Earthquake Days

"The lurid panorama lay out folded before us—but it was meaningless. There were no landmarks, no familiar buildings from which one might determine locality." In 1924, an American journalist in Japan offered a harrowing first-hand account of the Great Kanto earthquake.
1923 kanto earthquake photo japan
A view of destruction in Tokyo, seen from the top of the Imperial Hotel, which was the only hotel in the region that survived the 1923 earthquake. (USGS/George A. Lang Collection) See more archival images of the Kanto Earthquake.

I.

As if it had slid suddenly into a sea of tossing, choppy waves, the coach pitched up and down, lurched drunkenly from side to side. The passengers clung to the seats.

‘Why the devil doesn’t the fool stop the train?’ growled the Englishman opposite me.

But we were already slowing down.

‘Jishin!’ (earthquake) yelled a Japanese, pointing out of the window.

I glanced out just as the stone face of an embankment shot down over the tracks. It did not slide or tumble down: it literally shot down, as if compelled by a sudden, gigantic pressure from the top, the stones spreading in a twinkling over the wide right-of-way. A four-story concrete building vanished, disintegrated in the flash of an eye. Tiles cascaded with precipitate speed from the roofs. The one predominating idea that struck the mind was the almost incredible rapidity of the destruction.

The conductor came to the front of the car, doffed his cap, scorning to let even an earthquake interfere with courtesy. ‘I’m sorry. This train will not proceed further toward Yokohama.’
           
We got out on the tracks. The inhabitants of Omori, a suburb of Tokyo, were flocking out on the right-of-way, seeking the safety it afforded from falling debris. ‘No wonder we can’t go on.’ The Englishman pointed to the track in front of us, the rails shimmering with snake-like undulations in the sunlight. We compared notes and found that we were both going to Kamakura, the seaside resort thirty-six miles from Tokyo. Twelve miles farther on lay Yokohama, where we expected to pick up a motor-car; but we hoped to find one in one of the numerous villages which form a chain between that city and Tokyo.

Another tremor shook the Earth, more tiles flopped down and cracks appeared with instantaneous suddenness in the houses. Still, most of them showed little damage. Omori was one of the few favored spots where the shock was comparatively merciful – still, at the time, we thought we must be at the centre of the disturbance.

That was one of the outstanding impressions on the minds of all men in the vast area affected by the quake; each thought at the moment that the damage must be confined to that particular region in which he found himself. Tokyo was certain that Yokohama was safe. The people of Yokohama thought to find Tokyo a haven of safety. All were sure that the country districts beyond the cities must be all right.

We walked along the tracks, stopping, tense, nervous, whenever a fresh vibration shook the earth, ready for flight somewhere, and yet desperate in the sickening realization that there could be safety nowhere when the very earth had refused the refuge from which one has a right to demand from it.

‘We had better hurry. There’s a typhoon coming.’ The Englishman pointed ahead. ‘Look at that.’

A huge cloud had appeared, rolling up swiftly into the clear blue – an uncanny thing, dense to the point where it seemed ponderous, dull brown and black, shot with sulphur, sinister, menacing.

The Tamagawa River, which divides the two prefectures of which Tokyo and Yokohama are the principal cities, formed also the dividing line between the two distinct phases of the disaster. Behind us, Tokyo suffered shocks of far less severity than those which devastated Yokohama, the principal damage being wrought by the fires which, immediately following it, swept devouringly through the capital. Yokohama, on the other hand, was smashed, utterly ruined by the shock. The flames merely reduced ruins to ashes, brought death to those who had been wounded or lay pinned under debris. Throughout the entire stricken area strange pranks of the quake had left some localities relatively unpunished, while others, scattered among the former, were flattened and shattered. It seemed as if the movement must be wave-like, smiting with greatest force the points touched by the crests of its billows.

The massive buttresses supporting the railroad bridge across the Tamagawa had been twisted, rocked out of place, and the tracks hung fantastically suspended between them. Oddly, a slight foot-bridge, formed by two widths of boards, was almost intact. We hurried across, the one thought in control being: what if another shock should catch us while on this bridge?

We had to jump from the bridge to the embankment. It had sunk, split, and shattered, one set of twisted tracks being more than six feet above the other. On the right was a mound of bricks, a huge, confused pile, with great beams and splintered wood protruding haphazardly – the remains of the greater part of the Meiji sugar factory. Beyond it, the remainder of the building was wrapped in flames, seething up toward the top story, where, exposed, it seemed almost indecently, and stripped of the walls which had hidden them, stood three vacuum pans, great boiler-like affairs, as if disdainfully unconcerned with the destruction creeping up toward them. Farther on was the large square ferro-concrete building of an electric-light plant, one side smashed in, but still holding together, resembling a battered pasteboard box.

