The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 was literally a picture of hell. Fires killed hundreds of thousands of people and sparked a witch hunt of Korean residents wrongfully blamed for the infernos. Alex K.T. Martin joins us to discuss the quake and how the scars left by the disaster shaped the course of the nation.
On this episode:
- The Great Kanto Earthquake: A wall of fire, a picture of hell (Alex K.T. Martin, The Japan Times)
- Century since Kanto quake, expert warns of ‘blind faith’ in disaster resilience (Kathleen Benoza, The Japan Times)
- A documentary on the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 has unearthed Japan’s first ‘disaster footage’ (Kyodo)
- A diaspora remembers the disaster that forged it (Chitose Nakagawa, Kyodo)
Transcript note: Deep Dive is made to be listened to, and we recommend this transcript be used as an accompaniment to the episode. This transcript has been generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcription, and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the episode.
Shaun McKenna 0:04
Welcome to deep dive from The Japan Times. I'm Sean McKenna and I'm here with Japan Times features writer Alex K.T. Martin.
Alex Martin 0:12
Hi there Shaun.
Shaun McKenna 0:14
So Alex, where are we right now?
Alex Martin 0:16
So we're in Yokoamicho Park in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward. It's close to Sumida River and Ryogoku Station, which is where the big sumo Hall is.
Shaun McKenna 0:22
Yeah, this is the first time I've ever been here. In fact, we took a cab over here and the cabbie didn't even know where this place was.
Alex Martin 0:30
Right? Same here. I’ve never been here until I started reporting from my story. But then again, it's not exactly a tourist destination.
Shaun McKenna 0:38
Right. Well, it's 9:30 a.m. and it's already quite hot. Slight breeze coming through. But Alex, what exactly are we looking at here?
Alex Martin 0:48
Right. So if we're coming in from the north entrance, you'll see a walkway lined with trees. And then right in front of us across the park, we'll see a big bronze bell, which was given by Chinese Buddhists back after the big earthquake in 1923 to offer prayers to the souls of the deceased. Toward our right we see a small pond with a backdrop of flowers. This is a monument for those who perished during the Tokyo air raids towards the end of World War II. And then, obviously, the biggest structure in the park towards our right is the big memorial hall.
Shaun McKenna 01:23
I think you alluded to this earlier, but what exactly is this memorial hall memorializing?
Alex Martin 01:28
So it's memorializing the Great Kanto Earthquake that happened on Sept. 1, 1923, which is 100 years ago this Friday. This park is actually where a really deadly episode from the disaster happened. After the quake, which was an estimated 7.9 magnitude, struck off the southern coast of Kanagawa Prefecture, a lot of houses in Tokyo and elsewhere caught fire and the fire spread really quickly and many people gathered here, but they were burned alive. About 38,000 people actually.
Shaun McKenna 01:58
38,000 people? Yeah, on this spot?
Alex Martin 02:01
Shaun McKenna 02:03
I mean, this place is just kind of the size of a city block. It's hard to imagine 38,000 people even fitting in here.
Alex Martin 02:07
So people thought, you know, this place would be a nice place to evacuate from the fire. Turned out, it didn't work out that way. So the people who died here accounted for over half of the death toll Tokyo recorded and a third of the total 105,000 or so people who perished. And this was in Tokyo, Kanagawa and the surrounding areas combined. So that's why the memorial for the entire disaster was erected here.
Shaun McKenna 02:30
What's that building over there?
Alex Martin 02:32
That's a museum.
Shaun McKenna 02:33
Oh, can we go inside and check it out?
Alex Martin 02:35
Sure. Let's check it out.
Shaun McKenna 02:45
So we're inside the museum. And we've got a wall of black and white photos that have been taken after the earthquake occurred. Alex, what are we looking at in this big picture right here?
Alex Martin 02:57
So this is a panoramic photograph, which is taken, I believe, near Tokyo Station, it shows tens of hundreds or even thousands of people probably seeking refuge.
Shaun McKenna 03:07
And then on the right side of the hallway here, we have a bunch of artifacts. I can see a clock actually right here.
Alex Martin 03:13
Right you’ll eventually notice that a lot of the stuff that's collected here are burnt. I believe 90% of the people who died from the quake actually died from the fire. And the heat was extreme. So as you can see a lot of bronze steel all bent and corroded.
Shaun McKenna 03:30
Outside of the actual museum, there was that big, kind of like steel pole that had just melted and dissolved. So this museum and the memorial hall, do you know what they're planning to do to commemorate the disaster on Friday?
