Special Correspondent in Tokyo
Tokyo, Oct. 13, 2003 — At 11:58a.m. on September 1st 1923, as many of Tokyo's residents began to prepare the midday meal, the earth shook. It shook like it had never before shaken for the then Japanese capital's 3 million strong population and as it has not shaken since.In what was later to become known as The Great Kanto Earthquake, Kanto being the name of the plain atop which both Tokyo and Yokohama are situated, almost 143,000 people were to either lose their lives or be recorded as missing as a direct result of the earthquake. Another 104,000 injured stretched the cities medical facilities and between 40 and 50 percent of one of the world's largest cities lost their source of income and were
unemployed.Seismic technology not being what it is today, accurate pinpointing of the epicenter and estimated magnitude levels varied and continue to do so. Some, at the time, believed the tremors to have topped eight on the Richter scale with others facing the same scenes of panic and devastation unsure as to even the length of time the earth shook with claims ranging from just a few minutes to in excess of 10.What is sure and provable beyond doubt are the affects of the tidal wave or tsunami measuring around 10 meters in height that hit the coastlines of Kanagawa, directly to the south of Tokyo in addition to the capital itself that came ashore with its own
watery version of death and destruction for local coastal communities several minutes after the first tremors were felt. Yet, up to and including this point, even with the great magnitude of the quake itself and the terror of facing an onrushing wall of water, casualties were still relatively light. All that was about to change. Small fires initiated by the open flame cooking methods so prevalent amongst the wooden house dwelling masses of Tokyo and its surrounding areas soon grew until houses, streets and neighborhoods became death traps for those caught within. Unlike the ancient capital of Kyoto where traditional Chinese city layouts were copied along with wide avenues forming natural firebreaks, the much newer modern capital was a maze of tiny lanes and alleys with houses oftentimes backing on to each other and very few spaces into which victims could escape the flames licking at their heels.As such, in the 42 hours following the quake while just 71 houses were swept away by the tsunami that hit Tokyo the inferno that then swept over large swathes of Tokyo, Yokohama and Kanagawa engulfed and turned to ash some 378,000 houses in Tokyo alone. The 20,000 houses that are estimated to have collapsed outright pushing the grand total of homes lost in Tokyo to almost 400,000.When houses collapsed, destroyed by fire or swept away in other areas of the Kanto plain are included the surviving residents of almost half a million homes lost to the Great Kanto Earthquake found themselves facing September and autumn, with no roof above their probably unemployed heads. In all, deaths as a direct result of the quake and its aftermath occurred in seven prefectures; from Ibaragi in the north where less than 10 perished to Shizuoka in the south - 375 lives lost, Chiba in the east - 1335 fatalities and Yamanashi in the west - 20 dead.
Homes completely collapsed in at least 10 prefectures with the fires claiming around 450,000 other houses in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba and Shizuoka. Never before had Tokyo been hit so hard.
As mind numbing as such figures clearly are though, with September 1st 2003 being the 80th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake, memories are fading, victims are being forgotten and the lessons worth learning from the past are being ignored.The Memorial Museum for the Kanto Earthquake Disaster in north-eastern Tokyo is set in a quiet location and just meters away from the Monument to the Victims of the Tokyo Air Raids and its large Memorial Hall. Somewhat forlornly the museum stands
atop the very site of the former Army Clothing Depot. At this site, in September 1923 vacant after the depot was moved to another location, 38,000 men, women and children burnt to death during the 42 hours the massive inferno raged. Having evacuated to the relatively large plot of open land near the Sumida River they remained still as the flames approached in the tragically mistaken belief that the site would protect them. It didn't and they perished.However, as time passes and the memories of the Kanto plain's current 20 million residents fade into forgetfulness, the museum, not overly extensive with but two floors finds itself fighting an uphill struggle to remind the present generations of both the tragedies of the past and the ever present dangers beneath all living along the Pacific 'Rim of Fire.' Exhibits on the first floor include everyday household items used in Taisho era Japan such as pots, pans, cups and plates. All burnt or melted together they sit alongside fire damaged typewriters, bank notes and even contributions from the American Red Cross 'Japan Day' fund raiser held on September the 13th of the same year.The second floor of the period brick building looks at the resulting landscape, the contributions of artists of the day in recording the event and offers a more scientific explanation of more recent quakes than was available in the 12th year of the reign of the Taisho Emperor and hosted just two visitors other than myself in the hour I spent at the site on a Sunday just before the anniversary in search of information on foreign victims of the 'quake.' At no point I found, is there any obvious reference to the organized hunting down and murder of thousands of Korean and Chinese believed somehow responsible for the quake. Unfounded, and some believe police initiated, rumors spread as lethally as the flames that the Asian neighbors of the local Japanese were poisoning water supplies in the aftermath.
Estimates of the fatalities at the hands of the vigilante justice meted out range from 4,000 to 10,000. Nowhere do they seem to be mentioned. Nowhere do they seem to be remembered. Although earthquakes do not discriminate memories sadly appear to do so in ignoring this aspect of the disaster.Once outside the museum, and across a road where modern wooden buildings stand just inches apart from office blocks, several final exhibits can be seen in the form the fire left them. Leaving something of a lump in the throat at the extreme power of the heat that could strip concrete and twist its iron innards, fuse piles of nails into one and buckle melted girders - a feeling of sadness about the site compounded and multiplied tenfold when the majority of visitors to the area appear to be merely using the adjacent park as a place to entertain the kids or take a nap on the bench on a Sunday afternoon, ignoring the museum completely.In this ignorance perhaps lies the biggest tragedy of all: the fact that throughout recorded history the Kanto area has been hit by a major quake every 60-70 years. The Great Kanto Earthquake was 80 years ago but just who is ready for next time?
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Mark Buckton, a Tokyo-based freelancing journalist contributes his articles to a number of world's noted newspapers including The Seoul Times.
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