Just before noon on Sept. 1, 1923, after severe shaking in a small wooden house in Kyobashi, an old Tokyo district east of the Imperial Palace, my father-in-law, then a 6-month old baby — along with a steaming pot of rice — was scooped up by my father-in- law’s mother as she dashed into the street.
Simultaneously throughout Tokyo, charcoal braziers toppled like lined-up dominoes. The family home was fast reduced to a pile of ashes, and the family, including the baby, arrived at Ueno Park — a spacious area where Japan’s first zoo opened in the late 19th century — which was quickly transformed into an evacuation center for thousands of displaced people.
According to my wife’s family lore, the shocked family stayed at Ueno Park, ironically now a site for many Tokyo homeless, until the house was rebuilt in Kyobashi.
I first met my father-in-law when he was in his robust 60s. I could not imagine this fast-talking businessman as a tiny baby, cuddled against his mother’s chest amid the showers of sparks and clouds of thick black smoke, while sharing accommodations with elephants and monkeys.
Having been just one Tokyo family among 2 million homeless in the autumn of 1923, I am filled with admiration for its members’ survival and endurance with neither the convenience of disposable diapers nor instant noodles.
In hindsight, it was indeed remarkable that my father-in-law survived, as the Great Kanto Earthquake that destroyed two-thirds of Tokyo and four-fifths of Yokohama remains the single largest disaster in Japanese history, with a death toll of 140,000, according to Peter Hadfield’s book “Sixty Seconds That Will Change the World.”
In one gruesome microdisaster within the huge conflagration, tens of thousands died when refugees were trapped in a vacant lot as fast-moving fires converged to turn it into an instant killing field.
Meanwhile, luck was again on my father-in-law’s side 22 years after the apocalyptic Great Kanto Earthquake, as the rebuilt Kyobashi house was razed like its predecessor — but this time due to U.S. fire-bombing (an estimated 100,000 died in March 1945, and half of Tokyo was burned out).
That time he had been drafted into the Imperial Army, but inexplicably was never sent overseas to almost certain death in Burma or on Iwo Jima. A charmed life, indeed.
After the war, my father-in-law rebuilt the house and continued his family’s specialty brush business. His life, however, not only had narrow escapes, but it was filled with sacrifices, too, as his entrepreneurial father had died young and his older brother, the family successor, was bedridden with tuberculosis. Consequently, my father-in-law became the provider for two families.
On the second floor of the house/shop — which looked increasingly to be from another age as it came to be surrounded by modern concrete and glass buildings — lived his older brother’s wife and children — I can only imagine a daily tragiccomic drama of personality clashes.
In the early 1990s, at the peak of Japan’s surreal bubble economy, when real-estate prices went stratospheric — the value of the Imperial Palace grounds in central Tokyo, where survivors had congregated after the 1923 earthquake, was then put at the same as the whole of California — a soba noodle restaurant owner made an offer for the dilapidated Kyobashi house and lot that my father-in-law could not refuse.
After that, he settled into retirement, albeit marred by Parkinson’s disease and a stroke. He died last year on Sept. 2, one day after the Great Kanto Earthquake memorials and the end of his 85th summer.
Truly, his was not an exceptional life by the tumultuous standards of his times — but it was surely one with a couple of extraordinary lucky escapes, starting with what could have been the end of his life and his world.
Ray Tsuchiyama, a former head of the Asia Office for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, now works in the telecoms industry. He has lived in Tokyo for two decades. This story is a reader’s submission gratefully received at firstname.lastname@example.org