On September 1, 1923, just before noon, an earthquake of magnitude 8.3 occurred near the densely populated, modern industrial cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan. The epicenter was placed in Sagami Bay, just southwest of Tokyo Bay. Destruction ranged from far up into the Hakone mountains, home to popular tourist resorts, to the busy shipping lanes of Yokohama Bay, north to the city of Tokyo.

Though not the largest earthquake to ever hit Japan, the proximity to Tokyo and Yokohama and the surrounding areas, with combined populations numbering 2 million, made it one of the most devastating quakes ever to hit Japan. Tokyo's principle business and industrial districts lay in ruins.

At a time when thousands of homes and restaurants had lit fires, mostly gas ranges, for noon-day meal preparation, the quake hit, demolishing buildings and toppling contents of the traditional wood and paper Japanese houses. Flamable materials in the industrial plants and explosions at a munitions factory helped fuel the flames at such a pace that the normally well-prepared firefighters could not keep up. Broken water mains made water unavailable to fight the fires.

Deaths were estimated at nearly 100,000, with an additional 40,000 missing. Hundreds of thousands were left homeless in the resulting fires. Fires in the Honjo and Fukagawa districts of Tokyo surrounded over 30,000 people who took refuge in a large open area. The meager possessions they had fled with became additional fuel for the firestorm and they were literally incinerated on this spot.

The quake is remembered by Japanese authors as the Great Kanto Earthquake, Kanto being the name of the region which includes Tokyo. The year of the quake, 1923, is referred to as Year 12 of the Taisho Era, the 12th year of Emperor Taisho's reign which lasted from 1912 - 1926.

Dahlmann, Joseph, S.J., Ph.D.The Great Tokyo Earthquake September 1, 1923. Experiences and Impressions of an Eye-Witness. The America Press, 1924, pp. 130.

Richter, Charles, F. Elementary Seismology. W. H. Freeman and Co.,1958, pp. 768.

Below are a series of photos of damage to the city of Tokyo taken just after the quake. They were reproduced in a collection of postcards. This collection was taken from the archives of James B. Macelwane, S.J..

To view more photos, check out Photographs by August Kengelbacher, from Schauwecher's Guide to Japan.


We gratefully acknowledge Dr. Yeong-Jer Lin of our Meteorology faculty for his help in translating the captions from Japanese to English. Additional translation was provided by Koichiro Otani, Ph.D. student, School of Public Health. Captions were precisely translated, whenever possible. Any errors in spelling of the names and places are the responsibility of the Earthquake Center.

Prepared by:
Melanie L. Whittington

-Last updated August 26, 1999

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