“The pillars of the house made groaning sounds and began to crack. An earthquake! The wall clock stopped, and the electric fan went flying.” That was how Hisamatsu Yamato, then an 18-year-old living in Tokyo’s Honjo district, recalled the moment.

The event that would forever scar Yamato’s memories occurred at 11:58 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, 1923, when a section of the Philippine Sea plate under the Kanto region abruptly shifted.

Seated at his desk at that same moment, University of Tokyo seismology professor Akitsune Imamura studiously observed that the tremors increased in intensity for about 12 seconds, followed by some five seconds of fierce shaking. The quake measured 7.9 on the open-ended Richter scale. Three minutes later, there was a second temblor, measuring 7.2; a third, 41/2 minutes later, measured 7.3. That day hundreds of aftershocks were recorded, 19 of them with magnitudes of 5 or higher.

More than 10,000 people had been killed by the previous major earthquake to hit Edo, as Tokyo was then called, in the second year of the Ansei Era (1855). In the seven decades that followed, the city’s population had grown more than fourfold, to around 21/2 million. The working-class Honjo district (now Sumida Ward) had the city’s highest population density.

In the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, though, the worst destruction was caused not by the temblors but by fire. The quake struck just as many households were preparing their lunchtime meals on charcoal or coal stoves, scattering the red-hot embers. The two strong aftershocks hindered efforts to extinguish the fires that soon broke out. To make matters worse, most water mains were ruptured, communications and administration broke down almost entirely . . . and the day was windy.

“We ran through cyclones of intense heat toward a school under construction,” Yamato relates in a collection of survivors’ testimonies. “I watched flames shoot out from futon that people had slung over their backs.”

By evening, Yamato found himself crowded with others onto a large mound of sand to escape the conflagration.

“As hot as it was, a girl tried to bury herself in the sand,” Yamato recalled. “Before she died she murmured, ‘I’m so hot. Please give me water.’ But I had none to give her. On an adjacent mound, a woman went into labor; the next morning she gave birth to a baby girl. It was like a scene from hell. When the fires subsided, I walked around and saw corpses everywhere. I’d thought I was hot — but even the soles of their feet were charred.”

Of the nearly 40,000 people who fled to a large open space in the Military Clothing Depot in Honjo, all but 2,000 perished from fire or suffocation as cyclones of superheated air, almost devoid of oxygen, swept through at 70-80 kph. This single location was to account for close to 40 percent of the quake’s total fatalities. Another tragedy occurred in the Yoshiwara brothel quarter, where 630 inhabitants, unable to escape the walled enclosure, died in the fire.

When the fires and firestorms finally subsided 40 hours later, more than 500,000 dwellings — 63 percent of all those in the city — had been destroyed. Of those, it’s estimated only 0.9 percent were destroyed by the tremors; the rest by fire. In Yokohama, which was closer to the epicenter under Sagami Bay off Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture, more than 72 percent of homes were destroyed; only 9.8 percent by tremors. When the dust and ashes finally settled, the official death toll was put at 68,215 in Tokyo; 29,065 in Kanagawa and 1,335 in Chiba alone. Tens of thousands more were listed as missing; the actual toll was never known, though it is reckoned to have been more than 140,000 dead and 100,000 injured, with some 3.25 million people made homeless.

In terms of geographic radius, the destruction wrought by the 1923 disaster — primarily in the seven prefectures of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Chiba, Ibaraki, Saitama, Yamanashi and Shizuoka, where almost 12 million people lived — is estimated to have been roughly 10 times that of the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake. In Yokohama, the devastation was even worse than Tokyo, and many of the city’s foreign residents perished. In Shizuoka, the entire village of Nebukawa was wiped out by a mudslide.

The natural disaster was compounded by a human one. Several days after the shocks subsided, vigilante mobs began to hunt down scapegoats. However, the lynchings of some 6,000 Koreans and a smaller number of Chinese that followed were less spontaneous than is often believed: An official at the Interior Ministry had cabled local branches that Koreans were committing acts of arson and ordered them rounded up. As the hysteria spread, killings took place even in areas undamaged by the quake.

Rightists also used the confusion to lash out at fellow Japanese, particularly socialists and labor unionists. In the notorious “Kameido Incident” on the night of Sept. 4, army officers summarily executed 10 labor activists with swords in the working-class district of the same name. The city was put under martial law on Sept. 8, but military police abused their power and attacked other “enemies of the state,” such as anarchist author Sakae Osugi who, together with his wife Noe Ito and his 6-year-old nephew, was strangled by a military police captain. Staggered by the destruction of so many historical and cultural monuments, the tragic loss of life and catastrophic economic impact, the Japanese were left demoralized. Many argued the capital should be moved back to Kyoto or relocated elsewhere.

In 1972, 49 years after the Great Kanto Earthquake, Yamato and some 70 other survivors formed the “Group of 12-9” (referring to the year and month, 1923 being the 12th year of Taisho) to compile their testimonies for posterity “and in remembrance of the victims.” The resulting 130-page book, titled “Survivors of the Depot Disaster,” was published in 1982, six years after Yamato’s death, and reprinted in 1999. The last survivor of the group, Bensaku Morita, passed away in May 2000 at age 92.

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