When Tokyo Shook, Burned Down, and Rose Again

By Andrew RobinsonDecember 12, 2013

When Tokyo Shook, Burned Down, and Rose Again

The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan by J. Charles Schencking

JUST BEFORE LUNCHTIME on September 1, 1923, the Great Kantō earthquake battered Tokyo, Yokohama and their surrounding areas with almost five minutes of shaking — an energy release equivalent to some 400 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. A massive tsunami followed, its waves topping eleven meters in height. Soon, small fires merged to form a firestorm. By the morning of September 3, at least 140,000 people were dead — about 40,000 of them incinerated in one enclosed park where they had trustingly sheltered — and two-thirds of the capital Tokyo, four-fifths of Yokohama, were ashes. By the end of the decade, however, Tokyo had officially been rebuilt, essentially as it was before the earthquake. This cataclysm, its after-effects on the city and the entrenched arguments among Japanese politicians, bureaucrats, business people and other elites over the city’s reconstruction, are the subject of a well-illustrated new study by Charles Schencking, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, who has spent a decade and more excavating hitherto untranslated Japanese sources. His is the first book, either in English or Japanese, to cover the entire story from 1923 up to 1930.

Others have written graphically about the earthquake itself. Schencking does too, and adds some less familiar details, such as his citation of the report of a correspondent from an Osaka newspaper who flew over the ruins of Tokyo in an open-cockpit army reconnaissance plane. “Even at a height of 1,000 meters the disagreeable and unmistakable odor of death overpowered the smell of engine exhaust,” causing both the pilot and the reporter to wretch.

But his account of the seismic event and its early aftermath also suffers from some surprising omissions, given the book’s length. Despite the author’s evident interest in culture as well as politics and economics (less so science), the book makes no reference to a contemporary autobiographical sketch (translated as “The life of a stupid man”) by the author of Rashomon, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who visited the remains of the red-light district, Yoshiwara, where hundreds of men, women and children, including the courtesans, had been suffocated in a cauldron of mud. Nor does the book refer to the inspired 1920s short story by the Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata (translated as “The Money Road”), set on the first anniversary of the earthquake in 1924, in which two beggars at the packed official memorial meeting surreptitiously fill their boots with offering coins thrown onto the road from the back of the crowd.

And, inexcusably, the book completely neglects the much later eyewitness memoir of the earthquake by the film director Akira Kurosawa (which forms three sections of Kurosawa’s Something Like an Autobiography), a wise and haunting reflection, which describes his horrifying excursion into the fire-ravaged city, dragged along by an older brother. Kurosawa was 13 in 1923, living with his family in a hilly suburb of Tokyo. In the section entitled “Darkness and humanity,” he recalled of the earthquake: “Through it I learnt not only of the extraordinary powers of nature, but of extraordinary things that lie in human hearts.” For instance, neighbors warned him not to drink the water from a local well because its surrounding wall carried white chalk marks written in a strange Korean code (the grimly absurd truth was that Akira himself had been responsible for these meaningless scribbles). Rumors of this type about the Korean minority in Tokyo cost the lives of an estimated 6,000 Koreans at the hands of Japanese vigilante groups, remarks Schencking — a dark episode condemned by some, including a Japanese parliamentarian, after the earthquake, for which the Japanese government has yet to issue a formal apology, the author notes.

The book’s forte is the contested period of reconstruction, although regrettably it offers almost no comparison with the earlier reconstruction of the city following its destruction by the Great Ansei Earthquake in 1855. Schencking analyses how in 1923 some politicians — in particular the home minister of the imperial government, Gotō Shinpei, a former mayor of Tokyo — saw the destruction as a blessing in disguise, a chance to clear away Tokyo’s burgeoning slums and remodel the city on a European-style grid as a capital worthy of a great power. But other politicians, including the finance minister, were in no doubt that such a grandiose plan would cost far more than the nation could ever afford and therefore axed Gotō  Shinpei’s proposed budget. A third group, who represented impoverished rural regions far from Tokyo, resented the idea of massive spending on the capital and therefore forced a further reduction in the budget. As for the residents of the burnt-out districts, they were largely in favor of rebuilding exactly what they had lost, and began doing so within days of the disaster.

