On Sept. 1, millions of people in Japan took part in various emergency drills such as ducking under desks, avoiding falling objects and evacuating buildings. It was all part of Disaster Prevention Day, which takes place annually to mark the anniversary of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, one of the most destructive natural disasters of the 20th century.

Yokohama Burning, by Joshua Hammer.
336 pages
FREE PRESS, Nonfiction.

The 7.9 magnitude quake started just before noon. Because many people were cooking, fires spread and were whipped up by winds into “fire tornadoes” that swept throughout the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama. Several neighboring prefectures were also badly affected. To make matters worse, a typhoon hit the Kanto region around the same time. Tens of thousands died within minutes of the quake and further casualties resulted from the 12-meter-high tsunami that struck the coast of Sagami Bay in Izu. Altogether, it’s estimated that over 140,000 people lost their lives as a result of the disaster.

Numerous books have been written about the earthquake, including some in English by authors such as J. Charles Schencking and Charles Davison. One of the most fascinating and controversial is Joshua Hammer’s 2006 release “Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire That Helped Forge the Path to World War II,” in which the former bureau chief for Newsweek magazine suggests a link between the national response to the 1923 disaster — most notably the massacre of Korean civilians — and Japan’s plunge into World War II.

“Some critics have argued that this view is too simplistic,” Hammer tells The Japan Times. “They say it’s not valid to trace the militarization of Japan in the 1930s to a cataclysm in the 1920s as there were many other factors involved. Fair enough, but I believe you can instinctively see a connection. The free rein the military was given at that time was an intoxicating thing and gave them a taste of absolute power. You could see parallels in the savage treatment of Korean citizens during this period and the bloody subjugation of Japan’s neighbors in the build-up to the Second World War.”

Between Sept. 1 and 8, many Koreans were attacked due to false claims of rebellion and sabotage. Soon after the tremors stopped, rumors began to spread that Korean escapee prisoners were looting, setting fires to houses and poisoning rivers. Very quickly, all Koreans living in Japan were seen as a threat and were subsequently targeted.

According to testimonies in “Yokohama Burning,” those who mispronounced words, failed to recite the national anthem or recall the Yamanote Line stations were executed. It was later discovered that two boys who had their throats slit after failing to respond to questions were students at a local school for the deaf. Estimates of the death toll from the attacks range from the low hundreds to several thousand.

“Given the animosity between the two countries, the breakdown of law and order that follows disasters, and the human tendency to look for scapegoats, I wasn’t surprised that this happened,” says Hammer. “What did shock me was the extent of the violence and the fact that the government took so long to step in. The English newspapers at the time were excellent and didn’t try to sugarcoat anything. Some of the stories were horrible to read.”

While “Massacres” is undoubtedly the most eye-opening and hard-hitting chapter of “Yokohama Burning,” it’s only a small part of Hammer’s narrative, which begins with a brief history of how Japan’s second city transformed from a sleepy fishing village into a thriving foreign settlement following the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet of Black Ships in 1853. The dynamic area that had emerged during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) was then almost wiped off the face off the earth in a single afternoon.

“The place was annihilated, with around 90 percent of the buildings destroyed,” says Hammer. “Tokyo, which I also wrote about, was badly hit, but nothing like Yokohama. Writing for an English-speaking audience, I thought it would be better to focus more on this fascinating Western enclave with an array of personalities from various backgrounds who were all having to cope with this tragedy at the same time. Some felt I concentrated too much on the foreign community, but I disagree. Japanese people feature prominently, including seismologist Akitsune Imamura, arguably the standout character of the book.”

In a paper written in 1905, Imamura (1870-1948) predicted that a major earthquake would hit the Kanto region within 50 years and that between 100,000 and 200,000 people would die, mainly from fires as most houses were made of wood. His findings, which appeared in the then-popular newspaper Tokyo Nichiroku Shimbun in 1907, were discredited by his senior colleague, Fusakichi Omori. Accused of scaremongering, Imamura’s reputation was left in tatters, yet he maintained his stance. Eventually, he was recognized as a hero and his “Primary legacy,” writes Hammer, “was that the Japanese government poured vast amounts of money into earthquake prediction research in the following decades.”

Another prominent figure in the book is Shigeo Tsuchiya, a survivor of the quake that Hammer managed, through his fixer, to track down. “He was in his 90s, but still had vivid recollections of what happened,” says the author. “I felt it was important to have at least one person who was there and not just solely rely on the archives.”

Despite the book not being a commercial success, Hammer is happy with the way “Yokohama Burning” turned out. “My most recent release (‘The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts’) was a bestseller, whereas ‘Yokohama Burning’ completely fell off the map,” says Hammer. “It was disappointing, but I don’t regret writing it at all. It led to a couple of TV shows and wasn’t completely forgotten. It’s an interesting story about a hugely important time in Japanese history.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.