The Japanese Earthquake of 1923

About the Japanese earthquake of 1923, the history of the disaster and destruction which leveled Tokyo and Yokohama.


In Japan, where seismographs record an earthquake every hour, the nation's attitude is one of indifference. But just before noon on a humid summer day, a giant quake transformed that indifference into demoralized panic. When the shocks were over and the smoke from resulting fires had cleared away, Tokyo and Yokohama were devastated cities.

When: At 11:58 A.M. on Saturday, September 1, 1923.

Where: Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan.

The Loss: 99,331 dead; 43,476 missing; 103,733 seriously injured; 1,500,000 homeless; 60% of Tokyo and 80% of Yokohama destroyed.

The Disaster: Office and factory workers mopped their perspiring brows and glanced often at the clock. The day was a scorcher and they waited impatiently for 12 o'clock and quitting time. Housewives fired up their hibachis to prepare lunch for their husbands and families. Inside the new earthquake-proof Imperial Hotel designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, management prepared for the grand opening. The hotel rested on concrete and steel piers sunk in a 70'-thick bed of mud. This new and unproven "floating" concept of an earthquake-proof building was not acceptable to Japanese architects, who contended that unless the foundation of a building was firmly attached to solid earth it would topple with the 1st earthquake.

At 2 minutes to 12 o'clock the disastrous quake struck with the roar of a legendary dragon. Business buildings toppled, ships in the harbor were cast adrift when hawsers snapped. Thousands of people crowded into streets and narrow alleyways to be buried beneath falling debris. Onshore oil storage tanks exploded to transform the sea within the breakwater into a flaming mass.

Yellow dust clouds of crumbling buildings choked a panic-stricken populace. A hundred thousand hibachis filled with glowing charcoal were thrown about the kitchens in the rice-paper homes. Tongues of flames jumped about to devour everything in reach. Sixteen-foot waves pounded beaches. Undermined bluffs tossed a commuter train and its 500 passengers into a frothy sea. Railroad tunnels collapsed to entomb hundreds more. Bridges twisting in torment gave way under the weight of people trying to escape across them.

Water and gas lines burst with the 1st shock. Three hundred and ninety-four trams overturned, their broken, twisted steel tracks rising upward grotesquely. Fire prevented rescue work. Over 40,000 people congregated in an open area only to be choked to death by dust and smoke, then consumed by the conflagration. Husbands entered the inferno searching for their families, and they, too, became trapped to suffer a fiery death. It was a day and night of terror. Food and medical supplies were gone and 9 million people were without drinking water.

When the smoke cleared away, there were 99,331 dead, 1,500,000 homeless, and 103,733 seriously injured. An additional 43,476 people were missing. Amid the rubble, the Imperial Hotel reached skyward, undamaged. The earthquake-proof design of Frank Lloyd Wright had been just that.

Aftermath: On September 2, 1923, Tokyo and Yokohama were all but leveled. From around the civilized world came offers to help, with money. Surprised Japanese officials accepted gratefully, saying: "We thought you didn't like us." In after-the-fact analysis, fire was responsible for more deaths and property damage than the earthquake.

Tomorrow: Japan accepted the catastrophe with oriental stoicism and began the massive job of rebuilding. Today, Tokyo and Yokohama are monuments to an acquired technology that promises untold future benefits to the entire world.

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