GREAT TOKYO EARTHQUAKE OF 1923

GREAT TOKYO EARTHQUAKE OF 1923

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Tokyo 1923
According to the Guinness Book of Records, the most destructive earthquake ever was the Kanto earthquake that struck the Tokyo and Yokohama areas at 11:58am on September 1, 1923. It measured 7.9 on the Richter scale and occurred when a section of the Philippine Sea plate suddenly shifted under the Kanto Plains. The epicenter was in Sagami Bay off Yokohama. At the time considered the worst natural disaster ever to strike quake-prone Japan.

“Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: The initial jolt was followed a few minutes later by a 40-foot-high tsunami. A series of towering waves swept away thousands of people. Then came fires, roaring through the wooden houses of Yokohama and Tokyo, the capital, burning everything---and everyone---in their path. The death toll would be about 140,000, including 44,000 who had sought refuge near Tokyo’s Sumida River in the first few hours, only to be immolated by a freak pillar of fire known as a “dragon twist.” The temblor destroyed two of Japan’s largest cities and traumatized the nation; it also whipped up nationalist and racist passions. And the quake may have emboldened right-wing forces at the very moment that the country was poised between military expansion and an embrace of Western democracy, only 18 years before Japan would enter World War II. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, May 2011. Hammer is the author of Yokohama Burning, about the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.]

At the time of the quake Tokyo had a population of 2½ million and the area struck by the quake had 12 million. A total of 142,907 people were killed or reported missing after the quake and subsequent fires, including 5,000 schoolchildren. The tremors and fires injured 502,000 and left 3.25 million homeless. About 80 percent of the dwellings in Yokohama and 60 percent of those in Tokyo were destroyed. One survivor said, "It was like a scene from hell. When the fires subsided, I walked around and saw corpses everywhere. I'd thought I was hot---but even the soles of their feet were charred." In one vacant lot on Tokyo thousands of people gathered in hope of escaping massive post-earthquake fires, only to die when flames consumed the crowd itself. Grim relics from these fires on display in an earthquake museum in Tokyo include a half-melted teapot in which someone's hidden nest egg of coins has been fused into a solid mass, and a box of sweets that were turned to charcoal by the intense heat.

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker: “Because the quake struck at midday, countless Japanese were at their cooking fires, and most of the physical damage and the casualties came from the conflagrations that swept the cities. Even the Imperial Palace caught fire; the Emperor and Empress were in Nikko at the time. Because it hit the country’s Kanto Plain, the quake is known as the Great Kanto quake. Since 1960, the date has been commemorated in Japan as Disaster Prevention Day. Schools and other organizations hold drills on disaster readiness. [Source: Evan Osnos, The New Yorker, March 28, 2011]

The Tokyo earthquake occurred as many Tokyo residents were firing up braziers for lunch. The braziers fell over and set houses and entire neighborhoods on fire. The fire spread with the help of strong winds generated by a typhoon that was in northern Japan at the time. Winds channeled through the streets created vortexes at intersections and “fiery whirlwinds developed into tornados, which incinerated everything.” People were also killed by mudslides, landslides and tsunamis. In Shizuoka, the entire village of Nebukawa was wiped out by a landslide. Riots broke out in central Tokyo.

The Tokyo earthquake was a actually a series of quakes that lasted for about 10 minutes. This first quake, measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale, increased in intensity for 12 second and caused violent shaking that lasted for five seconds. Three minutes later there was a 7.3 quakes. For and half minutes after that there was a 7.3 temblor. Later in the day hundreds of aftershocks were recorded, 19 of them with magnitudes of 5 or higher.

The Tokyo earthquake was carefully documented and studied. After the quake many changes were made and many safety measures were implemented. There was some discussion of moving the capital from Tokyo.

The tectonic makeup of Tokyo and surrounding areas is complicated, with two ocean plates subducting below a land plate on which the Japanese archipelago is located. There have been many earthquakes in this area, as both plate-boundary quakes, which are caused by friction between the plates, and inland quakes, which are caused by faults in the plates, can occur.