Alex Martin 03:46
Well every year on Sept. 1, they have a memorial service held and from what I heard from the people operating this place, is that it's going to be nothing special compared to a regular year. However, I imagine there's going to be a lot more people coming to offer their prayers.
Shaun McKenna 04:02
Cool. Let's head back to the studio and we can talk more about your article in detail.
OK, we're back in the studio with Alex K.T. Martin. Alex, can you take me back to Sept. 1 1923. What happened that day?
Alex Martin 04:22
Sure. So records indicate it was a hot and windy and humid day as a typhoon was passing through Japan. People were preparing for lunch, or actually eating lunch perhaps, when at 11:58 a.m. the earthquake struck. So the fact that people would have been making lunch is quite important here, they would have been using fire at the time for their stoves, and accounts describe the fires popping up among the homes and then merging and spreading across the city at over 130 locations in all 15. Ward's of Tokyo at the time. The flames were also fueled by the strong winds from the typhoon, as I mentioned before, and soon the capital was essentially consumed by an inferno.
Shaun McKenna 04:59
And that's what happened where we were today. Was the park meant to be a safe zone?
Alex Martin 05:04
So people treated it as one. It was a former military clothing depot, and it was about to be transformed into a park. So it was a big open space of around 80,000 square meters I think at the time, and people basically brought their belongings from their homes and tried to make a barricade with their furniture. But the barricades soon caught fire and burned everyone inside the safe zone.
Shaun McKenna 05:26
Was this similar to scenes in the rest of the city?
Alex Martin 05:29
Yes, pretty much. Fires emerged all over the place across, as I mentioned, all the 15 wards of Tokyo. But in terms of death tolls, the park or the former military clothing depot were the people gathered saw the most number of deaths.
Shaun McKenna 05:42
Your piece quotes eyewitness accounts from that day. Can you read one of those for us?
Alex Martin 05:47
Sure, I’ll read an excerpt from “Tokyo Sainan Gashin,” the Illustrated Report of the Tokyo Disaster, by Yumeji Takehisa.
“The clothing factory I saw the day after the disaster was indeed a sea of corpses. Those who died on the battlefield in a war were probably not as miserable as this ... A man who seemed to be a sumo wrestler died as if he was fighting in the ring, exerting all his strength against an invisible enemy.”
“Black rain clouds hang low in the sky on this tumultuous day, and gray smoke from burning corpses creeps across the vacant lot of the clothing factory, licking its way through the air.”
Shaun McKenna 06:25
I mean, that sounds horrific. Tell us a little bit more about Yumeji Takehisa.
Alex Martin 06:30
He’s a very noted poet and painter. So he put out a series of accounts of the disaster and I found these really fascinating. There are images from the 1923 earthquake, but the authorities eventually didn't want pictures of the dead being circulated around so a lot of the photographs showing actual corpses were banned at the time.
Shaun McKenna 06:48
Do you know why that is?
Alex Martin 06:50
It was too sensational. Um, however, the Yokoamicho Park museum, well, the researcher I interviewed for the story, Mr. Morita, says that they still receive photos from the families of the deceased who actually experienced the quake or who were living at the time of the quake. Many of them are these photographs of dead bodies and corpses and apparently these folks bought these pictures as mementos, I guess, of this huge disaster. So they would have a little note on the background saying, you know, “Sept. 1, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake.” And then after they died, their family members, their children perhaps or their grandchildren, they discover these photographs, and they don't know what to do with them. So they would bring it to the museum and ask them to take care of it. So it's sort of an interesting string of events, I guess.
Shaun McKenna 07:36
We also ran a story on a film that came out in the summer, it was titled “Men with Cameras: Filming the Great Kanto Earthquake.” Did you see that one?
Alex Martin 07:45
No, I haven't. I would love to though. I hear it was produced by the Documentary Film Preservation Center in Tokyo and it's apparently, essentially, Japan's first disaster footage. I think I read somewhere that the filmmakers,Shigeru Shirai, was criticized for filming, you know, such a devastating tragedy.
Shaun McKenna 08:03
So that would have been kind of similar to the fact that people had these photos, and they just didn't want photos of dead bodies circulating. Right?
Alex Martin 08:11
Right. However, he said he did it because he wanted people in other parts of Japan to actually see the footage and help with a donation effort, sending food or money.