In late 1923, the home and finance ministers clashed spectacularly in cabinet, and the home minister lost his case. He died a broken man in 1929. The reconstruction budget was spent not on creating a new Tokyo but chiefly on roads, canals, bridges and “land readjustment.” This entailed a street-by-street negotiation with residents, who had to sacrifice up to 10 percent of their private land without government compensation in the interests of bettering their city — largely by eliminating narrow alleyways in favor of straight modern roads with pavements. Local feelings were often outraged in the process, sometimes necessitating religious intervention, such as when a sacred tree had to be cut down, as Schencking explains in intriguing detail. A Reconstruction Bureau official noted, probably wrily: “It was a wonderful time for Shinto priests to gain quick riches.”

The earthquake’s international dimension receives relatively little attention, by contrast. The book does note the irony inherent in the report of the US admiral who oversaw the US relief effort in Tokyo. Upon returning home, to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, he told navy officials that American aid, and Japanese gratitude for it, had so cemented the relationship between the two nations that war between them in the Pacific would be impossible in his generation. The book also reproduces an aerial photograph of the 1923 devastation taken from US World War II propaganda, chillingly captioned: “For this is the house that Jap built. And this is its logical fate. What nature did, in leveling Tokyo to the ground with an earthquake, we must now do again with American guns and bombs.” Schencking, taking his cue from a speech by the Emperor Hirohito in 1983 on the 60th anniversary of the earthquake, contends that if Tokyoites had listened to the home minister Gotō Shinpei in 1923, the city’s fire-bombing by the US in 1945 would have been less destructive.

But The Great Kantō Earthquake does not even touch on the perhaps more fascinating question of whether the seismic destruction of Tokyo in 1923 may have been a key factor in propelling Japan towards authoritarianism in the 1930s and eventually into a world war. It is not difficult to conceive of some causal link between the massive disruption caused by the earthquake in the 1920s, the economic effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the declaration of total war by Japan in 1941. More difficult is to substantiate such a link. Two well-informed books first published in the early 1990s — only the second of which receives a (passing) mention from Schencking — came up with starkly different assessments of the earthquake’s long-term impact.

The first, Sixty Seconds That Will Change the World (the title refers to a possible future great earthquake in Tokyo) by journalist Peter Hadfield, straightforwardly argues that the 1920s reconstruction of Tokyo provoked an economic crisis, worsened by the Great Depression, which then facilitated a military government’s complete takeover. “Few earthquakes in history have had such a decisive and powerful effect on world events,” writes Hadfield. On the other hand, Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake by literary academic Edward Seidensticker, sees the earthquake’s influence as more elusive. Debts arising from it played a direct role in a financial panic in 1927 that led to the resignation of the cabinet and the appointment of an army general as prime minister, who advocated aggressive Japanese interventionism in China. However, Seidensticker questions a link between this and the subsequent militarization of Japanese society: “Whether or not the reaction of the thirties would have come had the depression not come, we will never know.”

Throughout history, earthquake-prone cities have proved to be extraordinarily resilient. Think of Lisbon, Naples, San Francisco and of course Tokyo, not to mention ancient Pompeii, which was destroyed by an earthquake in AD 62 or 63 and rebuilt, before its final volcanic destruction by Vesuvius in 79. In the historical period, no city has ever been abandoned after a great earthquake, except for Port Royal in Jamaica, two-thirds of which slid under the Caribbean after an earthquake in 1692. All have been rebuilt. Nor has an earthquake yet induced a radical change in society, despite centuries of religious warnings about human depravity and the wrath of God as well as the reflections of thinkers and artists like Voltaire, Charles Darwin and indeed Kurosawa.

“Calls for sacrifice, renewal, and regeneration [...] continued unabated throughout the interwar and wartime periods in Japan. They were as prevalent, and became as quotidian, as the tremors that shook Japan’s seismically vulnerable archipelago,” writes Schencking at the end of his significant but patchy book. However, “national reconstruction” remained as “illusory as a mythical chimera.”


Andrew Robinson is the author of Earthquake: Nature and Culture, 2012, and Earthshock, 2002.

LARB Contributor

Andrew Robinson is a British writer, scholar and journalist. He has authored some 25 books, translated into 14 languages, on science and the history of science, archaeology, and Indian culture/history, for both general readers and specialists. Find out more at http://andrew-robinson.org.


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