Masters of Disaster

Japan's cities have been devastated time and again, but the nation's people have a history of building stronger.

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At roughly 11:58 am on September 1, 1923, just as most Tokyoites were waiting for the bang of the cannon that since 1871 had marked the stroke of noon, the city and the surrounding Kanto plain were hit by an earthquake registering 7.9 on the Richter scale. More than 100,000 Japanese died, far more from the ensuing fires and drowning than from collapsed buildings. In one park, near the Sumida River, a firestorm enveloped more than 30,000 Japanese who had taken refuge there, killing them all. Tokyo's Shitamachi, or Lower City, the locus of a thriving merchant and artisan culture lovingly described by Edward Seidensticker in Low City, High City suffered most. But across the city, almost three-quarters of its buildings were destroyed or damaged.

Henry W. Kinney, a journalist and occasional Atlantic contributor1, was traveling by train from Tokyo to Kamakura when the quake hit, forcing him and his fellow passengers to get off the train and walk. In "Earthquake Days" (The Atlantic, January 1924), he catalogues what he saw:

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...

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...It was as if the very earth were now burning.

Tokyo was no stranger to disasters--fires in the city were so frequent that its inhabitants referred to them as the "flowers of Edo." Earthquakes had earlier devastated the city in 1855 and 1894. Each time, it sprang back anew. Writing shortly after the 1923 earthquake, the novelist Tanizaki Junichiro describes the odd feeling of happiness that he experienced:

"'Tokyo will be the better for this!'" I said to myself...I have heard that it did not take ten years for San Francisco to be a finer city than before the earthquake. Tokyo too would be rebuilt in ten years...I imagined the grandeur of the new metropolis, and all the changes that would come in customs and manners as well. An orderly pattern of streets, their bright new pavements gleaming. A flood of automobiles. The geometric beauty of block towering upon block, and elevated lines and subways and trolleys weaving among them, and the stir of a nightless city, and pleasure facilities to rival those of Paris and New York.

Tanizaki's vision came true, but that was hardly the end of the city's travails. Two decades after the Kanto earthquake, when American destroyers were among the first ships to bring relief supplies to Tokyo (beating the British, as Kinney crowed), American bombers began reducing most of Tokyo to ashes. (In a raid late in the night of March 9, two-fifths of the city burned, and nearly 80,000 Japanese died--more than were killed outright in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.) Two decades after that, when my father brought our family to live in Tokyo, the flat postwar wasteland had already given way to rivers of elevated highways and canyons of neon and steel.

The Japanese have been here many times before. Let's hope their same spirit of renewal prevails in years to come.

1. As a propagandist for the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railway in the 1930s, Kinney later blotted his copybook with pronouncements like this: "Japan has no ambitions in the way of political control or territorial aggression in Manchuria."