Monday, July 8, 2024

Japan's Kanto Earthquake--More than the Ground Shook

by Martha Hutchens
image by czamfir, deposit photos
Japan is known for its earthquakes. There have been many earthquakes there between 7 and 9 in magnitude. In 2011, one of the five strongest earthquakes since record keeping began hit the country, measuring 9.1 on the Richter scale. But I want to tell you about a different earthquake, one that may well have contributed to history in ways beyond mere destruction.

In 1859, Yokohama was founded as Japan’s first “foreign settlement.” By 1923, it had a population of close to 500,000. It was a base of foreign trade and foreign ideas. It was a place of optimism and mingling cultures.

In 14 seconds, that all changed.

On September 1, 1923, at 11:58 am, the ground shook. Fourteen seconds later, it stopped, and nearly every building in the city lay in ruins. Minutes later, a 40-foot tsunami hit. Fires came next, and with the water lines disrupted by the quake, the fire departments could do nothing.

image by Wolterke, deposit photos

Many retreated to the river, which turned out to be the largest scene of carnage. A 300-foot fire tornado, called a “dragon twist” killed nearly 44,000 people there. The total death toll would be close to 140,000.

This earthquake also devastated Tokyo and the surrounding area.

There were heroes, certainly far more than we will ever know. A US Ensign freed a woman trapped in rubble and carried her to safety, only seconds ahead of the flames. The captain of the Empress of Australia took on hundreds of refugees. Most significantly, Taki Yonemura, chief engineer of a wireless station 152 miles northeast of Tokyo, spent the next three days broadcasting reports to a station in Hawaii. From there, the world learned of the tragedy.

What followed was one of history’s “if onlys.”

image by microgen, deposit photos

The world responded with a massive relief effort, led by the United States. The first US vessels sailed from China the very next day. Within a week, dozens of warships were on their way in a mission of peace.

But somehow, it all went wrong. The Japanese expressed resentment toward the West, and the West expressed resentment toward Japanese ingratitude. A golden opportunity to draw the two countries closer together was squandered. Eighteen years later, Japan would bomb Pearl Harbor.

Many things went wrong inside Japan after this earthquake. Rumors of Korean poisoning wells spread, and as many as 6000 Koreans were killed. (Japan had occupied Korea in 1905.)

Many Europeans lived in Yokohama, and many of those were either killed or left after the earthquake. The move toward Japanese fascism accelerated after the earthquake. Many believed that Japan’s embrace of “Western decadence” had invited divine retribution.

image by icholakov01, deposit photos
Did this change in attitude contribute to Japan’s entry into World War II? Historians are divided, and the complete truth will probably never be known. But this natural tragedy definitely changed the feeling of optimism and openness that had characterized Japan before it hit. And war is definitely right around the corner.

Martha Hutchens is a transplanted southerner who lives in Los Alamos, NM where she is surrounded by history so unbelievable it can only be true. She won the 2019 Golden Heart for Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements. A former analytical chemist and retired homeschool mom, Martha is frequently found working on her latest knitting project when she isn’t writing.

Martha’s current novella is set in southeast Missouri during World War II. It is free to her newsletter subscribers. You can subscribe to my newsletter at my website,

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1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I didn't realize Japan was so prone to quakes.