Books: Yokohama Burning by Joshua Hammer; Earthquakes in Human History by Jelle Zeilinga de Boer and Donald Theodore Sanders (Princeton University Press). The book describes earthquakes in the Dead Sea, Britain, Sparta in 464 B.C.; Lisbon in 1755; New Madrid Mo., in 1811; San Francisco in 1906; Tokyo in 1923; Peru in 1970; and Nicaragua in 1972.

Websites and Resources


1923 Tokyo Earthquake
Links in this Website: VOLCANOS AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; MAJOR VOLCANOS AND ERUPTIONS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EARTHQUAKES AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; EARTHQUAKES AND LIFE IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; LARGE EARTHQUAKES IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; KOBE EARTHQUAKE OF 1995 Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; LARGE EARTHQUAKES IN JAPAN IN THE 2000s Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TSUNAMIS IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Good Websites and Sources: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Earthquake Information Center earthquake.usgs.gov ; Wikipedia article on Earthquakes Wikipedia ; Earthquake severity pubs.usgs.gov ; USGS Earthquake Frequently Asked Questions earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/faq ; Collection of Images from Historic Earthquakes Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center, Jan Kozak Collection ; World Earthquake Map iris.edu/seismon ; Most Recent Earthquakes earthquake.usgs.gov ; Interactive Earthquake Guide guardian.co.uk ; USGS Earthquakes for Kids earthquake.usgs.gov/learn/kids ; Earthquake Preparedness and Safety Surviving an Earthquake edu4hazards.org ; Earthquake Pamphlet pubs.usgs.gov ; Earthquake Preparedness Guide earthquakepreparednessguide.com ; Earthquake Safety Site earthquakecountry.info ;

Earthquake Information for Japan Earthquake Information from Japan Meteorological Agency jma.go.jp/en/quake ; F-Net Broadband Seismography Network fnet.bosai.go.jp ; USGS Japan Earthquake Information earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/world ; Tectonics and Volcanos of Japan volcano.oregonstate.edu ; MCEER Earthquake Engineering on Major Earthquakes in Japan in the 20th Century mceer.buffalo.edu ; Major Earthquakes in Japan in the 20th Century drgeorgepc.com ; Sesimic Hazard Map earthquake.usgs.gov ; Earthquake Density Map earthquake.usgs.gov ; Seismicity Map earthquake.usgs.gov ; Blogs About Japanese Earthquakes blogged.com/topics/japan-earthquake ; Geological Maps aist.go.jp/GSJ ; Earthquake Engineering and Disaster Prevention: Disaster Prevention Research Institute, University of Kyoto dpri.kyoto-u.ac.jp/web ; Japan Association of Earthquake Engineering jaee.gr.jp/english ; Earthquake Preparedness in Japan Earthquake Preparedness Survey whatjapanthinks.com ;U.S. Embassy Disaster Preparedness Checklist tokyo.usembassy.gov ; U.K. Embassy on Earthquake Preparedness v ; Report on Fastening Furniture pdf file iiasa.ac.at/Research/RAV ;Earthquake Preparedness Guide earthquakepreparednessguide.com ;

Earthquake Research in Japan: Headquarters of Earthquake Research Promotion jishin.go.jp ; Active Fault Research Center unit.aist.go.jp ; Institute of Geology and Geoinformation unit.aist.go.jp ; Tokai Earthquake Prediction from Japan Meteorological Agency jma.go.jp/en/quake_tokai ;Research Center for Earthquake Prediction, University of Kyoto rcep.dpri.kyoto-u.ac.jp ; Earthquake Prediction Research Center, Tokyo University eri.u-tokyo.ac.jp/ ; Earthquake and Science Museums Shinagawa City Disaster Prevention site city.shinagawa.tokyo.jp ; Earthquake Museum (Kita Ward, near the Nishigahara Station on the Naboku subway line), Tokyo Essentials tokyoessentials.com ; Honjo Life Safety Learning Center (Sumida Ward) simulates an earthquake and fire in a 3-D theater. There is also a room that simulates a storm with wind sped of 30 meters per second. Tokyo City PDF file bousai.metro.tokyo.jp

