Vera) that struck Japan in 1959 was exceptionally intense and exceptionally damaging. The unprecedented destruction led to significant reform of Japan’s disaster management and relief systems, including the introduction of legislation on disaster risk reduction. Improved mitigation, warning systems and recovery efforts following typhoons has seen the loss of life reduced over the last 60 years. Wikipedia has a comprehensive article on the Ise Wan Typhoon for those interested in learning more about its substantial impact on Japan and how the country manages disasters.
Over 700 hundred years ago two typhoons had a greater impact on Japan than the Ise Wan typhoon did. The typhoons are credited with changing the course of history through their role in debilitating the Mongol Army that tried to invade Japan by sea in 1274 and 1281. Known as divine winds (Kamikaze), the typhoons occurred at a time when there was greater regional activity in summer storms in the Kyushu region. Scientists who study these typhoons say they may serve as a prominent example of how past increases in severe weather associated with changing climate have had significant geopolitical impacts. Recent typhoon activity in Japan has also been linked with climate change, this time human-induced.
The Japanese Gods of Wind (Fuijin) and Thunder (Raijin) have both been credited with protecting Japan from the Mongol invasion by creating the divine winds. These weather gods are both feared and respected for their power over nature. The most well known depiction of the Gods is on a gold screen at Kenninji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto. To protect the the screen the original is now displayed at the Kyoto National Museum with the Temple showing an excellent reproduction. We have a smaller reproduction, shown below. The gold screen is also recreated in Kyoto Station as a welcome to the millions of visitors who travel to the ancient capital. It is a timely reminder of the power of wind in the Japanese archipelago.
Typhoons are one of the many natural forces that shape Japan, along with earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, floods and fires. The storms occur annually during summer, making them the most regular natural phenomenon with the potential to cause disruption. The number, severity and trajectories of the typhoons differ considerably from year to year, as does their impact. Super Typhoon Jebi (typhoon number 21), the most powerful in Japan for 25 years, closed Kansai Airport for several days in September 2018 – the image at the start of this post shows the level of inundation. It was also closed for Typhoon Trami (typhoon number 24) a few days later. That’s the airport I’m flying into, one which I now view in a different light.
A typhoon was also on my mind on an earlier trip to Japan in late July 2018. Typhoon 12 was due to make landfall as I was due to land at Narita Airport. My plan on arrival was to travel in an easterly direction to northern Honshu, the main island of Japan. Normally the typhoon would have taken the same path. Instead it travelled in a westerly direction. This was the first time this behaviour had been recorded since the Japan Meteorological Agency started compiling information on typhoons in 1951. An unusual typhoon season indeed.
Any inconvenience caused to travellers by typhoons pales into insignificance compared with their impacts on people and other living beings in Japan. The recent experiences have made me better appreciate what this entails. Life does go on, and overall Japan is well prepared to deal with typhoons. The extraordinary season of 2018 has however been a testing one. This is especially the case in the context of other extreme events that occurred over the 2018 summer in Japan – an extended heatwave, earthquake and torrential rains. The elements have been working overtime.
Addendum: In October 2019 I experienced first-hand the uncertainty associated with the approach and landfall of Typhoon Hagibis, the largest storm to hit the Kanto area around Tokyo for over 60 years. My personal account can be found here.