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
Piles of bodies and debris from a large refugee site. Remains of tires and wagons. The refugee site was most likely overcrowded and overcome by fire. (Brown University Library/William Dana Reynolds) See more archival images of the Kanto Earthquake.


‘Come on; have you rested long enough?’ The Englishman had stood up. We started on. Down below the streets were filled with dead, but here, on the higher levels, there were none to be seen, and only very few wounded. In fact, the number of wounded throughout the area was astonishingly small. The injured ones had scant chance to escape from the flames.

The villages on the west side of Yokohama had been mainly rustic in character—mud walls with heavy thatch, several foot thick, as roofs. The buildings had collapsed exactly as if some huge pressure had suddenly been applied on the rooftrees, squelching them down flat, walls bulging out from under the eaves, or throwing them to one side. Frequently the streets were blocked where roofs from both sides had encountered each other in the middle of the thoroughfare. Progress became laborious. One climbed over the roofs. In the first village, Hodogaya, nearly all the houses were down; but here also the inhabitants were calm, stoically poking about in the ruins for pots needed for water, material for construction of temporary shelters. Many such were already up. One saw in them families. They had almost an air of repose, contentment, as they sat there, conversing, eating, children playing with toys contrived out of the flotsam of destruction.

It was evident that in this section, Yokohama and the country west thereof, must have been the centre of the shock. East of the city we had seen crevices in the earth, collapse of embankments, road-fills, made ground, but here the ground yawned in vast fissures several feet wide, jumbling it so that it presented exactly the aspect of broken ice-floes in a river, the confused surface of a lava flow. As darkness fell and we came away from the light of the vast bonfire made by Yokohama—there were but few fires in these villages—progress became difficult. One was uneasy from a sense of impending, hovering danger, close at hand; for even though the mind had quickly adjusted itself to familiarity with the abnormal, so that one regarded wrecked buildings, ruin, with the casual interest of almost indifference, quietness was ever disturbed by recurrent tremors, uneasy rumbling vibrations of the earth.

We stopped at a partly ruined shop for a drink. There was no more beer, but would we have tea? A hibachi (fire-pot) had been saved, on which a kettle was gurgling peacefully. The woman prepared the tea in tiny handle-less bowls. Her husband produced zabuton (small cushions). Would we deign to be seated? The same pleasant courtesy as ever. No, of course, they would take no money for tea, just tea. And we must take along some cakes for the journey. They forced them upon us. Of course, they would take no pay. Good-bye, good luck.

Behind us loomed the great expanse of the nimbus from the Yokohama fires, and farther away, the reflection of the Tokyo conflagration; but ahead all was blackness, punctuated only by the twinkling light of a paper lantern, dancing in front of us like a firefly. We caught up to it. The bearer was a burly Japanese, competent, one of the few Japanese who seemed to have a sense of leadership and organization. He headed a small caravan of about a dozen—men, a few women, and a couple of children—plodding along behind the faint glimmer. Might we join and benefit from the light? If course. At once they made a place for us, insisting that we take the best one, immediately following the lantern-bearer.

So we crept on, slowly. Where the road had been demolished by cracks, the leader stopped, holding his light high. ‘Abunai’ (look out). Precariously we would advance, often creeping on hands and knees from floe to floe—it seems the only word—of earth. We gained the railroad track, but it was little better. Embankments had slid into the rice-patches, leaving tracks and ties suspended in mid-air, swaying as we crawled over them in the darkness. The women and kiddies came along bravely, needing little help. There was no word of complaint.

Beyond the Totsuka station we passed a train which had been overturned, lying on its side, the locomotive, some twenty feet ahead, having been thrown in the opposite direction; but all was silent; there was no one about. It was a strange part of the disaster that there was hardly any evidence of human wreckage outside of Yokohama proper, where corpses littered the streets and canals, where humans had been caught by the instantaneous violence of the shock or cut off by fire, and in Tokyo, where most of the dead, hundreds and thousands in a heap, lay in places where they had been burned or roasted when the flames hemmed in the open spaces which they had sought for safety. In most other places the ruins covered the dead, hid them from sight.

The Ofuna junction station was in ruins, but on the tracks between the wrecked buildings the train officials had formed a sort of relief station. They brought water and insisted that we lie down on blankets which they had spread over the ties between the rails. But there was no rest. The Ofuna people had news of Kamakura, only two miles away. The shock had been bad there, hidoix (terrible). The whole down had been smashed flat and then had burned. There was nothing left. We hurried on. As we came out of the long tunnel through which one enters hill-guarded Kamakura, we saw a few detached houses—flat; beyond them a wide area of flame, licking the ground far and wide. Most of the town had been consumed and the fire was now only playing over the embers.

The way of the lantern-bearer and the Englishman led to the left. They departed. ‘Good luck. Hope you’ll find everything all right.’


