The Great Kanto Earthquake in Japan, 1923

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The Oriental Hotel in Yokohama, in ruins. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Great Kanto Earthquake, also sometimes called the Great Tokyo Earthquake, rocked Japan on September 1, 1923.  Actually, the city of Yokohama was hit even worse than Tokyo was, although both were devastated.  It was the deadliest earthquake in Japanese history.

The quake's magnitude is estimated at 7.9 to 8.2 on the Richter scale, and its epicenter was in the shallow waters of Sagami Bay, about 25 miles south of Tokyo.

  The offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami in the bay, which struck the island of O-shima at a height of 12 meters (39 feet), and hit the Izu and Boso Peninsulas with 6 meter (20 foot) waves.  Japan's ancient capital at Kamakura, almost 40 miles from the epicenter, was inundated by a 6-meter wave that killed 300 people, and its 84-ton Great Buddha was shifted nearly a meter.  The north shore of Sagami Bay rose permanently by almost two meters (six feet), and parts of the Boso Peninsula moved laterally 4 1/2 meters or 15 feet.

The total death toll from the disaster is estimated at about 142,800.  The quake struck at 11:58 am, so many people were cooking lunch.  In the wood-built cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, upended cooking fires and broken gas mains set off firestorms that raced through homes and offices.  Fire and tremors together claimed 90 percent of the homes in Yokohama and left 60% of Tokyo's people homeless.

  The Taisho Emperor and Empress Teimei were on holiday in the mountains, and so escaped the disaster.

Most horrifying of the immediate results was the fate of 38,000 to 44,000 working class Tokyo residents who fled to the open ground of the Rikugun Honjo Hifukusho, once called the Army Clothing Depot.

  Flames surrounded them, and at about 4:00 in the afternoon, a "fire tornado" some 300 feet tall roared through the area.  Only 300 of the people gathered there survived.

Henry W. Kinney, an editor for Trans-Pacific Magazine who worked out of Tokyo, was in Yokohama when the disaster struck.  He wrote, "Yokohama, the city of almost half a million souls, had become a vast plain of fire, or 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...  The city was gone."

The Great Kanto Earthquake sparked another horrifying result, as well.  In the hours and days following, nationalist and racist rhetoric took hold across Japan.  Stunned survivors of the earthquake, tsunami, and firestorm looked for an explanation, looked for a scapegoat, and the target of their fury was the ethnic Koreans living in their midst.  As early as mid-afternoon on September 1, the day of the quake, reports, and rumors started that the Koreans had set the disastrous fires, that they were poisoning wells and looting ruined homes, and that they were planning to overthrow the government.

  Approximately 6,000 unlucky Koreans, as well as more than 700 Chinese who were mistaken for Koreans, were hacked and beaten to death with swords and bamboo rods.  The police and military in many places stood by for three days, allowing vigilantes to carry out these murders, in what is now called the Korean Massacre.

In the end, the earthquake and its aftereffects killed well over 100,000 people.  It also sparked both soul-searching and nationalism in Japan, just eight years before the nation took its first steps toward World War II, with the invasion and occupation of Manchuria.

Sources:

Denawa, Mai.  "Behind the Accounts of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923," The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, Brown University Library Center for Digital Scholarship, accessed June 29, 2014.

Hammer, Joshua.

  "The Great Japan Earthquake of 1923," Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011.

"Historic Earthquakes: Kanto (Kwanto), Japan," USGS Earthquake Hazards Program, accessed June 29, 2014.