3/11, Airports and Airlines

I wasn’t in Japan on 11 March 2011. The ‘triple disaster’ of ‘3/11’ came as I was completing my book Dealing with Disaster in Japan, and I made a couple of late amendments to include reference to the disaster, but that book’s main focus was the 1985 flight JL123 crash. Many asked me whether I would be doing research about 3/11 and I told them that I was not planning on doing so. Whilst I had knowledge of earthquakes & tsunami and had been studying disasters for several years, my focus was primarily on memorialisation, so it would, at least, be too soon for me to look at it. As I continued my research about the shinkansen and aviation in Japan, it became natural, however, to look at the responses of the transport sector to 3/11. Some of this I included in my book Japan: The Basics, but I also worked on an article that pulled it all together. In the end this article didn’t get completed and published, but rather than let it sit on my computer for ever gathering virtual dust, I’ve decided to include some of it here.


On 11 March 2011 Japan was struck by one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded anywhere in the world. For a day the world turned its attention to the events as they were beamed live to screens. Social media went into overdrive as all seemed to have something to say about what they were seeing. As one event, the earthquake, was over, so others, tsunami, came. When that seemed to be over, so the problems shifted to events at Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant which had been crippled by a tsunami. As a consequence, the Great East Japan Earthquake, or 3/11, is often referred to as being a ‘triple disaster’ due to the three main elements of it. Never before had such event been so well filmed – tsunami in particular have rarely been caught on film and there was a lot more footage than even the 2004 Asian tsunami[1]. Naturally, much of the imagery, particularly in the longer term, focussed on the calamity in places such as Minami-Sanriku and Rikuzen-Takata as well as the events at Fukushima. Amongst the videos was the devastation at Sendai Airport. There were also a few clips of damaged local railway lines, though much of the coverage relating to railways was about the need for commuters in Tokyo to walk as services were suspended. The shinkansen (‘bullet train’ 新幹線) barely got a mention outside Japan. This is perhaps not surprising as the world news was more interested in stories of devastation. But given that Japan is a mecca for intercity transportation and other countries, such as Taiwan,[2] have looked to benefit from Japanese expertise in earthquake resilience when it comes to high speed railways in particular, it is worth considering how Japan’s intercity transportation companies did respond to 3/11.

This post looks at both the immediate impact of 3/11 on the aviation industry. It is separated into two main parts. The first part concentrates upon the physical impact of 3/11 and what happened as a consequence. The second part concentrates upon more ‘symbolic’ responses.

The post is based upon research conducted over a number of years. It is primarily based upon making observations at airports, interviews with airport representatives, visiting and interviewing representatives of a number of the airlines, local government and ministry officials and a Japanese aircraft manufacturer. All of the interviews used semi-structured interviews with the questions sent in advanced so that the interviewee(s) could prepare the relevant information. In many cases additional, follow-up, questions were also asked. II would like to thank the Japan Foundation Endowment Committee and the GB Sasakawa Foundation for funding fieldtrips which made this research possible.

Physical Responses to 3/11

Whilst railways, stations and trains may be operated by one company, when it comes to the aviation world, there tends to be a minimum of two main actors; airports and airlines. In relation 3/11 and direct impact of the earthquake or tsunami, the most significant was seen at Sendai Airport. However, there was also impact upon a number of airlines and other airports as a result of 3/11 although no commercial passenger planes were lost as a result of the earthquake or tsunami.

Sendai Airport (see below) is a Regional/Second Class Airport,[3] located on the edges of Natori and Iwanuma cities, and is 13.6km from Sendai city centre and lies barely 1km from the coast. Prior to 3/11, although it had some international flights, 90% of the passengers were taking domestic flights. Due to Sendai’s location on the Tohoku Shinkansen, there is limited demand for air services to Tokyo and so most flights link Sendai to other cities around Japan. Its record year for passenger usage was 1999 when it was used by 3,351,000 passengers and whilst the figure remained between 3.05m and 3.35 throughout the next decade, 2009 and 2010 saw lower figures of around 2.8m.[4] The airport is the base airport for the small regional airline, Ibex.

