The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 shocked the nation. The magnitude of its destruction was almost beyond imagining. Disaster struck at 11:58 on September 1st, 1923, just as families were gathering around the table for lunch.
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.
The 9.0 earthquake that struck the northeast coast of Honshu this past March is not likely to have such an impact on Japan’s history. Nevertheless, there are parallels. Like the 1923 quake, this one unleashed secondary disasters: a tsunami that washed away dozens of villages; mudslides; fires; and damage to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors that emitted radiation into the atmosphere (and constituted the worst nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986). In both instances, the toll was considerable, with estimated deaths in the 2011 quake approaching 30,000 and damage that could go as high as $310 billion. Fuel, food and water were hard to come by weeks after the earthquake, and the Japanese government acknowledged that it had been ill-prepared for a calamity on this scale. Traditional figures offered words of solace.
Before the Great Kanto Earthquake struck, Japan was full of optimism. No center symbolized the country’s dynamism more than Yokohama, known as the City of Silk. Founded as Japan’s first “Foreign Settlement” in 1859, five years after U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry forced the shogun to open Japan to the West, Yokohama had grown into a cosmopolitan city of half a million. Attracting entrepreneurs, fugitives, traders, spies and drifters from every corner of the world, the port rose “like a mirage in the desert,” wrote one Japanese novelist. From the waterfront promenade, known as the Bund, to the Bluff, the hillside neighborhood favored by foreign residents, Yokohama was where East met West, and liberal ideas—including democracy, collective bargaining and women’s rights—transfixed those who engaged them. Nobel nominee Junicho Tanizaki, who spent two years in Yokohama writing screenplays, marveled at “a riot of loud Western colors and smells—the odor of cigars, the aroma of chocolate, the fragrance of flowers, the scent of perfume.
The Great Kanto Earthquake obliterated all of that in a single afternoon. 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.
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.
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".