On September 1st, 1923, Tokyo was struck by the most devastating earthquake in its history. Seventy percent of the city’s housing was destroyed and over 140,000 people lost their lives during the quake, as well as in the subsequent fires which raged uncontrollably through the streets.
In Yokoami, we visited a memorial park dedicated to the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. The location of the park is not an accident: this is the former grounds of an army clothing depot where 38,000 people who had sought shelter were annihilated in a sudden fire tornado. A museum on the grounds of the somber but attractive park leads visitors through the stories of both the earthquake and the other great twentieth-century Tokyo disaster, the 1945 American air raids.
Striking just before noon, the Kantō earthquake arrived when most of Tokyo’s households were cooking lunch, and the fires which sparked from the stoves caused even more deaths than the quake itself. But the earthquake and fires were unfortunately not the only bringers of death. As desperate people tend to do, Tokyoites went searching for a scapegoat. Wrath was focused on resident Koreans, who were blamed for the fires and subsequent looting. In the killing spree which ensued, up to 10,000 Koreans were massacred. The park includes a tribute to the lives lost in this especially dark chapter of the earthquake’s story.
Within the museum, it’s hard to remain unmoved by the photographs of the catastrophe. I was touched by the humanitarian assistance provided by the USA, and the posters asking American citizens to help Japan in her hour of need. But even the most brotherly and compassionate of relationships can quickly descend into violence. Just 22 years after Kantō, my country would be visiting its own horrors upon Tokyo. In the closing stages of WWII, over 100,000 people died during an indiscriminate firebombing campaign, meant to terrorize and cripple Japan’s capital.
We were a little shaken after spending so much time with tragic tales of death and sorrow. Luckily, the Kyu-Yasuda Garden is found adjacent to the Earthquake Memorial Park. This verdant park boasts walking paths shaded by a forest of trees, a tidal pond fed by the bordering Sumida River, pedestrian bridges and ample places to sit, enjoy the scenery and reflect on the fragility of human life.