Recent Earthquakes in Japan : USGS Last Earthquake in Japan neic.usgs.gov/neis/last_event/world_japan ; Recent Earthquakes eri.u-tokyo.ac.jp ; Info for the Previous Week jma.go.jp/en/quake ; Major Earthquakes in Japan Wikipedia List of Earthquakes in Japan Wikipedia ; USGS Historic Earthquakes earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/world/historical ;Major Earthquakes in Japan in the 20th Century drgeorgepc.com ; 1923 Tokyo Earthquake: 1923 Tokyo Earthquake Images eas.slu.edu/Earthquake_Center ; Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 dl.lib.brown.edu/kanto ; 1923 Tokyo Earthquake Photo Gallery japan-guide.com ; Earthquake Pictures: Earthquake Image Archive geot.civil.metro-u.ac.jp ; BBC Pictures of 2007 Niigata Earthquake BBC Pictures of 2007 Niigata Earthquake ; Kobe Earthquake Site seismo.unr.edu

Damage During the Great Tokyo Earthquake in 1923

During the earthquake office buildings toppled into the streets, ships were cast adrift when their hawsers snapped, railroad tunnels collapsed, 394 trams cars overturned, offshore oil tanks exploded setting Tokyo Bay on fire and 16-foot waves tossed a commuter train and its 500 passengers into the sea. People flocked to parks and other open spaces for safety, but many of them died by the choking fumes from all the fires.

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Damage occurred in Kanagawa Chiba, Ibaraki, Saitama, Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures as well as in Tokyo and and Yokohama. One survivor recalled. "The pillars of the house made groaning sounds and began to crack. An earthquake! The wall clock stopped, and the electric fan went flying."

Joshua Hammer wrote in the New York Times, “The earthquake hit in the early afternoon off the coast of Honshu...Ninety percent of the houses in a score of seaside towns collapsed in seconds. Passenger trains fell off railway bridges and plunged into the sea. A few minutes later, a 35-foot-high tsunami rolled in, sweeping away cars, houses and thousands of people, and burying entire towns in mud. Then came fires, fanned by winds and fueled by flimsy wooden houses, reducing much of what remained to ashes...The quake leveled the great port city of Yokohama---home to a population of 5,000 expatriates---and burned down more than sixty percent of Tokyo. All told, 145,000 people died, including about 150 Americans, and some 40,000 mostly poor Japanese who were incinerated by a “dragon twist,” a freak tornado of fire that swept over a makeshift camp ground near Tokyo’s Sumida River.

Mass hysteria broke out. Food and medical supplies were quickly used up and 9 million people were without drink water. Telegraph and telephone lines went down across Japan, and the first full newspaper account didn’t appear until Sept. 4---a full three days later,” Hammer wrote. “A wireless operator in the northern Japanese town of Iwaki functioned as the sole link to the outside world for days, sending fragmentary eyewitness accounts to a relay station in Hawaii---which in turn, passed them on to San Francisco.” Emperor Hirohito's wedding was postponed a year.

One of the few buildings to survive the earthquake was Imperial Hotel designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The "earthquake proof" building utilized the "floating concept" which meant that it rested on concrete and steel piers sunk into a 70-foot-thick bed of mud. The earthquake occurred hours before the hotel's official grand opening ceremony.

Giant Tsunami and the Impact of the Great 1923 Earthquake on Yokohama

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “The first shock hit at 11:58 a.m., emanating from a seismic fault six miles beneath the floor of Sagami Bay, 30 miles south of Tokyo. A 60- by 60-mile segment of the Philippine oceanic plate ruptured and thrust itself against the Eurasian continental plate, releasing a massive burst of tectonic energy. Down at the docks of Yokohama, Japan’s biggest port and its gateway to the West, hundreds of well-wishers were seeing off the Empress of Australia, a 615-foot luxury steamship bound for Vancouver. “The smiles vanished,” remembered Ellis M. Zacharias, then a young U.S. naval officer, who was standing on the pier when the earthquake hit, “and for an appreciable instant everyone stood transfixed” by “the sound of unearthly thunder.” Moments later, a tremendous jolt knocked Zacharias off his feet, and the pier collapsed, spilling cars and people into the water. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, May 2011]

