The earthquake, just off the coast, was swift and terrible, registering almost 9.0. Even more deadly were the 15-metre tsunami and the raging fires that soon followed. Thousands of people died or were swept out to sea, their homes reduced to mountains of rubble.
And what's more, it had hit what seemed like the most careful, prosperous and well-prepared country, the one most respected for doing things right. The moment of chaos nearly led to societal breakdown as great cities were reduced to panic and helplessness. People began to have serious doubts about their core beliefs. There was no more faith in the old certainties.
So it was in Lisbon in 1755. That earthquake, one of the worst in history, did terrible damage to Portugal, wiping out almost a third of its population and helping end its moment of economic supremacy. But it had an even more dramatic effect on the way the world thought of itself.
Across the Western world, the events of 1755 seemed to disprove everything people had held true about the dominion of man over nature, the benign power of God and the authority of the Church. It was the Lisbon quake that provoked thinkers like Kant, Rousseau and Voltaire to abandon religious authority and begin developing a human-driven thought and politics.
It triggered the chain of events that led Europeans to expel the Church and rely on their own political and technological inventions. By teaching people that the heavens were against them, it allowed civilization to become supreme and the greatest age of human progress to take place. It was an earthquake with a lasting lesson.
And so it is in Japan in 2011. The Japanese catastrophe has shocked the world, even though its death toll is an order of magnitude lower than the great quakes of China in 1976 and South Asia in 2004. It was much less deadly, despite being a far stronger quake, because the Japanese were so well prepared, so thoroughly technologically defended and trained to deal with the tyranny of nature. On that level, while the deaths and human tragedies that have taken place are horrendous and heartbreaking, there are reasons to give thanks.
Japan's government building codes, safety regulations, early-warning systems, shelter networks and safety-training regimes have saved tens of thousands of lives or more. The weaker Indian Ocean tsunami of December, 2004, killed 230,000 people; the Japanese toll will barely break the five-figure mark.
But what has stopped all of us in our tracks, and seemingly changed many opinions, is not the natural disaster but the catastrophic failure of the Fukushima nuclear plant. The exploding, steaming, uncontrolled electrical-generation complex is the image that has shocked the world.
Though it is a far less deadly event than the seismic shock, the ocean flood or, now, the ill-timed blizzard that has struck northern Japan, the drama at the reactor has galvanized us. And instead of turning against nature's cruelty, we are turning against the technology designed to fend it off.
This comes at exactly the moment when the world needs many more nuclear reactors and other non-carbon-emitting sources of power. The Japanese factory has shifted our balance of fear. Two weeks ago, it was the Earth that we dreaded the most - the spectre of fast-rising temperatures and ocean levels - and almost everyone agreed it was worth making some investments and taking some risks to alleviate the threat.
Though governments have famously failed to agree on a comprehensive plan to get carbon emissions under control, great strides were being made in many countries, most notably among the emerging powers of Asia. And those plans relied heavily on building scores of nuclear-power plants to displace coal, in order to fuel the next wave of growth in ways that wouldn't clot the upper atmosphere.
A few days of Japanese television has shifted the world's balance of fear: Suddenly, we are living in terror not of nature's caprices but of our own inventions.
Days after the earthquake, a cascade of nations announced plans to suspend or drop nuclear-power projects. Most visible were the European Union nations, whose climate-change commitments will make large nuclear-construction programs vital. Remember that wind-power projects, such as Germany's, rely on nuclear reactors to provide power when the wind is down.