Shaun McKenna 08:28
So in The Japan Times, we run a feature on the first Saturday of each month called Japan Times Gone By. It looks at the front pages of the newspaper from 100 years ago, 75 years ago, and 50 and 25 years ago. I was looking at old copies of the newspaper from the time of the earthquake for this month.
Alex Martin 08:47
What did you find?
Shaun McKenna 08:49
Well, it seems we didn't publish anything from the date of the quake, Sept. 1 until Sept. 4. Then on Sept. 4, we printed a typewritten bulletin that had the wrong date, first of all, but that's understandable because they were under stress. But it starts off with the words: “Hongo-ku,” which could be Honju-ku, “all burned.” “Hongo-ku, all burned.” Then it lists areas of Tokyo that are just burned, then which ones are safe and which ones are partially burned. From there it gives instruction on emergency laws that have been passed and notable people who have been killed. And the story actually ends by saying, “The American consul general in Yokohama is dead.”
By Sept. 6, the bulletin starts to resemble a newspaper a little bit more, and it has the masthead and the newspaper font. But in the Sept. 6 bulletin there was an interesting passage that reads, “Officials universally deplore the rumors of Korean outrages, which are declared ridiculous.”
Alex, can you tell us what this passage is possibly in reference to?
Alex Martin 09:53
Right so on top of this disaster was this additional tragedy of vigilante mobs hunting Koreans and people who they thought were Koreans. At the time, Japan had annexed the Korean peninsula and there were some Korean workers in Japan, in Tokyo as well, and rumors started to spread that they were the ones starting fires across the city or they were staging an uprising, or even poisoning wells. And in fact, one of Takehisa’s illustrations depicts a group of children bullying a boy for not looking Japanese.
Shaun McKenna 10:22
Huh, so it was just citizens going around hunting their neighbors?
Alex Martin 10:25
Well, not just citizens, records say the police were involved, the military were involved and other paramilitary forces were also involved in killing not just Koreans but also Japanese communists and socialists and anarchists. And history remembers this is a massacre and at Yokoamicho Park, the park we visited earlier, there's this black stone monument that was erected in 1973, dedicated specifically to the Korean victims of the quake. And the inscriptions on the black stone slab mentioned that slightly more than 6,000 Koreans were murdered at the time. That number, the 6,000 number has come to be a source of contention. In 2008, a government report came to the conclusion that the death toll from the massacre is estimated to account for one to several percent of those who perished in the earthquake. So that's around you know, 1,000 to several thousand people. And there's a memorial held for these Korean victims at Yokoamicho Park every year. And traditionally the governor of Tokyo would send some kind of tribute, but the current governor, Yuriko Koike, she did this in her first year in office but from 2017 onward she stopped doing this thing, she wants to express condolences to all the earthquake's victims. And this has led to criticism from various groups.
Shaun McKenna 11:37
Sounds like an “all lives matter” situation. Is this because she'd heard about this contentious number?
Alex Martin 11:43
Shaun McKenna 11:44
Why were the Koreans targeted? I think you mentioned in your piece that even Japanese and Chinese people who were mistaken for being Korean were being attacked?
Alex Martin 11:53
I believe there was a certain level of xenophobia present at the time back in 1923, and many Koreans were occasionally targets of discrimination in general, I think. As I mentioned earlier, Korea had been annexed 13 years earlier, so that sort of added to that sort of climate, I believe. And simultaneously, Japan was coming out of this era of liberalism called the Taisho Democracy period, and it was heading toward a period of more turbulence, which would eventually lead to more militaristic nationalism. I spoke to Akira Ide for the piece, he’s a professor at Kanazawa University in Ishikawa Prefecture and he's probably Japan's foremost expert on dark tourism. You might have heard this term before, it's tourism involving going to locations that's historically associated with death and tragedy, OK, things like that. He argues that this quake could have facilitated an acceleration of this trend towards militarization and nationalism, I think that Japan lost about a third of its nominal GDP because of the damage from the quake and the fires. So perhaps overseas expansion was in part to make up for this massive economic loss.
Shaun McKenna 12:58
So do you think this massacre of Koreans was sort of a predictor of where Japan would go next?
Alex Martin 13:04
That's a difficult one for me to sort of answer. However, Ide does say that there's a noticeable lack of critical research on the more questionable aspects of the reconstruction process following the 1923 earthquake. And perhaps one reason is because of Japan's rapid march towards militarism and eventually war. And other experts have posited that bureaucracy tends to be centralized during periods of reconstruction, and that gives potentially rise to nationalism. But I think most of these beliefs are still theories, and Ide thinks they just deserve more research.
