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. Most workers went home after a short day at work and for students it was their first day back at school after a long summer break. Although the quake itself measured 8.2 on the Richter scale, the fires that resulted from the overturned cooking stoves in many homes, coupled with high winds caused most of the destruction. The epicenter of the quake was located near Oshima Island in Sagama Bay (south of Tokyo). The tremors most heavily affected the imperial capital, Tokyo, and left the port metropolis Yokohama in ruins. In total, both the quake and fires that followed claimed the lives of nearly 130,000 people. In Yokohama, 90 percent of all homes were damaged or destroyed while 350,000 homes met the same fate in Tokyo, leaving 60 percent of the city's population homeless.
General Yamanashi Hanzō, the individual appointed to direct Japan’s Martial Law Headquarters on 20 September 1923, was no stranger to demanding administrative or military tasks. Yamanashi was a seasoned soldier who had served in active combat during Japan’s previous three wars: the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and the First World War, 1914-1918. His previous experiences did little to prepare him for the tasks he faced in post disaster Tokyo.
The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan
Just before lunchtime on September 1st, 1923 the Great Kanto earthquake subjected Tokyo, Yokohama and surrounding areas to almost five minutes of shaking, with an energy release equivalent to some 400 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs, followed by a tsunami 11 metres in height. Soon, small fires merged to form a firestorm. By the morning of September 3rd at least 140,000 people were dead – about 40,000 of them incinerated in one enclosed space – and two thirds of the capital Tokyo, four fifths of Yokohama, were ashes. Yet by 1930 Tokyo had officially been rebuilt, essentially as it was before the earthquake.