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What was The Great Kanto Quake?

Video: How To Survive An Earthquake

The Great Kanto Quake was a massive 7.9 earthquake that destroyed all of Tokyo and Yokohama on September 1, 1923.  And up until the day that it was surpassed by The Great Tohoku Quake of March 11, 2011, The Great Kanto Quake was the most powerful earthquake to ever happen in Japan's history.

What Japan Was Like At The Time Of The Great Kanto Quake

Tokyo is a megalopolis of a city that has risen from the ashes twice in the 20th century.  On March 10, of 1945, the US military launched an air raid that destroyed the city by fire bombing it.  But what most people don't know is that this same destruction has happened before on September 1, of 1923, caused by The Great Kanto Quake.

At the time of the quake, a quarter of Japan's population lived in the area known as the Kanto region.  Yokohama was Japan's main seaport while Tokyo was, and still is of course, Japan's capital. While there was much of old Tokyo that was still standing, the area was modernizing.

Japan was in it's industrial period just like any other place in the world that would come to mind when you think of the 1920s, because Japan had finally decided to open up to western trade after it had kept itself isolated from the rest of the world for decades.

How The Great Kanto Quake is Similar To The Great Tohoku Quake

The Great Kanto Quake has a couple of similarities to The Great Tohoku Quake of 2011.  First off, the earthquake itself was not what caused all of the problems, and it would never have been any big deal if the earthquake was the only thing that happened.

The second was that it was further complicated by other problems.  But rather than a tsunami and a meltdown at a nuclear power plant which is still ongoing to this day as I type this, the problems were a wildfire and a typhoon.

Even today, the people living in the Kanto area live with imminent disaster.  They experience ground shaking at least every two or three weeks, which is so often that 1% of all earthquakes that happen around the world happen right here.

The Kanto region sits on the intersection of tectonic plates.  It's a subduction zone where the Eurasian plate buckles as the Pacific plate digs down underneath it.  And this continues until the Eurasian plate rebounds back, resulting in the 7.9 quake that would come to be known as The Great Kanto Quake.

How The Great Kanto Quake Started

The whole thing started just a few minutes before noon.  It was at 11:58 when the first tremors would be detected at the University of Tokyo with the epicenter being in Sagami Bay.  Soon the ground started shaking, and no one knew at first that this was going to be a big quake.

It was only after it kept on going and going and getting stronger and stronger until the seismometers were off the scale that even experienced seismologists could figure out that this quake was going to be something completely out of the ordinary that no one in Japan had ever experienced before.

First hand accounts left behind by the people of the time estimate that the quake lasted for somewhere around thirty seconds to a full minute, which may not sound like a big deal on the surface, but in an earthquake every second feels like an hour.  Those same first hand accounts say that it was a rolling motion, similar to being on a boat riding very huge waves.

How The Great Kanto Quake Happened

It only took thirty seconds for almost every single building in Tokyo and Yokohama to be brought down, and a nearby village called Nebukawa was buried in a landslide of mud that was shaken loose by the earthquake killing 550 people who were buried alive.  This included people riding in a train that was unlucky enough to be passing by at that exact moment and had to stop and wait for a signal change.

The earthquake had the train shaking and throwing suitcases from the overhead compartments onto the floor.  They then heard a loud roar and upon locating the source, saw the landslide coming right at them.  It engulfed the train before the conductors could get it started up again to try and drive away.  The locomotive was the only part of the train that was ever found.

The Devastating Combination Of The Great Kanto Quake

What made the earthquake so devastating was a combination of two factors.  First off, the cities were made of tightly packed wooden houses with very narrow roads.  This meant the cities were pretty much large matchboxes.

And even though almost nothing of old Tokyo is left today, you can still find some traces of it if you know where to look.  This includes areas of tightly packed wooden buildings and very narrow roads that are still standing.

Second was that the quake had very bad timing.  Not only did it hit on a day that a hurricane, or typhoon as the Japanese call it, was going to make landfall, it also happened at lunchtime at the precise moment when everyone had a fire going because they were in the middle of cooking.

This meant that when all the buildings collapsed, all of those cooking fires set ablaze whatever was left of the homes and businesses.  This was worsened when the huricane/typhoon made landfall bringing high winds that fanned the flames creating multiple firestorms all across Tokyo and Yokohama.  I'm talking about whole entire neighborhoods being consumed by one huge flame.

The Dragon Twister Of The Great Kanto Quake

And believe it or not, I still haven't even gotten to the worst part.  In a place called Hanjo, the police chief gathered together about 45,000 people in what he thought would be a safe place.  It was a big wide open 15 acre depot area with nothing there that could catch fire.

And because they really did think that they were safe, no one thought to panic or worry or anything.  This is why any pictures that you find that was taken of them at the time shows them just sitting around looking very clam and collected and relaxed.

But the people themselves changed this as their belongings that they brought with them, and this includes the clothes on their backs, became fuels for the fire.  The temperature had gotten so hot at this point that anything flammable was bursting into flames just from the heat alone.

Now, the worst part happened when the sky turned dark as night, superheated updrafts of air, hurricane force winds, and burning out of control fires hot enough to melt steel all came together to create a rare freak of nature called a dragon twister, literally a tornado of fire.  

There were several dragon twisters that swept across Tokyo and Yokohama, and of course there have been other dragon twisters around the world, but this one was the biggest and most powerful ever in all of human history and continues to hold that record to this day.

It was a monster of a tornado that was 1,000 yards across, 650 miles high, and had a spinning velocity of 125 miles per hour.  And it's target was the Hanjo depot, which it swept at least three times before it was done.  It was so powerful that there were children being sucked straight up into the air by this dragon twister as if they were Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

The Death Tolls Of The Great Kanto Quake

When the whole event was over, the very very few and very very lucky survivors saw nothing but dead bodies as far as the eye can see in every direction.  This included the police chief who would later commit seppuku from the guilt he felt, even though he had nothing to feel guilty about because there was no way that anyone could have known that was going to happen.

The exact number of the death toll at the Hanjo depot could never be exactly counted because whole entire families were lost, the majority of the bodies were unidentifiable, and half as many were simply missing, but the best estimate is somewhere around 35,000 to 38,000 people.

This is also the reason that the exact death toll for The Great Kanto Quake in it's entirety could also never be exactly counted.  Whole entire families and whole entire neighborhoods just disappeared and were completely lost to history.  But it is estimated to be over 120,000 people.

The Consequences Of The Great Kanto Quake

And when World War II started up years later, the US military would use the information that they learned from this earthquake to do the same damage in the 1945 fire bombing of Tokyo.  They knew now that the Japanese cities were flammable and could be destroyed the same way the earthquake did it.

This is why many people believe that this earthquake is what greatly weakened down Japan and left it wide open enough to result in them losing the war.  Just like it was Chernobyl that took down the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War.

There now stands a memorial hall on the site of the old depot grounds.  Inside it contains the urns of the ashes of the thousands of people who were burned to death by that dragon twister.  It also contains the urns of the thousands of people who were burned to death 22 years later in the fire bombing of Tokyo by the US military.

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