Sendai Airport was hit by the first tsunami at 15:56 on 3/11, some 70 minutes after the initial earthquake, the epicentre of which was 170km away.[5] The tsunami washed across the runway. Whilst cars, a number of small planes and helicopters were washed away, no passenger planes were caught up in the disaster with a flight having taken off just a few minutes prior to the earthquake.[6] The water reached over 3m inside the terminal building (see below). The control tower, the radar room and ATC equipment were all impacted by the tsunami. The need to reopen the airport was paramount, not so much for restoring passenger services, but so that the airport could be used for bringing in supplies by air. Work quickly started on restoring the airport and the US army also sent help. On 15 March a 500m strip was opened on the runway to allow for helicopters to take off and land. The following day, a 1,500m strip of the main runway, Runway B, became usable for transport planes. On 29 March the full 3,000m strip of Runway B became usable and on 13 April, just 33 days after 3/11, civil passenger services were resumed.[7] Subsequently a new control tower and other facilities were also built and restored. New defences to help protect the airport and other facilities around the airport have also been built to help in case of future tsunami.[8]

A J-Air (part of the JAL group) plane waits for an Air Do plane to land. In the background the coastline is visible with a few trees that survived the tsunami between the airport and the improved sea defences. See also my post on taking photographs at Sendai Airport.
Signs in Sendai Airport point to the height, 3.02m, that the water got in the terminal building when the tsunami overwhelmed the airport

Compared to the railways, aviation has the advantage of its infrastructure being concentrated in one area (i.e. airports) rather than also having infrastructure linking the passenger interchanges (i.e. railway lines). After such a devastating event this means that the reconstruction work can be much more focussed and there is greater potential for normal services to resume. However, just because an airport can be used, does not mean that it will be used. In 2011, Sendai saw just 1.71m passengers – a drop of 1.11m passengers on the previous year. Given that the airport was out of use for less than 10% of the year, the 39% drop in passenger numbers clearly shows that demand for air travel was greatly impacted above and beyond the period when the airport was unusable. In 2012, the first full year of services after 3/11, passenger numbers rose to almost their pre-3/11 levels at 2.67m.[9] Since then, the airport has continued to promote the use of the airport to both domestic and international carriers and one of new Low Cost Carriers (LCC), Peach, began services in 2013.[10]

The fall in passenger numbers was a problem experienced not only by Sendai Airport but at a number of airports and by a number of airlines, particularly those offering international services. Indeed, even at Sendai Airport, whilst the total number of passengers may have returned to pre-3/11 levels, the number of international passengers remained around 170,000, about 100,000 down on the levels in years prior to 3/11, though double the 88,000 that used the airport in 2011.[11] Further south, Ibaraki Airport saw the international services by Korean LCC airline Asiana suspended in part due to its ‘proximity to Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant’ (it is actually about 140km away), and the fall in demand for travel to Japan from other countries (Ibaraki Airport interview 28 August 2013). That this has not been a problem in the longer term may, in part, owe something to some of the symbolic responses to 3/11 to which this article now turns.

Symbolic Responses to 3/11

Let us now consider the symbolic responses of aviation, looking at specific airlines and their responses, followed by considering the ‘symbolic’ responses to 3/11 by airports. The section will conclude by looking at another way in which 3/11 has become linked to the aviation industry in Japan. Whilst Japan has a number of domestic airlines, this article will focus on JAL and ANA as these airlines, of the ones that serve the Tohoku region, tend to use slogans and other motifs on their planes the most.

When it comes to the Japanese airline companies, Japan Airlines (JAL) is still seen as the national flag carrier although it no longer has the largest market share in Japan. Throughout its history the JAL logo (also used by other airlines, such as JAL Express, in the JAL group) has had a national symbolic quality. Its original logo, known as the tsurumaru (鶴丸), a version of which was brought back in 2011, uses a red crane in a circular shape, and is clearly directly connected to the Hinomaru national flag. Its other logo, used on the rear of planes was even more symbolic in its relationship to the national flag as it was part of a red disc. In relation to 3/11, the JAL group adopted the ‘Gambarō Nihon’ (がんばろう日本) slogan on their planes, as can be seen in the image below. We can see how Nihon is written in kanji as would be expected and as we saw with JR East slogans earlier. Between the slogan and the airline’s name is a small Japanese flag, which always appears by JAL group airline names on their planes. But in terms of the slogan used, unlike JR East, there is no mention specifically about Tohoku, the region most impacted by 3/11. However, JAL did manage to show its support for revitalisation programmes for Tohoku in other ways. On some planes a logo near the back of the plane showed JAL’s support for the Sanriku Fukkō (Revitalisation) National Park (which was formed from a number of pre-existing national parks in the area affected by 3/11).  On the inset picture of the image below, you can see another slogan which was used by JAL group planes; ‘Ikō! Tohoku-e’ (‘Let’s go! To Tohoku’, 行こう!東北へ) which appeared next to an indexical map of Tohoku itself within a shape which would appear to be a plane’s vertical stabiliser (tail fin). Compared to the JR East map discussed earlier, the map is much more focussed on Tohoku. Although it also includes the Japan Sea side of Tohoku, not doing so would almost certainly have led to the image losing its indexical quality for many who would see it. The framing of the map with a shape to represent a vertical stabiliser, together with the image of a plane nearby, would appear to be underline the message that JAL would like people to go to Tohoku by plane (rather than by shinkansen, for example), and the use of red further indicates that this should be by using JAL rather than another airline as JAL is the only airline which predominantly uses this colour in Japan.

