The Great Japan Earthquake of 1923

The powerful quake and ensuing tsunami that struck Yokohama and Tokyo traumatized a nation and unleashed historic consequences

A circa 1925 woodcut by Unpo Takashima depicts Tokyo's Ueno district ablaze. "Each new gust of wind," reported Joseph Dahlmann, a Jesuit priest who witnessed the calamity from a hilltop, "gave new impulse to the fury of the conflagration." (Unpo Takashima / Artelino)
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The wave of good feeling between the two countries would soon dissipate, however, in mutual accusations. Japanese expressed resentment toward Western rescuers; demagogues in the United States charged that the Japanese had been “ungrateful” for the outpouring of help they received.

The earthquake also exposed the darker side of humanity. Within hours of the catastrophe, rumors spread that Korean immigrants were poisoning wells and using the breakdown of authority to plot the overthrow of the Japanese government. (Japan had occupied Korea in 1905, annexed it five years later and ruled the territory with an iron grip.) Roving bands of Japanese prowled the ruins of Yokohama and Tokyo, setting up makeshift roadblocks and massacring Koreans across the earthquake zone. According to some estimates, the death toll was as high as 6,000.

My own view is that by reducing the expatriate European community in Yokohama and putting an end to a period of optimism symbolized by that city, the Kanto earthquake accelerated Japan’s drift toward militarism and war. Japan scholar Kenneth Pyle of the University of Washington says that conservative elites were already nervous about democratic forces emerging in society, and “the 1923 earthquake does sort of begin to reverse some of the liberal tendencies that appear right after World War I....After the earthquake, there’s a measurable increase in right-wing patriotic groups in Japan that are really the groundwork of what is called Japanese fascism.” Peter Duus, an emeritus professor of history at Stanford, states that it was not the earthquake that kindled right-wing activities, “but rather the growth of the metropolis and the emergence of what the right wing regarded as heartless, hedonistic, individualistic and materialist urban culture.” The more significant long-term effect of the earthquake, he says, “was that it set in motion the first systematic attempt at reshaping Tokyo as a modern city. It moved Tokyo into the ranks of world metropolises.”

University of Melbourne historian J. Charles Schencking sees the rebuilding of Tokyo as a metaphor for something larger. The earthquake, he has written, “fostered a culture of catastrophe defined by political and ideological opportunism, contestation and resilience, as well as a culture of reconstruction in which elites sought to not only rebuild Tokyo, but also reconstruct the Japanese nation and its people.”

Though they may dispute its effects, historians agree that the destruction of two great population centers gave voice to those in Japan who believed that the embrace of Western decadence had invited divine retribution. Or, as philosopher and social critic Fukasaku Yasubumi declared at the time: “God cracked down a great hammer” on the Japanese nation.

Regular contributor Joshua Hammer is the author of Yokohama Burning, about the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.


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