“According to survivors, the initial quaking lasted for about 14 seconds---long enough to bring down nearly every building on Yokohama’s watery, unstable ground. The three-story Grand Hotel, an elegant Victorian villa on the seafront that had played host to Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham and William Howard Taft, collapsed, crushing hundreds of guests and employees. Twenty expatriate regulars at the Yokohama United Club, the city’s most popular watering hole, died when the concrete building pancaked. Otis Manchester Poole, a 43-year-old American manager of a trading firm, stepped out of his largely still-intact office near the Bund to face an indelible scene. “Over everything had settled a thick white dust,” he remembered years later, “and through the yellow fog of dust, still in the air, a copper-coloured sun shone upon this silent havoc in sickly reality.” Fanned by high winds, fires from overturned cookstoves and ruptured gas mains spread. Soon, the entire city was ablaze. [Ibid]

Meanwhile, a wall of water surged from the fault zone toward the coast of Honshu. Three hundred people died in Kamakura, the ancient capital, when a 20-foot-high wave washed over the town. “The tidal wave swept out a great section of the village near the beach,” wrote Henry W. Kinney, a Tokyo-based editor for Trans-Pacific magazine. “I saw a thirty-foot sampan [boat] that had been lifted neatly on top of the roof of a prostrated house. Vast portions of the hills facing the ocean had slid into the sea.” [Ibid]

Fires During the Great Tokyo Earthquake in 1923

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Most of the deaths and damage are attributed to fires started by overturned cooking fires in traditional wood and rice paper homes. According to one estimate only 0.9 dwellings in Tokyo were destroyed by tremors. The remaining 99.1 percent were destroyed by fire. In Yokohama 90.2 percent of buildings were destroyed by fire. A total of 66,521 of the 70,387 documented deaths were attributed to fires.

The Tokyo earthquake occurred just as many people were preparing their lunchtime meals on charcoal or coal stoves. Red hot embers were scattered by the first quake. Efforts to put out the fires were hindered by the subsequent quakes. Water was in short supply as water mains were ruptured. Fires and firestorms raged for more than 40 hours.

About 38,000 of the 40,000 people who sought refuge in the Military Clothing Depot in Honjo died from fire or suffocation as cyclones of superheated air, almost devoid of oxygen, swept though at around 50mph. This single location accounted for about 40 percent of the deaths. Another 630 died in the Yoshiwara brothel district because they were unable to escape from a walled enclosure.

One survivor later said, "We ran through cyclones of intense heat toward a school under construction. I watched flames shoot out from futons that people had slung over their backs...As hot as it was a girl tried to bury herself in the sand. Before she died she murmured, “I'm so hot.” Please give me water.' But I had none to give her. In an adjacent mound, a woman went into labor; the next morning she gave birth to a baby girl."

During the Tokyo earthquake there is a famous story about people who took refuge on the Sumidagawa River aboard small boats tied up in the Fukagawa area of Tokyo. People worked together to cool down the wooden boats, which were cracking because of the intense heat, by dumping water on them.

Fires in Yokohama During the Great Japan Earthquake of 1923

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Although the shock waves had weakened by the time they reached through the Kanto region to Tokyo, 17 miles north of Yokohama, many poorer neighborhoods built on unstable ground east of the Sumida River collapsed in seconds. Then, as in Yokohama, fires spread, fueled by flimsy wooden houses and fanned by high winds. The quake destroyed the city’s water mains, paralyzing the fire department. According to one police report, fires had broken out in 83 locations by 12:15. Fifteen minutes later, they had spread to 136. People fled toward the Sumida River, drowning by the hundreds when bridges collapsed. Tens of thousands of working-class Japanese found refuge in an empty patch of ground near the river. The flames closed in from all directions, and then, at 4 p.m., a 300-foot-tall “fire tornado” blazed across the area. Of the 44,000 people who had gathered there, only 300 survived. All told, 45 percent of Tokyo burned before the last embers of the inferno died out on September 3. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, May 2011]

