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
People taking refuge to Japan's countryside climb and clinch to one of few trains leaving the capital in 1923.
(AP Photo) See more archival images of the Kanto Earthquake.

II

‘I’ve got to push on. We’ve got to get through.’ The Englishman had caught me by the shoulder, pale, eyes glaring. ‘Are you game?’

We found a road leading steeply up along the side of the hill range that forms the land-side boundary of Yokohama. A narrow line of houses separated us from the side of the bluff, which fell off abruptly down toward the main city. These were the houses of the well-to-do, and the inhabitants were busy saving their belongings, family treasures, valuable furnishings, handsome carved screens, rich silken garments, brocades, lacquered tables, objets d’art. From below came the roar of the flames, advancing upward like waves against a cliff. One felt certain that all those things must eventually be consumed, anyway. It seemed a pity; still, these vast piles of valuable furnishings seemed less pathetic than had the pitifully scant belongings of the poor, below. But they were all the same in the face of misfortune, rich and poor. There was no confusion, no wild lamentation, no tears.

Presently we came to a point where a main road, running obliquely down into the city, gave a view of the entire scene. 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. 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. Here and there a remnant of a building, a few shattered walls, stood up like rocks above the expanse of flame, unrecognizable. There seemed to be nothing left to burn. 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.

‘How are you, Mr. Kinney?’ A Japanese had come up to me, his head bound up turban-like in a towel. ‘Mr. Tait is dead. We were in the Chartered Bank. The whole thing came down at the first shock. I got this.’ He pointed to a wound in his head. ‘There are some foreigners here.’

He led us to a group of blackamoors sitting in a beer-shop. The flames were climbing up the hillside steadily. Plainly it could be only a matter of minutes before they would reach here. Still, ‘business as usual.’ The owner was selling beer calmly, while has family was carrying away the furniture.

‘You from Tokyo?’ A stout man spoke up. Like the rest, he was black, but he had been wiping perspiration from his bald head, so now it presented a singularly ludicrous appearance, like a bald-headed zebra. ‘I hear that you people in Tokyo were lucky, not much of a quake, only fire.’ The mere wiping out by flames of more than half of the sixth largest city of the world seemed to him negligible. ‘You should have been here. We got it.’

‘I was in my office. You know my building, on Main Street, shaped like an L. The shock was like a bucking horse, three great shakes. It shot me out of my chair. I just missed being crushed by the safe. The go-down in the backyard, solid stone, mind you, was down in a second. It went so suddenly that the eye could not follow the details of the movement. We got to the stairway, I and my Japanese staff, and just then the far side of the L went down, just vanished, and as we gazed at it, presto! the whole part of the building, right up to the stairs, shot out of sight. We were clinging to the rail, watching the house vanishing piecemeal, expecting that next would be our turn. Then we rushed down the stairs.

The whole street, Main Street, was a jumble of bricks, houses sprawling over it everywhere, roofs lying in the middle of it. One couldn’t walk over it. There was no street. One must make one’s way over ruins where, only two minutes before, had been our city, the town that I have seen grow into a modern city since I was a boy.

‘And all over were people, people one knew, whom one had danced with, dined with, played bridge with, reduced, in a moment, to the uttermost depth of despair, standing, crying, wildly, by the ruins, clawing at them, desperately, to reach others caught under the bricks; and already, here and there, the flames were leaping forth, coming closer and closer, while the poor wretches in the debris were yelling for help. A man called to me, “Here, help me get my wife out.” She was caught by the waist. Her entire upper body was free, and she was staring at us and straining, slim, jeweled hands pressing frantically at the great beam that held her, unhurt, but tightly pinned. Half of the beam was covered by bricks. We might as well have tried to lift a house. We tugged away, helplessly. We caught at men who rushed by, called them to assist. One or two stopped, but most of them shook themselves free. I wanted to hit them. It seemed so damnably callous. And still, they also had wives, children, somewhere, in their homes on the Bluff, and were obsessed by the anxiety to find them, to know. And I wanted to get home, too, but I couldn’t leave that woman. And then the flames came and drove us back. I had to half strangle that poor devil to pull him away. The roar of the flames drowned her cries. So I rushed along.

