The Great Kanto Earthquake in Japan, 1923

The Nihombushi ruins resulted from the destruction of the 1923 earthquake

Hulton Deutsch / Getty Images

The Great Kanto Earthquake, also sometimes called the Great Tokyo Earthquake, rocked Japan on Sept. 1, 1923. Although both were devastated, the city of Yokohama was hit even worse than Tokyo. 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 Oshima at a height of 39 feet and hit the Izu and Boso Peninsulas with 20-foot waves. The north shore of Sagami Bay rose permanently by almost 6 feet, and parts of the Boso Peninsula moved 15 feet laterally. Japan's ancient capital at Kamakura, almost 40 miles from the epicenter, was inundated by a 20-foot wave that killed 300 people, and its 84-ton Great Buddha was shifted by roughly 3 feet. It was the deadliest earthquake in Japanese history.

Physical Effects

The total death toll from the earthquake and its aftereffects is estimated at about 142,800. The quake struck at 11:58 a.m., 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% 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 p.m., 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.

Cultural Effects

The Great Kanto Earthquake triggered another horrifying result. 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 or 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, were poisoning wells, looting ruined homes, and planning to overthrow the government. Approximately 6,000 unlucky Koreans, as well as more than 700 Chinese 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.

Ultimately, the disaster sparked both soul-searching and nationalism in Japan. Just eight years later, the nation took its first steps toward World War II with the invasion and occupation of Manchuria.

Resources and Further Reading