As the evening of the quake approached, Kinney observed, “Yokohama, the city of almost half a million souls, had become a vast plain of fire, of red, devouring sheets of flame which played and flickered. Here and there a remnant of a building, a few shattered walls, stood up like rocks above the expanse of flame, unrecognizable....It was as if the very earth were now burning. It presented exactly the aspect of a gigantic Christmas pudding over which the spirits were blazing, devouring nothing. For the city was gone.” [Ibid]

Lynching During the Great Tokyo Earthquake in 1923

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fleeing refugees
An estimated 6,000 Koreans and a smaller number of Chinese were lynched several days after the earthquake by vigilant mobs in search of scape goats. Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “The earthquake also exposed the darker side of humanity. Within hours of the catastrophe, rumors spread that Korean immigrants were poisoning wells and using the breakdown of authority to plot the overthrow of the Japanese government. (Japan had occupied Korea in 1905, annexed it five years later and ruled the territory with an iron grip.) Roving bands of Japanese prowled the ruins of Yokohama and Tokyo, setting up makeshift roadblocks and massacring Koreans across the earthquake zone. "

The slaughter began after the Interior Ministry cabled local branches that ethnic Koreans were committing acts of arson and ordered them rounded up. Rumors began spreading that Koreans were looting and poisoning the water supply. Some Japanese even accused them of causing the earthquake. Japanese mobs hunted down Koreans and beat them to death. Even in places that were not damaged by the quake, Koreans were viscously attacked.

Right-wing extremists used the confusion as an opportunity to go after labor unionists and socialists. Military police attacked "enemies of the state." In the infamous "Kamoedo Incident,” army officers butchered10 labor activists with swords. Martial law was declared for a week.

American Heroism During the Great Japan Earthquake of 1923

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “The tragedy prompted countless acts of heroism. Thomas Ryan, a 22-year-old U.S. naval ensign, freed a woman trapped inside the Grand Hotel in Yokohama, then carried the victim---who had suffered two broken legs---to safety, seconds ahead of a fire that engulfed the ruins. Capt. Samuel Robinson, the Canadian skipper of the Empress of Australia, took hundreds of refugees aboard, organized a fire brigade that kept the ship from being incinerated by advancing flames, then steered the crippled vessel to safety in the outer harbor. Then there was Taki Yonemura, chief engineer of the government wireless station in Iwaki, a small town 152 miles northeast of Tokyo. Hours after the earthquake, Yonemura picked up a faint signal from a naval station near Yokohama, relaying word of the catastrophe. Yonemura tapped out a 19-word bulletin---CONFLAGRATION SUBSEQUENT TO SEVERE EARTHQUAKE AT YOKOHAMA AT NOON TODAY. WHOLE CITY ABLAZE WITH NUMEROUS CASUALTIES. ALL TRAFFIC STOPPED---and dispatched it to an RCA receiving station in Hawaii. For the next three days, Yonemura sent a stream of reports that alerted the world to the unfolding tragedy. The radio man “flashed the news across the sea at the speed of sunlight,” reported the New York Times, “to tell of tremendous casualties, buildings leveled by fire, towns swept by tidal waves...disorder by rioters, raging fire and wrecked bridges.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, May 2011]

Yonemura’s bulletins helped to galvanize an international relief effort, led by the United States, that saved thousands from near-certain death or prolonged misery. U.S. naval vessels set sail from China on the evening of September 2, and within a week, dozens of warships packed with relief supplies---rice, canned roast beef, reed mats, gasoline---filled Yokohama Harbor. From Washington, President Calvin Coolidge took the lead in rallying the United States. “An overwhelming disaster has overtaken the people of the friendly nation of Japan,” he declared on September 3. “The cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, and surrounding towns and villages, have been largely if not completely destroyed by earthquake, fire and flood, with a resultant appalling loss of life and destitution and distress, requiring measures of urgent relief.” The American Red Cross, of which Coolidge was the titular head, initiated a national relief drive, raising $12 million for victims. [Ibid]