But no one was to be seen about the buildings. It struck the mind, uneasily, that surely human beings, scores of the hundreds of workmen crowding these factories when the shock struck them, must be lying, imprisoned, somewhere under these piles of debris. But the streams of people on the tracks flowed on, both ways, stopping for a moment to view the destruction and offer brief comment, but continuing on, each one governed entirely by the thoughts uppermost in his mind – escape from the holocaust, anxiety to learn the fate of dear ones.

It seemed impossible that any inanimate manifestation of nature could be so insanely malicious as was the shock which smote Kawasaki, a large village just on the Yokohama side of the river. The houses, most of them two-storied, frail wooden structures with paper windows, crowned with roofs of heavy tiles, had not only been smashed, but had been torn apart, rended into splintered beams and raveled and torn fragments of boards, jumbled together, as if they had been battered by a gigantic flail. They had been thrown in every direction, backwards, against each other, in the street. The most diabolical intent could have produced no more stupendous result.

The part of the village nearest Yokohama had suffered far less. Many houses were only partly damaged. The stock of an earthenware dealer was almost intact, tier upon tier of gayly decorated dishes, rice-bowls, saki-cups, standing immaculately precise and orderly on their shelves under a roof which had been knocked drunkenly askew. A little farther on, a woman was busy in a half-ruined cake-shop, making ready for business while the earth was still trembling.

The heat became unbearably oppressive, stinging the throat with a dryness unfamiliar in Japan, where the curse of the heat is ordinarily its excessive moisture. We stopped at a small shop. The rear was down, but in the front sat the woman in charge, discussing the earthquake, it seemed almost languidly, with no more concern than if it had been an unusually heavy rainstorm.

Yes, she had beer, Kirin beer; was that all right? It was not very cold. She was very sorry. Now, where was the opener? She hunted about in the confusion, showing more annoyance at the disappearance of the trivial instrument than at the other consequences of the disaster. Finally she found it, brought glasses, served us, with the usual courteous phrases. And the price was as usual, forty-five sen. In the course of my long wanderings throughout the devastated area, on that day and on those following, I saw or heard of no instance of profiteering among the common people. Even the last bottle, the last candle, the last bit of fruit, were sold at ordinary prices, even before martial law made profiteering an offense. It was not thought of.

A couple of Japanese, clerks evidently, entered. ‘You had better not go to Yokohama,’ they advised. ‘Yokohama is gone, and now she is burning. That’ – they pointed to the huge cloud which was now rolling up, ever closer, so that it now hung low over us – that’s the smoke from the oil tanks. The whole city is burning.’

Of course, this must be an exaggeration. That the Japanese section should be wiped out was natural; they burn so easily, these frail collections of wood and paper; but that the foreign settlement, the streets upon streets of solid buildings of brick and concrete, should be destroyed was unthinkable.

Still, as we pressed on, scattered fires became more numerous; presently, at Higashikanagawa, entire blocks were burning. It became necessary to make detours to avoid them. Finally we were forced back to the refuge of the railway tracks. There they sat, the inhabitants, in groups, each family guarding the household goods which it had snatched up in flight. Futon, padded quilts, predominated, but all manner of other goods might be seen, even shoji, the latticed paper-covered doors and windows, and chests of drawers. The quietness was striking. There was no wailing; they conversed in low tones; but generally they sat silent, staring at the destruction. One admired their stoicism, the spirit which had made the shikataganai, ‘it can’t be helped’ phrase, almost the Japanese national motto. There was no confusion, no crying out; even the children were hushed.
           
But the attitude had its tremendous disadvantage. It was also apathy. Men sat stolidly and watched fires creep onward, which they might in many cases have stopped with little effort. They might have saved entire blocks had they tried, had they had a little leadership. There was another conspicuous feature, the utter lack of leadership. The Japanese official, in ordinary life ubiquitous and often obnoxious with his fussy exactions, seemed to have vanished from the earth—even the police. It is the fault of Japanese officialdom that it can act only according to prescribed routine, hide-bound regulations. There were no rules regarding handling of such earthquakes, no precedents. So the people, accustomed to act only under leadership, remained inactive, and the officials, who should have taken charge, were out of sight – and the fire spread on, unchecked.

The station-master had received authentic news. Yes, Yokohama was entirely destroyed, and Tokyo was in flames. Look!

We looked back. From the direction of Tokyo vast clouds were curling and spiraling into the sky, miles high. This point, beyond which a wall of fire blocked ingress into Yokohama, became a clearing-house for reports from the two cities, and from the countryside beyond. Yes, Yokosoka, the great naval station was a total wreck, and Kakamura. What! Kakamura, eighteen miles beyond Yokohama? I thought of my son, twelve years old, commonly known as ‘The Shrimp.’ Until this moment I had regarded him as safe, as a matter of course, in the big foreign villa on the Kamakura beach, where we lived with the rest of a bachelors’ mess. It becomes habit with the foreigner in Japan to regard the great mass misfortunes – fires, floods, typhoons – as something affecting almost entirely the Japanese only. They are always the ones to suffer, with their flimsy houses. We regarded these things with the intense sympathy accorded less fortunate fellow beings, but impersonally.

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