Beyond the light of the flames, I stumbled into the blackness of the cryptomeria avenue leading to the beach. The great straight trees had been flung about like straws. Some of them blocked the road, and I must climb over them, feeling my way through tangled limbs/ At the river the bridge had collapsed entirely. I made my way to the mouth, to ford it, but there was almost no water. The entire beach and the sea-floor had been raised about six feet by the quake, and where there had been only a narrow beach strip lay now a wide, wet expanse of sand.

A fragment of moon had risen. I could see, dimly, the tower of our house looming up erect. Thank God! But as I went forward, I saw that the ten-foot-high sea wall had disappeared, the stones lying scattered wide over the sand. Half of the front garden had slid with it. Part of the two-story section of the house stood, leaning, the collapse of one wall leaving the rooms exposed, but the long one-story section was down, a chaos of tiles and splinters, prone, so that one might without effort have walked completely over it.

I ran to the back where my boy had occupied a room in a wing, half-Japanese construction. It stood, but had been wrenched over. I climbed in through the window. The bed was covered with plaster, but there was no one there.

From the servants’ compound I heard the clap of sticks and the drone of monotonous voices. The servants’ quarters were intact, and the cook was conducting a Buddhist service before a tiny household shrine, the rest of the servants squatting about him.

‘Thank God! It’s good to see danna-san. Young danna-san is all right.’

Yes, he had had a narrow escape, but he was safe, and the neighbors, wealthy Japanese, had taken him to a villa they owned up on a hill. The danna-san from Shanghai was dead, but the rest were safe. They were sleeping there. He waved his hand toward the dark shrubbery of the garden. Like almost all others in the quake zone, they preferred safety in the open to the precarious shelter of such rooms as remained. ‘You should have seen Conroy-san’—a grin spread over the cook’s face. He found much amusement in describing the escape on Conroy, one of the mess, his precipitate flight—he had been taking a bath; how he had dived, mother-naked, into the shrubbery, without even touching the window-frame.

I went back to my boy’s room, shook the ceiling off the bed and tried to sleep, but the constantly recurring tremors made me jump to the window every half-hour or so. In the morning the Shrimp appeared and told me of the death of the ‘Shanghai danna-san.’  He was a Dane, Juel Madsen, formerly a war correspondent and later drawing for the Graphic and making a collection of water-color sketches, and two weeks before he had told me how his first attempt at literature, travel-sketches in words, had been accepted by Gyldendalske, the great Copenhagen publishing firm.

He and the Shrimp had been reading on the verandah, facing the sea, when the shock came and brought the house down over them. A great beam struck them both down, and above them fell a thick layer of tiles and splintered wood. Madsen had evidently been struck on the spine. ‘Can you get out, Shrimp?’ he inquired. A moment later he groaned: ‘Why could I not have been killed outright?’ A few minutes after that, he died.

The Shrimp was struggling to extricate himself when the tidal wave, which swept the coast from Kamakura to Atami, rushed up, flooded the garden, tore down the sea wall, advancing to within a few feet of the ruins. ‘I thought sure I was a goner,’ related the Shrimp, ‘when I saw the water come on, and I couldn’t move.’ He got out about fifteen minutes later.

This tidal wave swept out a great section of the village near the beach. I saw a thirty-foot sampan that had been lifted neatly on top of the rood of a prostrated house. Vast portions of the hills facing the ocean on both sides of the bay had slid into the sea.

During the next few days we were busy salvaging food and clothing, and with some of our neighbors we organized a camp. The Japanese were kind, the servants invaluable. It was another pleasant feature of the disaster—the self-sacrificing faithfulness of the servants. Many who had families elsewhere stayed with their masters in spite of their personal anxieties. In many instances amahs brought to safety children whose parents had been killed. Others guarded property where the owners were absent. The villagers were helpful. A group of young men came and offered to help salvaging. Four days after the quake, an official come to inquire if we needed food.

The day after the disaster the servants insisted on tying red bands about our arms. Everyone wore them, Japanese and foreigners. It was a badge of rectitude, to protect one against the vengeance which was being visited on the Koreans. That was one of the most cruel phases of the days which followed—the blind, unreasoning hatred of the Koreans, of whom thousands had been employed as laborers. The report went about that they were committing incendiarism, arson, and rape, that they were poisoning wells, that they were in league with Japanese anarchists to make use of the situation to overthrow the existing order of things. No doubt, some of them became looters. A friend saw some engaged in looting in Yokohama—but Japanese were guilty, also.