‘I got home soon enough. The family was safe. The house was gone, of course. It had slid bodily down the Bluff, right into Motomachi below, and was just one part of the great bonfire. But the family was safe. I was lucky,’ he lowered his voice, glancing at a tall Scotchman sitting aside, chin cupped in his hand, staring dully at the conflagration. ‘That chap, McWhirter, you know, his whole family was caught under the house. If they were not killed, then they were burned, his wife and three children.’

‘I wonder how many were killed in the Grand and the Oriental Hotel?’ A young chap spoke up. ‘I was right in the entrance of our office when the shake shot me out on hands and knees, and when I tried to scramble up, it threw me down again. And in just that time that it took me to get to my knees and look back, these three shocks, coming rat-tat-tat, in the space of time that it would take you to clap your hands three times, the whole city had gone. I had faced a city of square mile on square mile of houses, great office-buildings, banks, hotels, stores, homes; and when I turned back again, it had vanished as if by some gigantic sweep of malevolent magic. As far as one could see was but a flat, irregular expanse of brick and wood. I couldn’t see half a dozen houses standing. And then it was all blotted out by the dust, thicker than the thickest fog. You could not see a foot before you. And then that was suddenly cleared, as if a curtain had been snatched away, by the typhoon that sprang up just then, the gale that Fate seemed to need to help the flames finish the destruction. I am a newspaperman, and I’ve been thinking how I’m going to write this. Phrases and images, monstrous incidents that have flickered before me all this afternoon, are running in my mind haphazard; but I can’t do it. It can’t be done. It’s too viciously, demoniacally monstrous.’

The others nodded, silently, approvingly, finding relief in hearing, in words which they themselves could not find, some expression of the feelings which swirled through their confused minds.

‘Some people rushed into the water at the Bund and sat there, just heads out, ducking them when the heat became too intense. I heard later that, when the flames became worse, some were dropped by the heat as they rushed across the Bund, and lay there to be roasted. I got to the park. It was filled with people and the flames on all sides made everything, even humans, so dry that we became inflammable, like tinder. Sparks, chunks of flaming debris, came flying among us. Clothing, even hair, caught fire in a moment. Luckily the mains had burst, and we sat in about a foot of water. One would see someone catching fire, literally having his clothes or hair spring into blaze, and then someone would slap a chunk of wet mud on him.

‘I was fool enough to get away from there. I wanted to see it all, but it’s a wonder I got through, just luck in dodging flames on all sides. There were dead everywhere. The canals were full of them. I heard that hundreds flocked into the Yokohama Specie Bank, which was still standing; but the flames came there, too. They couldn’t get out. There were flames all about them. So they were all roasted alive.’

Another took up the tale, and another—harrowing incidents of families wiped out, husbands watching wives burn, and mothers clawing with slender fingers at piles of masonry under which they could hear their children crying, while the flames were coming on, mercilessly. The United Club had come down in a heap; everyone of the usual noon-day tiffin crowd there had been killed. So-and-so had been crushed, So-and-so burned—familiar names, one’s intimates of yesterday. Already the disaster seemed strangely old, as if one had lived in this atmosphere of misery for many years; as if normal times, orderly routine of business and three meals a day were a thing remote, a long past period of peace. The mind lost all sense of ordinary proportion. Men who had lost every possession congratulated themselves on their good luck. By common thought it became regarded as almost indecent to deplore loss of mere property.

So Farley was dead. He had promised to get me some statistics. Miss Newman had been burned, caught like an animal in a trap. She was to have had tiffin with me the next day. Robinson must have been in the Club by that time—so he must be dead. But the disaster was still too fresh. There was too little information. One thought over the list of one’s friends, remembering constantly new names. How had they fared? Were they alive? Then, as during the weeks that followed, with the survivors scattered wide, the constant topic was inquiry, gradual adjustment to familiarity with the thought of this new, reduced company of friends and acquaintances.

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