Shaun McKenna 13:33
That sounds kind of serious, though. There have been other earthquakes in Japan's more recent history, and they haven't necessarily led to nationalism?
Alex Martin 13:42
Right, but we need to stress that he just wants to look into it. I don't think it's a mainstream idea.
Shaun McKenna 13:46
OK, though, I suppose writers overseas have explored similar concepts like Naomi Klein's “The Shock Doctrine” comes to mind, that's about the kind of aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.
Alex Martin 13:58
Well, Shinpei Goto was the mayor of Tokyo at the time, he had really grand ideas when it came to reconstructing Tokyo, but he did face significant budgetary constraints. Um, still, the city bounced back fairly quickly. Records indicated that 1929, which is six years after the quake, there was an expo held in Hibiya Park celebrating Tokyo's comeback. And during that period, a lot of the roads that we still see were built. However by that time, Japan was entering another turbulent period in its history. And unfortunately, in another 20 years, Tokyo would find itself back to ashes because of the big war. And this time it wasn't just Tokyo, Japan, the whole country would need to rebuild again.
Shaun McKenna 14:44
Before the break, you mentioned this idea that Tokyo had to rebuild itself twice in a span of a few decades. So once from the earthquake and once from the war. And fortunately, I think Tokyo goes on to enjoy a pretty good stretch of progress and success. After those two events, we very visibly remember the war every year. What about the Great Kanto Earthquake?
Alex Martin 15:06
Yeah, one of the big reminders of the war. Specifically, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is the memorial dome that remains outside of the Peace Museum, as you know. There aren't the same types of physical reminders of the earthquake left in Tokyo or elsewhere. For example, one place that I write about in the piece is about 2 kilometers west of the park we visited. It's an old pump station near Akihabara Station.
Shaun McKenna 15:30
So this is for a part of your piece in which you outlined the “miracle” of the Great Kanto Earthquake. Tell us what happened there.
Alex Martin 15:37
Right so the pump station is located in a district called the Kanda Izumicho neighborhood, which is right next to the Kanda Samuracho neighborhood. So when the earthquake struck, and the fires started breaking out, residents formed these, what do you call, bucket brigades right to try to get the fire out. And they sent the elderly kids and the woman up to Ueno Park to evacuate, which is about 1.5 kilometers north of this neighborhood. Luckily, this certain district was sandwiched by a river, Kanda River, running down south, there were some noncombustible buildings up north, and there was the Kanda freight station nearby as well. So it was sort of sandwiched by these blockades. But still, the fire was coming really strongly, the blazes were, you know, surrounding the whole neighborhood. And what they did then was that there happened to be two gasoline pumps in the neighborhood, one was operated by a hospital, another one was a pre-delivery product. So it was about to be delivered to the client, but it was still sitting in a factory of the Teito Pump-sha what is the Imperial Pump Company. So residents gather gasoline from wherever they could find them, stuck it in these pump machines, and then hooked that up to the pump station. And that provided the water. And these really sort of helped put the fire out in the neighborhood. So interestingly, if you look at an old map from I think it was like 1924 or so, it's a map of the fire of Tokyo, and it's almost entirely red. But you find this little square spot in the middle of the map, which is white indicating that this area was saved from the blazes.
Shaun McKenna 17:13
And then so this pump station is slated for demolition.
Alex Martin 17:17
That's correct. So it's just one more physical reminder of the earthquake that is disappearing. We also don't have a lot of first-hand witnesses living with us. It's you know, it's 100 years ago, it wouldn't happen. So that is a concern that you know, some of the memories of what happened will kind of leave our collective consciousness.
Shaun McKenna 17:31
I guess that's why we would have museums and memorials like the ones at Yokoamicho Park. But yeah, it's not quite the same, is it? Is there anything being done at a grassroots level about this?
Alex Martin 17:44
Yes. So I spoke to a man named Tatsuo Yoshiwara, he is 80 years old and he's had a number of jobs throughout his life, but he's always lived in this area of Tokyo. It's been traditionally known as Yoshiwara.
Shaun McKenna 17:57
What is significant about Yoshiwara?
Alex Martin 18:00
So in the 1600s, Yoshiwara was designated as a red-light district, or I guess they call it “pleasure quarters.” First, it was located in Nihonbashi, then it was moved to Asakusa after a big fire. And this was a period when Tokyo was called Edo. The shogun established it to try to isolate sex work in one area of the city, and Yoshiwara became something of a cultural center as well. And people who went there more often than not, were people who had money and influence.