Even official Japan was anxious, though more so for fear of the element harboring ‘dangerous thoughts,’ as the official phrase has it. Much of the activity of the military and navy authorities was concentrated on preparation to quell the revolt which they thought was impending. In the meantime Koreans were slaughtered right and left. Crowds killed on sight, frantically, any Korean whom they might find. Marines scoured the area, assisted by self-constituted guards of young men. Metheson, of the Chicago Tribune, saw three men killed in cold blood at Yokohama. Another friend of mine saw marines turn a looter over to the mob, which literally rent him in pieces. The minds of the people became inflamed, filled with bitter hatred, but the underlying reason was blind fear racking minds unbalanced by the horror of disaster.

We were practically isolated. Rumors came to us. Our landlord’s two small children were visiting us at our camp, when the news came that both their parents had been killed instantly at Yokohama. A handsome young Portuguese woman who had come to us sat for several days brooding in uncertainty over the fate of her family. One day she sneaked away, walked to Yokohama, a slim, delicate woman, essaying the long, precarious journey in high-heeled slippers. The day after she left, her husband arrived. Both her children had been crushed in the wreck of their home. It continued to come—driblet by driblet of news of death. We came to hate to talk about it, and yet we could not get away from it; it remained the only topic.

The principal shock had occurred at noon of Saturday, September first. On Tuesday we were relieved by the arrival of a Japanese destroyer—assistance, finally. A landing-party came ashore, but it merely took away the remains of a Japanese princess who had been killed in Kamakura. The rest of us, the living, Japanese and foreign, watched the vessel turn and steam out of the bay.

On Thursday relief came—American destroyers, a flock of them, which systematically scoured the entire coast section, taking off refugees, foreigners, and Japanese alike. It was a point of pride with the Americans that their first relief ship arrived three hours ahead of the British; but both nations alike, British and American, steaming at full speed from China, brought relief before the Japanese fleet, lying in home waters, had contrived to do so. The prompt action and practical work of the foreign nations stood in sharp contrast to the general inefficiency of the Japanese Government. Where the Japanese people generally rose inestimably in the respect of the foreign residents, the hopeless incompetence of officialdom was almost criminal, and September first, 1923, will remain forever a day of utter disgrace in the annals of the Japanese navy.

While the Americans, the British, the French were holding liners in Yokohama to act as relief ships, were transporting refugees back and forth from Tokyo to other cities, the Japanese did almost nothing, and in some cases they hindered. The first American destroyer bringing relief to Tokyo, was ordered out forthwith. The rule has it that no foreign war vessels may enter Tokyo. The commander refused to budge, and finally the American Embassy had the order rescinded. This incident I have had confirmed by the Embassy. While American and British vessels stood by in Yokohama, taking on board, freely, refugees of all nations, many Japanese ships would take only those who could pay for tickets, or tried to leave the port. On board the American destroyer on which I went to Yokohama, they told, gleefully, of the action of the commander of a British warship in Yokohama who warned all Japanese vessels that he would sink the first one that tried to depart without his leave; how one had tried to sneak out in the dead of night, and how he had turned his searchlight, also his guns, on it and signaled that he was about to fire—and all this, defiantly, under the eyes of a powerful squadron of Japanese vessels lying, virtually inactive, in Yokohama Bay.

The following day I went to Tokyo on a Japanese destroyer. A pitifully inadequate service of two destroyers a day was maintained between Tokyo and Yokohama by the Japanese. When I wished to return from Tokyo, a queue of several thousand refugees was waiting at the Shibaura landing, and to transport them there was only one destroyer, capable of carrying a few hundred.

‘Why don’t you employ some of these ships?’ I asked a Japanese officer, pointing at the dozen of war vessels, some of the large cruisers, lying right at hand.

He looked at them wistfully. ‘I wish we might.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘But we can’t do it without orders from the Admiralty.’

And while they were awaiting orders from the Admiralty, the British and the Americans had come from China and had transported the refugees, and were now threading their way between the motionless Japanese warships, bringing ton upon ton of supplies to the stricken city.


Among other reasons for going to Tokyo I had one special one. A novel of mine, Broken Butterflies, is due to be published early next year, and much of its action is laid out in the great buildings of Tokyo—the Foreign Office, Russian Embassy, Navy and War Department buildings, the Imperial Hotel. I was anxious to see how much of these scenes remained, and by some almost ridiculous freak of fortune they were all almost intact. Coming from Yokohama, where destruction had been absolutely complete, so that only half a dozen buildings remained, the impunity of large sections of Tokyo from the quake seemed a striking contrast. ‘Why, you can have had almost no shock at all,’ one exclaimed involuntarily to the Tokyo people—and the Tokyo-ites sniffed.

But while Tokyo seemed to have escaped fairly easily from the shock, this was only in comparison to Yokohama; and, in fact, the extent of damage, almost entirely through fire, and the toll of lives taken was even greater, for the areas destroyed and the number of lives lost, though they occurred only in sections of the capital, were actually far greater than the entire loss of the smaller city.