A JAL Express plane waiting to take off from Chitose Airport
A JAL Express plane soon after take off from Haneda Airport

Whilst JAL may be the airline that many will associate as being Japan’s main carrier, it is actually All Nippon Airways (ANA), which started out as a helicopter company, hence its NH (Nippon Helicopter) flight code, which is the largest Japanese airline now. Whilst their current logo will appear on most of their planes and many planes will be in the company colours (shades of blue), ANA uses a much greater range of liveries than is seen with JAL planes. The designs have included planes painted as though a flying blue whale, planes covered with Pokémon characters, a panda design and, most recently, designs related to the Star Wars movie franchise. In terms of ANA’s ‘symbolic’ response to 3/11, we can see that it used a longer slogan than JAL (see below). However, this has a disadvantage at another level as, since the font was relatively thin, it makes it hard to see from a distance. The slogan used was ‘Kokoro o hitotsu-ni, gambarō Nippon’ (心を一つに、がんばろうニッポン) or, if using a rather literal translation, ‘with a single heart, good luck Japan’. Before the final word, a red disc has also been inserted. Once again this symbolically represents the Hinomaru Japanese flag. Given that the word ‘Nippon’ (Japan) appears after it, one wonders why such a sign was needed. The answer to this may be found by further analyzing the way in which ‘Nippon’ is written. Rather than using kanji, as would be expected, it is written in katakana, the phonetic script usually reserved for foreign words, onomatopoeia or for adding emphasis. Given that the first word of the slogan is written in kanji, the use of katakana for Nippon is particularly striking. By using katakana, ANA is also able to specify that it wants the country to be referred to as Nippon rather than Nihon. Nippon is arguably the more formal, and dare I say slightly more nationalistic, rendering. But of course it is also Nippon that is used in the name of the company itself, whereas Nihon is used by JAL (Nihon Kōkū 日本航空). ANA has found in its international advertising campaigns that after promoting reasons to go to Japan, customers are likely to then book with Japan Airlines as ANA or All Nippon Airways do not have the same obvious name link with Japan.[12] The same problem exists in written Japanese when using kanji. Seemingly in this slogan, by using katakana and specifying Nippon, which would be a symbol in semiotic terms, and placing it next to the symbol of the Japanese flag, ANA is looking to redefine how the signs will be interpreted. If Japanese people were to interpret the flag and kanji for Japan (日本) as Nippon rather than Nihon, this would potentially aid ANA in its competition with JAL.

An ANA plane taking off from Haneda Airport

What of the first part of ANA’s slogan? Whilst a literal translation was given above, ANA itself translated the phrase as ‘Forward together as one, Japan’,[13] which was used on some of its planes rather than the Japanese phrase. Whilst the ANA press release explains the reason for the use of this phrase, for most people the interpretation of the words is likely not to be based on company materials. Whilst the phrase ‘Gambarō Nihon’ (or ‘Gambarō Nippon’) clearly is about uniting the whole country as victims of 3/11, ANA’s slogan would appear to be an attempt to further emphasise this. Whilst the phrase at the time had no particular direct symbolic connection with 3/11, in 2016 it gained an additional national significance, that ANA may have appreciated, when the words were used by the Emperor in a memorial speech on the fifth anniversary of the disaster.[14]