Shaun McKenna 18:26
What kinds of people were these? Well, at first,
Alex Martin 18:28
Well, at first, it would have been the upper elite samurai class, but later, it expanded to merchants, craftsmen and eventually anyone who had some extra cash. You'll see what I kind of had this mystique attached to it. And that's why we see so much of it novels and poems and history books. But we have to remember that at the heart of it were many women who were being bought and sold there. And sometimes handlers would go to the poorer parts of Japan and buy daughters to bring to the area.
Shaun McKenna 18:54
Right, and you write about the unfortunate end some of the sex workers meet in the earthquake of 1923.
Alex Martin 19:01
Yes, so for the piece I also visited Yoshiwara Benzaiten Shrine and there's a pond there. It's a small pond now, but it used to be much bigger. And after the big quake, many of the sex workers tried to take refuge in this pond, but about 500 people died there and many of them were the sex workers.
Shaun McKenna 19:18
That's really unfortunate. What does Tazza Yahshua have to do with this? And I noticed his name is the same as the location's name?
Alex Martin 19:25
That's just a coincidence. Yeah, that's the way she was one of these concerned locals who wants people to remember the stories of Tokyo and so he's taken it upon himself to try and spruce up the shrine. There's a big statue of the goddess Kannon there. And he said it used to be still quite a gloomy place. So he cut the shrubs and bushes, gave the premises a paint job and added some lanterns, and it's very colorful, nicely, and a lot of people go there. He now collects money for the refurbishment of the shrine because he says he wants to add a waterfall to the pond.
Shaun McKenna 19:55
A waterfall, wow.
Alex Martin 19:56
Yeah, I mean, if you go there now, they're actually doing construction work at the moment, but the pond itself had a leak and that's why it needs to be repaired. But Yoshiwara is trying to fix it and the place actually looks quite nice. And it was the shrine that originally got me interested in writing the story and hearing Yoshiwara-san’s efforts to preserve the memory of these sex workers who perished in the earthquake 100 years ago. And I think actually, it's people like him who make me happy to be living in Tokyo, you know, they take these little corners of the city and it could be a corner filled with some amazing stories of the city's history and they cherish it, and they want other people to continue cherishing it when they're gone. And the last time I was on the podcast, I was talking about the people who are trying to keep the various matsuri festivals alive in Japan. And that's kind of the same thing. I think, a lot of the cultural gatekeepers of Tokyo and Japan overall, they're aging and they're leaving us. So it's important that we continue telling the stories they spent their lives preserving.
Shaun McKenna 20:51
Well, I think that's a nice note to end on. Alex, thanks for coming back on Deep Dive.
Alex Martin 20:56
My pleasure. Thank you, Shaun.
Shaun McKenna 21:03
If you're in Tokyo and you want to check out Yokoamicho Park, there’s sure to be some memorial events taking place on the 100th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake. You can walk there pretty easily from Ryogoku Station. And if you want to check out Yoshiwara Benzaiten Shrine, which is also known as Yoshiwara Benzen, you can walk there from Asakusa Station. Alex's piece on the Great Kanto Earthquake will be out online on the anniversary, tomorrow, and in the Saturday edition of the newspaper. Meanwhile, it was a busy week in news. The release of treated wastewater from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, which was covered on this podcast several weeks ago, did not go over well with certain parties — in particular Beijing, who immediately enforced a retaliatory ban on all Japanese fish imports. And a team of experts investigating alleged sexual abuse by late music mogul Johnny Kitagawa delivered a scathing report on Tuesday, urging Johnny's and Associates President Julie Keiko Fujishima to step down after the family-run business left the issue unaddressed for decades. The third party team of experts appointed by the talent agency in late May interviewed 41 People for the report and concluded that Johnny Kitagawa began sexually abusing boys in the 1950s and then at his agency from the 1970s to the 2010s, Johnny's and Associates did not take appropriate actions such as investigating whether the sexual abuse allegations against Johnny Kitagawa were true or not, despite various news reports and court cases the report said. Johnny Kitagawa died in 2019. Deep Dive from The Japan Times is produced by Dave Cortez. The outgoing track is by Oscar Boyd and our theme music is by the Japanese artist LLLL. I'm Shaun McKenna, podtsukaresama.