The Great Kanto Earthquake – 1923

The epicenter lay deep beneath Oshima Island in Sagami Bay. The shock was estimated around 8.2 on the Richter scale, and tremors lasted between four and ten minutes. The earthquake’s power devastated Tokyo, Yokohama and the entire Kanto Plain around them – the horseshoe of flat land hemmed in by hills and mountains that in 1923 was the heart of imperial Japan, and its economic center.

It was a uniquely Japanese catastrophe: the initial, natural disaster was magnified by exclusively Japanese circumstances and behavioral responses. The combination created a disaster of epic terror.

The quake struck at lunchtime, toppling over a million open charcoal or wood stoves, and spilling thousands of small fires into tightly packed houses made of wood, paper and bamboo. The first tremors snapped water pipelines as the soft terrain heaved. Before they even stopped, high winds associated with a typhoon off the Noto Peninsular to the north whipped the local fires into a series of firestorms across 50 miles.

People died with their feet stuck in melting tarmac. Some 38,000 sought safety by cramming into the open space of the former army clothing depot in downtown Tokyo, and were incinerated together by a freak fireball. In the hilly coastal areas of Kanagawa and Shizuoka, landslides killed thousands. One pushed a train with 100 passengers, the station, the railway line and the local village down a cliff and out to sea. Meanwhile a succession of tsunamis smashed the coast with waves as high as 12 m (40 ft.).

There was worse. In Tokyo and Yokohama, mobs accused Korean ‘agitators’ of ‘poisoning wells’. Thousands of Koreans – and anybody with a foreign accent – were savagely beaten to death and, after offering their protection, police and army units massacred thousands more for sport, while looters stripped still-living, blistered, burning bodies unchallenged.

When was The Great Kanto Earthquake: September 1 1923

Where The Great Kanto Earthquake: The Kanto Plain (Tokyo, Yokohama, and the Prefectures of Chiba, Kanagawa and Shizuoka), Japan

What was The Great Kanto Earthquake death toll: Officially 142,000 died, including 40,000 who simply disappeared. Fire was the greatest killer but, with the violence and prolonged chaos, the death toll may well have been much higher. Burning oil slicks on the sea fried dozens of crews in their ships. On land hundreds of thousands were badly burned or injured, some 575,000 buildings were levelled; 65 per cent of Tokyo and 90 per cent of Yokohama were destroyed or badly damaged. Reconstruction incorporated radical new building, safety and precautionary codes – but ethnic suspicions have lingered.

You should know: On the earthquake’s first anniversary, the Tokyo municipal authorities published the Taisho shinsai giseki (Taisho-era Collection of Heartwarming Stories): 100 eyewitness records of acts of heroism, sacrifice and selflessness. Heartwarming indeed, until you see that the selection is a clever bit of self-serving official propaganda.

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