The Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) was one of the most horrific and destructive natural disasters of the modern era. At 11:58 AM on the morning of September 1st, a quake of 7.9 on the Richter scale stuck the Kanto Plain, home to the Tokyo-Yokohama region, one of the most densely populated urban areas on the globe. The quake rocked the plain, casing tremendous damage, but that was only the beginning of the nightmare. In what can only be described as a coincidence of outrageous misfortune, a typhoon off the coast whipped up unusually high and constant winds which fueled the many fires that were sparked by the quake. The fires quickly became firestorms, and even a ‘fire tornado’ was reported. Tokyo was poorly prepared, as while a modern and vibrant city, it was composed of a hodgepodge of building styles with no consistent safety codes. The traditional wooden Japanese houses went up like tiki torches, while many of the modern high-rises collapsed and were consumed by the fames. Whole neighbourhoods were totally leveled as if they were carpet bombed. In the end, at least 142,800 people were killed, 50 % of Tokyo was destroyed and 370,000 houses were torched.
The tragedy was a profound shock to Japan, which had until then been on a roll, as from the 1860s it had transformed itself from an isolated agrarian state into one of the world’s leading military-industrial powers. Popular anger broke out on the (remaining) streets of Tokyo, scapegoating the Korean community, as well as political dissidents. The resulting Kanto Massacre led to 6,000 deaths.
In the wake of the earthquake, Tokyo embarked upon a massive rebuilding programme, enforcing tough new building codes, creating wider streets and more green spaces, making it one of the most earthquake and fire-resistant major cities in the world. Japan became a leader in seismic research and damage prevention, such that while the country would go on to experience many more severe earthquakes, the damage would generally be a great deal less than it could have been.
The Present Map in Focus
The present map showcases all of Tokyo proper in impressive detail, to a grand scale, and shows how the firestorms in the wake of the earthquake annihilated most of the city centre and virtually all its harbour front. Only the northwest part of the city and the Imperial Palace complex, in the dead centre, were spared, the later saved by the fact that it was surrounded by moats and open spaces.
The map is the result of an immensely sophisticated and thorough investigation of the fire launched by a specially convened unit, the Relief Information Bureau, run by top academics at the Tokyo Imperial University. It is certainly one of the most impressive ‘disaster maps’ of the 20th century and one of the works that helped establish Japan as global leader in seismic research. The map was jointly sponsored and published by the Tōkyō Nichinichi Shinbunsha and the Ōsaka Mainichi Shinbunsha, two of Japan’s leading dailies. While the map is largely in Japanese, it has English subtitles, provided to make it accessible to the large foreign community in Tokyo, as well as interested parties abroad.
The symbols used throughout the map are explained in the legend, below the title, lower left. Red Dots denote places where fires started; Green Arrows show the direction of the spread of fires; Red Arrows mark places that were destroyed by flying sparks; Red Crosses mark places where people died (with the figures noting the number of deaths); Times given in Green note the moments that certain fires commenced; while fires that stated within an hour of the earthquake are not recorded, due to lack of data.
The colour shading of the destroyed areas correlate to the intriguing chart, ‘The Direction of Winds then Prevailing and their Velocity’, on the right-hand side, that records the windspeed and wind directions in Tokyo verses the time of day.
The map was immensely popular in its time and was issued in a sizeable print run, although its large size and the fact that it is printed on fragile newspaper-like stock, has led to a low survival rate. While examples appear occasionally on the market, they are often in poor condition; the present example is a better than average specimen. We note institutional examples held by the National Diet Library (Tokyo), Harvard University, Cornell University, University of California – Berkeley and the Duke University.
It is worth reading Harvard University’s blog post on mapping the Kanto Earthquake and its aftermath, associated with an exhibition held at the Pusey Library (December 14, 2016 to April 19, 2017):
References: National Diet Library: YG13-Z-633; Harvard University Library: MAP-LC G7964.T7 1923 .T3 oversize; OCLC: 906639189, 1052768468.