On September 1, 1923, a routine lunch hour in Japan's capital city of Tokyo and neighboring “City of Silk” Yokohama is disrupted when a massive, 7.9-magnitude earthquake strikes just before noon. The shaking causes more than half of Tokyo’s brick buildings, most of Yokohama’s buildings, and hundreds of thousands of homes to collapse, killing tens of thousands of people.
The Great Kanto Earthquake, also called the Tokyo-Yokohama Earthquake, of 1923 caused an estimated death toll of more than 140,000 and made some 1.5 million people homeless, though reported numbers vary. The earthquake triggered fires that burned many buildings, likely because in 1923, people cooked over an open flame, and the quake struck while people were preparing lunch. The high winds after the hit, caused by a typhoon that passed off the coast of the Noto Peninsula in northern Japan, spread the flames and created horrifying firestorms. Since the earthquake snapped water mains, the fires were not extinguished until September 3, after about 45 percent of Tokyo burned. Some researchers believed that the typhoon may have triggered the earthquake, because the forced atmospheric pressure pressed on a stressed and delicate fault line of three major tectonic plates that meet under Tokyo.
In Tokyo, the earthquake damage was so severe that some government leaders argued for moving the Japanese capital to a new city. In the fall of 1923, educator Miura Tosaku toured the destruction of Tokyo and concluded that the earthquake was an apocalyptic revelation. He wrote: “Disasters take away the falsehood and ostentation of human life and conspicuously expose the strengths and weaknesses of human society.” Tenrikyo relief worker Haruno Ki’ichi said the destruction and devastation in the earthquake aftermath “surpassed imagination.”
Earthquake survivors reported that the initial quake lasted about 14 seconds, which was enough to bring down nearly every building in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo. Yokohama’s Grand Hotel—a Victorian-era inn that had hosted famous people including U.S. President William Howard Taft and English author Rudyard Kipling—collapsed. Hundreds of hotel employees and guests were crushed. Henry W. Kinney, a Tokyo-based editor of the Trans-Pacific publication, observed the devastation in Yokohama hours after the earthquake hit.
“Yokohama, the city of almost half a million souls, had become a vast plain of fire, of red, devouring sheets of flame which played and flickered,” Kinney said. “Here and there a remnant of a building, a few shattered walls, stood up like rocks above the expanse of flame, unrecognizable ... It was as if the very Earth were now burning. It presented exactly the aspect of a gigantic Christmas pudding over which the spirits were blazing, devouring nothing. For the city was gone.”
Since 1960, the Japanese people recognize the September 1 anniversary of the earthquake as Disaster Prevention Day.
Japan has suffered through several devastating earthquakes. More than seven decades after the 1923 disaster, an earthquake struck Kobe on January 17, 1995. This Kobe Earthquake caused an estimated 6,400 deaths, widespread fires, and a landslide in Nishinomiya. Then, on March 11, 2011, a 9.0-magnitude temblor struck off the coast of Japan’s city of Sendai. This Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami caused a series of catastrophic tsunamis in Japan, and more than 18,000 estimated deaths.