Prior to the Tohoku-Kanto earthquake and tsunami of March 11, two similar seismic events — both followed by tsunami — have recently wrought destruction on the northeastern coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu. This week and next, we dig into the archives of The Japan Times and a forerunner later absorbed by the JT, The Japan Weekly Mail, to present original reports on two tragedies that bear a striking similarity to those of the past month. This week’s reports, both from The Japan Weekly Mail, concern what is now known as the Meiji Sanriku earthquake. That magnitude 8.2 temblor occurred on June 15, 1896, and was centered roughly 200 km east of present-day Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture (about 150 km northeast of the epicenter of the March 11 quake). It is now estimated that almost 22,000 lives were lost, mostly as a result of the tsunami that followed.

Saturday, June 20, 1896

The earthquake and tidal wave

It will be some time before full particularities reach Tokyo of the cruel disaster that has overtaken the people living along the coast of Rikuzen and Rikuchu (present-day Iwate and northern Miyagi prefectures).

At intervals, happily long, Japan is visited by earthquake waves that devastate her shores and sometimes bury whole villages permanently. Between 8 and 8.20 p.m. on June 15, a violent seismic disturbance appears to have occurred in the vicinity of the celebrated island of Kinkazan (off Miyagi Prefecture, close to Sendai).

The prefectures chiefly affected are Miyagi and Iwate. According to the Official Gazette of the 18th, the latest news from Miyagi is dated the 17th at 8:50 a.m. There, the most terrible visitation was at Motoyoshi, also called Shizukawa, a coastal town some 30 miles (50 km) north of Kinkazan. The number of lives known to have been lost in Miyagi was 1,931. In Iwate, killed and wounded totaled 2,000. We read that in Kamaishi, only the elevated portions of the town are left, and the towns of Ozuchi, Yamata and Kawazaki suffered similarly.

Under such circumstances, it may easily be conceived that heart-rending scenes were witnessed. The Nichi Nichi Shimbun makes brief allusion to these. At Motoyoshi, it says, 121 bodies were found on the shore and over 40 were dug out of the sand. Children were seen weeping over the bodies of their parents, and mothers wandering about with the corpses of their babies in their arms.

The Japanese are not prone to violent demonstrations of grief. After the appalling horrors perpetrated by the Bandai-san volcanic eruption (in Fukushima Prefecture) in 1888 and by the Gifu Prefecture earthquake in 1891, the survivors went about their business with patient resignation, neither yielding hysterically to panic nor aggravating one another’s pain by loud lamentation. Their condition excited all the more sympathy, and the foreign residents, with the charitable generosity that invariably marks their attitude toward any case of serious suffering, subscribed a handsome sum for relief.

The official reports state that crops of rice, mulberries, and so forth have been destroyed across a large area in the events of June 15, and that, in addition to deaths and wounds, the people are threatened with dire want. We invite our readers to render such aid as the occasion deserves. Subscriptions will be received at this office, and duly acknowledged in our columns.

Saturday, June 27, 1896

The June 15 wave

The destruction of life and property caused by the earthquake wave of June 15 assumes graver proportions with each new budget of official intelligence. The total losses for the prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Aomori stand as follows: Deaths, 27,875; persons injured, 1,928; houses wholly or partially wrecked, 11,153. Such figures tell a fearful tale. Since the great earthquake that almost destroyed Edo (present-day Tokyo), 40 years ago, no such calamity has overtaken Japan.

The Rev. E. Rothesay Miller writes us from Iwate Prefecture as follows: The destruction wrought by this tidal wave is greater than that of any calamity in Japan in late years. Throughout the coastline of 175 miles (280 km) in this province, there is scarcely a town or fishing village which has not been more or less damaged.

In some cases whole villages have been completely obliterated; one place has disappeared beneath the sea, either through subsidence, or because the water has not receded from the low land in which the village lay. In another place, the water is reported to have been 30 feet (9.5 meters) higher than the highest tide known.

The greatest destruction of life seems to have taken place at Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture, a town with a population of 5,693. The dead there are estimated at nearly 5,000. Your readers will be grieved to learn that at Kamaishi M. Henri Rispal, of the Roman Catholic Mission, perished, and his body has not yet been recovered.

At different places along the coast the out-rushing tide was observed, but this was attributed to the earthquakes which have been so frequent during the last few days, and the people, being absorbed with a festival, gave no heed to the warning, so that when the tidal wave came there was no time to retreat. Some did escape, but they were mostly fisherman who at the time were out in their boats.

To be sure, in such a great destruction of life there may be fewer than in recent calamities remaining for whom to invoke sweet Saint Charity, but it must be remembered that not only have these poor people lost their houses and household goods, but nets and boats have been carried out to sea, together with the food of the towns and villages.

The government is putting forth its energy, but its help is to last but 30 days. Beyond that month, if private charity does not come, many more will perish. I would earnestly report to your readers to give in abundance to those whose little all has been swept off by the sea.

Mike Hamilton assisted in compiling this special Japan Times Gone By feature.