I walked about and saw most of the official building section remaining. The great modern business quarter at Marinouchi had suffered but little, though crushed and, occasionally, fire-gutted interiors were hidden by walls which had been damaged only a little, and the impression of relative lack of loss was in part false. The extensive residence sections of the well-to-do and middle classes were largely intact. Stores were doing business, cars were running in places, and electric lights had begun to function. But vast areas near the principle centre of the city had been laid waste for many blocks. The great retail-business street, the famous Ginza, had been completely wrecked by fire; and as one went on to the poorer sections, the tremendous congested quarters of the laboring classes, of the poor, Honjo and Fukagawa, even the miseries of Yokohawa were outdone. Fire had destroyed the buildings completely, and here one found the masses of the dead. These people had fled for escape to the open spaces, and the flames had hemmed them in; and even where fire had not reached them, they had been roasted in heaps of many thousands. In one place a mob of thirty-two thousand had been thus tortured. The naked bodies lay, twisted and contorted, naked or with only rags clinging to them, covering acre upon acre. At places the jam had been so congested that they had not been able even to fall to the ground. So they stood there, packed, the dead rubbing elbows with the dead.

I sought out my familiars among the foreign press correspondents in Tokyo, but they were an unhappy lot. They had covered the news, had made heroic efforts to get it out. Each one had in some way endeavored to rush out his stuff, had made his way through the flames and tremors, to telegraph and cable office, and, later, had tried to give the best possible picture through the maximum of fifty words allowed by the authorities. But they did not know what was going through. They found out later. Even where they had the ready assistance of the high officials in Tokyo, all the messages had been held up by some petty official at Nagasaki. There were no R.T.P. cards on file in Nagasaki, so he held the entire batch, a week’s desperate and painstaking effort of a dozen correspondents, and the first reports of the appalling event came to the rest of the world, mishandled and inaccurate, from Japanese sources in Osaka.

Tokyo was a relief. Not only was foreign relief well organized—it was that almost everywhere within a few days after the shock—but the Japanese worked well among their own people. The military had taken efficient control. There was no looting, though one sinister incident marred the record, when a captain of gendarmerie ran his sword through three defenseless prisoners, Socialists, one of them Japan’s foremost and most intellectual radical. The authorities deplored the event. The general in charge of the martial-law regime was discharged—a significant concession to the power of public opinion, indicating that the officials had finally decided that the power of the sword may not be used indiscriminately as before. They also deplored the Korean incident, warning the people against overt acts. It is possible that the reactionary hardheadedness of Japanese officialdom had been softened—even if it took an earthquake to do it.

But when I returned to Yokohama, I found a contrast to the efficiency of Tokyo. Looting was prevalent. Food and water supplies were inadequate. For some time no apparent move was made toward removing the dead. Characteristically, official effort was concentrated on the capital—the rest of the country must wait.

I went from Yokohama in the Empress of Australia, which had been turned over for relief work, with many hundreds of refugees. Almost all the remaining foreigners of Yokohama and many of those of Tokyo went to Kobe. All wanted to escape from the maddening atmosphere of tragedy hovering over those cities. The more resolute were already planning to resume business. Some even spoke of the tremendous opportunities offered by reconstruction.

In the Oriental Hotel in Kobe foreign relief committees of various nationalities were working strenuously, efficiently, to feed, house, and clothe the refugees. One saw heads of great business houses standing in line for shirts and trousers. Financiers appeared, dressed fantastically in blue-jacket uniforms borrowed on board destroyers. A clean collar seemed almost indecently conspicuous. But while some were scouring Kobe and Osaka for offices, or were cabling to the four corners of the earth for business, the miserable, deadening aura of tragedy hovered over the hotel, the lobby, and the halls, where they sat, men and women, going over and over again the flood of incidents—death, destruction, the innumerable hairbreadth escapes, each one seeming a private miracle.

Every newcomer was greeted, questioned. One saw them rush up, shake hands. ‘So glad you are all right.’ Then the inevitable question: ‘And how are the rest?’ Even when one could not hear it, one might know the answer. The questioner would smile, wring hands again—or he would fall away, shaking his head, or place a sympathetic hand on the other’s shoulder. There was no getting away from it, this pall of mass tragedy, even though the mind strove desperately to regain the ordinary, rational balance of normality.

In the lobby I met Mr. B.W. Fleisher, owner of the Japan Advertiser and the Trans-Pacific magazine, of which I am, or was, the editor. His entire plant was destroyed. He took me by the arm.

‘Come on, let us get out of here. This is what we must get away from, this continuous raking over the dead ashes. We must get busy—I have ordered a new plant already—all of us, especially us Americans. We owe it to Japan. The new Government has courage. It’s going to reconstruct on a vast, progressive scale—so we must forget our losses and lend a hand. America has a mission here.’

And that is the spirit of the Americans in Japan.

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