Japan has experienced several earthquakes in its history. The Japanese islands are located on the Pacific “ring of fire,” a narrow zone around the Pacific Ocean where a large number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions occur. Japan’s largest island, Honshu, happens to sit above the junction of three tectonic plates: the Eurasian, Pacific, and Philippine Sea plates, which grind against each other. Hundreds of minor tremors strike Japan each year; however, every so often the seismic pressure builds up so high that an earthquake bursts forth with alarming intensity.
That’s what happened near the Japanese mainland on an overcast morning in late 1923.
The Kanto region, which includes Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kawasaki, was the most densely populated area of Japan, as it is today. At precisely two minutes before noon on Saturday, September 1st, 1923, the ground began to shake with tremendous force. In an unfortunate twist of fate, the quake hit when thousands of families had prepared to eat lunch around a portable hibachi, a charcoal brazier. The quake measured around 7.9 on the Richter scale, and its epicenter was underneath Oshima Island in Sagami Bay, thirty miles south of Tokyo.
The greatest damage took place in Yokohama, a bustling commercial port. It’s impossible to know how long the earthquake lasted, but the general consensus from witnesses placed the duration from four to ten minutes. Aftershocks continued to rattle the landscape for at least two days. The quake reduced banks, hotels, and residences to piles of rubble, but worse was to come. As a result of the overturned hibachi stoves, fires broke out and engulfed Yokohama. The fires were ushered along by strong winds, which swept flaming embers from one district to another. In the evening, the entire city was like an orange beacon of light that could be seen from miles away.
Those not killed by falling buildings or flames took refuge wherever the promise of survival was the greatest. By the docks in Yokohama harbor, refugees had reached a measure of safety on board the Empress of Australia, which was steered to safety by Capt. Samuel Robinson. Taki Yonemura was the engineer who transmitted a wireless distress signal to a RCA receiving station in Hawaii – and, as a result the U.S. government became aware of the disaster and began to send humanitarian aid. President Calvin Coolidge – whose administration was otherwise unremarkable – spearheaded the relief effort undertaken by the American Red Cross, and within days U.S. ships arrived in Yokohama packed with food, fuel, and other supplies.
After the Earthquake
After the great Kanto earthquake Yokohama and large sections of Tokyo were in ruins, and there were more than 100,000 fatalities. Almost 2,000,000 residents were left homeless. There was an inevitable sense of confusion and fear as once busy thoroughfares were made eerily silent in just a few minutes. Few buildings were still erect. One of the few remaining structures was the famous Imperial Hotel, although it wasn’t without damage. After the earthquake the hotel temporarily housed the embassies of France, Italy, England, and the United States.
Special memorials were held at the Army Clothing Depot in the Honjo district, where thousands of people perished in a firestorm. On October 19, 1923, speakers asked the citizens of Japan to unite behind a reconstruction program so the massive loss of life wouldn’t be in vain.
The Tokyo Municipal government published the Taisho Shinsai Giseki (Taisho Era Collection of Heartwarming Stories) to mark the one-year anniversary of the earthquake. Personal narratives were submitted by survivors, recounting what they saw and felt on that fateful day.
By 1930, Tokyo was a city reborn with new bridges, canals, and roads. In March of that year the Showa Emperor took a tour of the city in a motorcade, and traversed the Sumida River over four of the six new bridges. In 1960, it was declared that September 1st would be Disaster Prevention Day and it has been in effect ever since.
An ancient myth contended that the Japanese archipelago rested on the back of a great catfish that would trash about, creating earthquakes. Devastating earthquakes struck Japan in 1703, 1855, and 1891, but seismology wasn’t understood back then. After the 1923 disaster, more funds were devoted to the study of shifting tectonic plates. However, predicting earthquakes is still a very difficult business.