“The wave of good feeling between the two countries would soon dissipate, however, in mutual accusations. Japanese expressed resentment toward Western rescuers; demagogues in the United States charged that the Japanese had been “ungrateful” for the outpouring of help they received. [Ibid]

Relief Effort After the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake

Joshua Hammer wrote in the New York Times, “The relief effort, led by the United States, was fast and efficient, and ended up saving thousands from near certain death or prolonged misery. American naval vessels set sail from China on the evening of Sept. 2, and within a week, dozens of warships packed with relief supplies---rice, tents, reed mats, canned roast beef---filled Yokohama harbor.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, New York Times ]

“On the home front,” Hammer wrote. “President Calvin Coolidge, not generally regarded as the most forceful of men, took the lead in rallying the United States to the Japanese cause. The American Red Cross, of which Coolidge was the titular head, kicked off a national relief drive, raising $12 million for earthquake victims and initiating a wave of good feeling between the two countries.

Coolidge declared: “An overwhelming disaster has overtaken the people of the friendly nation of Japan. The cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, and surrounding towns and villages, have been largely if not completely destroyed by earthquake, fire, and flood, with a resultant appalling loss of life and destitution and distress, requiring measures of urgent relief.”

Aftermath of the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake

Lawlessness drove the government to declare martial law, but civilian authorities inability to deal with the disaster contributed ti an eventual military takeover.” Hammer wrote in the New York Times, “The 1923 quake kicked off a national effort to rebuild Tokyo into a world-class city. Yet it also whipped up nationalist hysteria, with vigilante bands roving the lawless countryside, murdering thousands of Koreans. Xenophobic newspapers published accusations that American relief teams were trying to humiliate the Japanese, putting a quick end to the era of good feeling. The army declared martial law and began a steady erosion of democracy, culminating in its expansion into China and the outbreak of World War II.

“The 1923 quake should also serve a reminder of the limitations of science, Hammer wrote. “The calamity initiated a massive effort in Japan to predict earthquakes and tsunamis. Scientists at Japanese universities received tens of millions of yen to support projects ranging from constructing logarithmic formulas based on past seismic upheavals, to investigating whether catfish and eels displayed “unusual movements”---such as tail-twitching or whisker-wiggling---in advance of earthquakes. China and the United States lavished funds on similar research. Predicting earthquakes, however, remains a hit-or-miss proposition, often a matter of luck. When the great fault in the Pacific shifted under pressure last week, nobody saw it coming.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, New York Times]

Shimpei Goto and Getting Japan Back on Its Feet After the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake

Japan rebuilt and got back on its feet relatively quickly after the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. Shimpei Goto---who served as foreign minister and was the first president of the South Manchuria Railway Co. and mayor of Tokyo shortly before the earthquake occurred---is credited with leading the reconstruction of the city by moving swiftly with a plan.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun. May 14, 2011]

On September 2, the day after the quake, Prime Minister Gombei Yamamoto launched his cabinet and appointed Goto to the post of interior minister. Later that day, Goto ruled out relocation of the nation's capital, announced that 3 billion yen would be spent on reconstruction, and said the latest Western urban planning methods would be used to rebuild Tokyo. [Ibid]

On September 6 he submitted his proposals on Tokyo's reconstruction to the cabinet, which approved it with some reservations. An article in the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Goto's audacity was apparent when he came up with his proposal. The measures included establishment of a new government entity for reconstruction. Also, reconstruction costs in principle would be the responsibility of the government, and long-term government bonds would be issued at home and abroad to secure funds. The government would buy up disaster-hit plots of land by issuing public bonds, and lease or sell them after completing improvements.” [Ibid]

“On September 27, Goto established Teito Fukko-in (Imperial Capital Reconstruction Board) chaired by the prime minister. The entity had the same status as a ministry. The main sections of the board were the planning, construction and land-readjustment departments. It had complete authority over reconstruction. About 600 handpicked bureaucrats were sent to the board from the Interior, Railways and other ministries.” [Ibid]