Let us now turn airports. Many airports in Japan have the name of the airport written out using plants, for example, along banking near a runway. Given that Narita is one of Japan’s main international gateways, and this was even more the case in the years immediately following 3/11 than it is now, it is perhaps not surprising that the airport used some text by the runway to show its support for the 3/11 campaign. However, although it is presumably Narita’s international gateway and major airport status that led it to support the campaign, as opposed to have been directly impacted by 3/11 itself, the slogan that was used is in Japanese and so primarily for Japanese passengers only (see below). Of course, given the prevalence of the fear of flying amongst many people, it may have been inappropriate for the much used slogan ‘Pray for Japan’ to be adopted given the link between praying at times of fear. Additionally, the use of an overtly religious term may also have been problematic. Kanji is used for Japan, an exclamation mark is used and there was also inclusion of the Japanese flag itself.

A Korean Air plane taking off from Narita Airport – where the Gambarou Nihon phrase can be seen on the grass banking

Whereas Narita Airport was not greatly impacted physically by 3/11, it was impacted by the drop in international travel in the wake of the disaster. Sendai Airport, on the other hand, as was discussed above, was directly impacted by 3/11. As the earlier picture shows, Sendai Airport also has ‘symbolic’ responses to 3/11. Within the terminal itself there are signs which show the height which the tsunami reached. There is also a memorial stone and trees planted outside the terminal building. Both of these ‘signs’ are reminders to those who use the airport of the enormity of what happened in 2011.

Before turning to the conclusion, there is one final ‘symbolic’ link between aviation and 3/11 I would like to introduce as it helps us to think about the implications of the phrase ‘Gambarō Nihon/Nippon’ itself. By chance I was at Haneda Airport on 4 September 2013 and was able to capture the image below. Whilst the image nicely captures the idea of congestion at Haneda, that there are a variety of airlines using the airport, perhaps dominated by ANA, and the developments in Tokyo, with Skytree, despite being some 18km away, dominating the skyline, it is the plane at the end of the runway that is of most significance here. This is not a scheduled airline, but one of the government’s own planes; the equivalent of the US government’s 747 often referred to as Air Force One. Whilst it has none of the slogans on it that have been discussed in this article, there is a link to 3/11. For on board the plane was Prime Minister Abe on his way to meetings, including the one where the decision for the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics was to be decided. A central part of Tokyo’s campaign, and arguably the knock-out winning punch, was the idea that winning host city status would aid Japan in its recovery from 3/11. It would be good for Japan, but not Tohoku specifically. How convenient for Japan and Tokyo to make this link. Haneda and Narita airports, amongst others in the aviation world, will clearly be big winners from the additional investment and passenger numbers that will result from Tokyo hosting the Olympics, but what about the communities that were directly impacted by 3/11?

Prime Minister Abe’s plane waits to take off to take him to make the final bid for Tokyo to become the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics


ANA 2011, “‘Kokoro-o hitotsuni-ni, ganbarō Nippon’ jetto no shūkō ni-tsuite” 「心を一つに、がんばろうニッポン」ジェットの就航について. Accessed 15 May 2015. https://www.ana.co.jp/topics/notice_110408_jet/.

Asahi Shimbun Online 2016, “Tennō heika no okotoba (zenbun): Shinsai no tsuitōshiki” 天皇陛下のおことば(全文) 震災追悼式. Asahi Shimbun, 12 March 2016. Accessed 12 July 2016. http://www.asahi.com/articles/DA3S12253645.html.

Hood 2015, Japan: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2015.

[1] Interview at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre, Hawai’i, 1 April 2011.

[2] Hood 2006, p. 204.

[3] Japan has four categories of airports: Hub/First Class which are either private, national or special regional ones run by local government; Regional/Second Class which are run by the local government and deemed to be important airports; Joint-Use or Third Class which are those shared between civilian use and the Self Defence Forces; and other airports. As of 2016, there are 5 Hub/First Class Airports (Kansai International, Narita, Chūbu, Haneda and Itami), 24 Regional/Second Class Airports (inc. New Chitose, Fukuoka, Naha and Sendai), 54 Joint-Use or Third Class airports (incl. Toyama, Kōbe, and Saga) and 15 other airports – totalling 98 airports.

[4] Sendai Airport interview, 18 May 2015.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] ANA interview, 23 July 2013.

[13] ANA 2011.

[14] Asahi Shimbun Online 2016.

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