The great kanto earthquake that rocked Japan on September 1, 1923, was devastating in its own right, with an immense initial shock followed by hundreds of aftershocks, but the fires that erupted in its wake provided some of the event’s most indelible images.
The quake struck just as the citizens of Tokyo and Yokohama were preparing lunch, many over coal or charcoal cooking stoves. Within minutes of the first shock, fires erupted throughout the cities. “Yokohama, the city of almost half a million souls, had become a vast plain of fire, of red, devouring sheets of flame…Here and there a remnant of a building, a few shattered walls, stood up like rocks above the expanse of flame, unrecognizable,” wrote Henry W. Kinney, editor of Trans-Pacific magazine. “It was as if the very earth were now burning.”
The quake’s first shock hit at 11:58 a.m., emanating from a seismic fault six miles (9.6 kilometers) beneath the floor of Sagami Bay, 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Tokyo, according to Smithsonian.com. Hardest hit was Yokohama, 17 miles (27.3 kilometers) southwest of Tokyo, where the quake destroyed “nearly every building” on the city’s unstable ground.
In Yokohama, observers told of the first rumbling jar that occurred without warning and of buildings that withstood the violent shaking for as long as half a minute; walls bulged and sagged as slabs of plaster fell from ceilings. Then many of those buildings suddenly disintegrated in great clouds of dust. Moments later, fires began to flicker and grow in the rubble.
The shaking was followed by a tsunami 40 feet (12 meters) high. More than 800 aftershocks hit the region over the next five days.
Although the Kanto earthquake was of the same magnitude as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake — 7.9 on the moment magnitude scale, which was replaced by the Richter scale in the 1970s — the damage it caused was far greater. An estimated 142,000 people died, almost 140,000 more than in San Francisco. Approximately 45 percent of Tokyo and 80 percent of Yokohama were destroyed. It was the deadliest earthquake in Japan’s history.
— Kathleen Robinson