“On November 24 only two months after its establishment, the board drew up a seven-year reconstruction plan that included arterial roads and parks. The board was downgraded to bureau status after the Yamamoto Cabinet resigned en masse in January 1924. But the reconstruction plan is said to have led to the basic structure of today's Tokyo.” [Ibid]

Making Tokyo the Ideal Capital After the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake and Paying For It

“Goto called the disaster “the perfect opportunity to construct an ideal capital,” aspired to build a city resistant to a major disaster,” the Yomiuri Shimbun reported. “Regarded as key to the project was the construction of large-scale trunk roads, which were to be at least 30 meters wide, and a large park. Such major metropolitan streets as Yasukuni-dori avenue and Harumi-dori avenue running through central Tokyo today were built as part of that post-quake reconstruction effort. Yamashita Park built on the shoreline in Yokohama and Sumida Park, built along the Sumida River, in Taito and Sumida wards, Tokyo, were also fruits of post-quake reconstruction. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun. May 14, 2011]

“Meanwhile, Goto had plots of land totaling about 3,600 hectares---an area larger than that devastated by the fires in the wake of the quake---which he designated as part of a large-scale urban redevelopment. On that occasion, the Tokyo metropolitan Hibiya Public Hall was built in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, as a venue for citizens to discuss politics. Dojunkai fire-resistant, ferroconcrete apartment complexes were built in such places as Tokyo's Aoyama district and Yokohama, and would serve as prototype condominiums for modern Japan.” [Ibid]

Soon after his appointment as interior minister was confirmed at an attestation ceremony by the Emperor, Goto said, "We need 3 billion yen to reconstruct." Goto called for such a huge amount of money---more than double the 1.4 billion yen annual state budget at the time---because he wanted to rebuild Tokyo as a disaster-resistant modern city. "The government will pay all of the reconstruction costs using long-term domestic and foreign loans," he said. [Ibid]

However, the government could secure only about 700 million yen given the fiscal resources available at the time. Because of resistance from the biggest opposition party, Seiyukai, backed by the landowner class, and the weakness of Yamamoto's coalition government, reconstruction costs eventually were cut to about 460 million yen, forcing the Cabinet to reduce the width of main roads and scrap plans for some thoroughfares. [Ibid]

Great Japan Earthquake of 1923 and the Miltaristic Drive Towards World War II

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “My own view is that by reducing the expatriate European community in Yokohama and putting an end to a period of optimism symbolized by that city, the Kanto earthquake accelerated Japan’s drift toward militarism and war. Japan scholar Kenneth Pyle of the University of Washington says that conservative elites were already nervous about democratic forces emerging in society, and “the 1923 earthquake does sort of begin to reverse some of the liberal tendencies that appear right after World War I....After the earthquake, there’s a measurable increase in right-wing patriotic groups in Japan that are really the groundwork of what is called Japanese fascism.” Peter Duus, an emeritus professor of history at Stanford, states that it was not the earthquake that kindled right-wing activities, “but rather the growth of the metropolis and the emergence of what the right wing regarded as heartless, hedonistic, individualistic and materialist urban culture.” The more significant long-term effect of the earthquake, he says, “was that it set in motion the first systematic attempt at reshaping Tokyo as a modern city. It moved Tokyo into the ranks of world metropolises.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, May 2011]

University of Melbourne historian J. Charles Schencking sees the rebuilding of Tokyo as a metaphor for something larger. The earthquake, he has written, “fostered a culture of catastrophe defined by political and ideological opportunism, contestation and resilience, as well as a culture of reconstruction in which elites sought to not only rebuild Tokyo, but also reconstruct the Japanese nation and its people.” [Ibid]

“Though they may dispute its effects, historians agree that the destruction of two great population centers gave voice to those in Japan who believed that the embrace of Western decadence had invited divine retribution. Or, as philosopher and social critic Fukasaku Yasubumi declared at the time: “God cracked down a great hammer” on the Japanese nation. [Ibid]

Image Sources: J.B. Macelwane Archives, St. Louis University, USGS

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2012

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