The Great Kantō Earthquake: How Disaster Reconstructed Culture

By Collin Capurso, Cassandra Lasky, Claire Rahuba, Chloe Dion, Stella Kahnis

The “Great Kantō Earthquake” struck the Kantō Plain at 11:58am on Saturday, September 1, 1923. The earthquake lasted between 4 and 10 minutes with a magnitude of 7.9. This earthquake became disastrous because fires started from citizens cooking in the kitchen. These fires turned into firestorms which swept the land and caused over 38,000 deaths. Houses that were located on the mountainside were swallowed and carried away from landslides which caused even more deaths. Since the earthquake was extremely powerful, it caused a tsunami to hit the coast of Sagami Bay with waves that measured up to 33 feet. When everything started to eventually settle down, there were rumors that began spreading. These rumors stated that Koreans were going to take advantage of the disaster by committing arson and robberies and that they had bombs. Mobs began killing anyone that they assumed were Korean after hearing this rumor. More rumors were spreading that Koreans also were poisoning the water which seemed believable to people since the water was cloudy. These killings caused the government to send in the Japanese Army and the police to protect Koreans. This caused the massacres to end which stopped the death toll from continuing. There has since been a day created called Disaster Prevention Day; it takes place on September 1st, and it honors the memory of all the lives lost and to remember to be prepared. Affected areas and people have implemented drills to help citizens prepare for future disasters. 

The Great Kantō directly affected Tokyo, Japan and Yokohama, Japan, also dealing significant damage to surrounding areas. Over half of the brick buildings within the disaster’s range had collapsed (Hammer 2013). The memory of its impact has also intangibly harmed Koreans as it was rumored that they possessed bombs, poisoned the wells, and other misinformed concerns that were born out of the disruption. Since Koreans vastly populated Tokyo and Kanagawa at the time, they became a scapegoat for the event’s upheaval of the nation’s internal conflicts. Tens of Koreans were rounded up and shipped to Narashino, which is a military training base and in the procedure of this displacement, news sources were restricted from reporting on the massacre until October 21, 1923. 

The Great Kantō earthquake resulted in many changes in such a short time, it was noted that “before noon, along a fault extending roughly Northwest by Southeast in Sagami Bay, parts of the Philippine, Pacific, and Eurasian plates slipped past each other.” The Philippine plate was reported to have moved up to three and a half meters up and across while the Miura peninsula rose up to eight meters instantly (Smith). Beneath the bay, the ocean floor had reconfigured and part of that energy had produced a tsunami. Violent shaking most prominently affected places where “the soil was not underlay with substantial bedrock.” The effects of the earthquake alone were devastating for the land and its people as there was enough energy that overcame the buildings throughout. Only a few structures were left habitable, but much of the deaths and destruction were attributed to the fires that burned for days after the event, especially in Yokohama and areas around Tokyo. Moral philosopher Shimamoto Ainosuke mourned that the earthquake had “overturned Japanese culture from its very foundation.” The concept that immense affliction and crisis can reveal some sort of truth or valuable insight on the nature of humanity (Schencking 2008). Once the earthquake had hit, there were a handful of premeditated killings by Japanese civilians, police, and military of Koreans, Chinese, and labor and political activists. The government’s response to rumors about Koreans carrying out acts of arson, rape, and poisoning was rather disconcerting as it only furthered them in organizing and even arming vigilantes (Smith). Statements on what was done as a reaction to the event tended to suggest police only incarcerated Koreans (or merely those who were suspected as such), but were revealed to have killed as many as 231 people. Those who have studied the event change that estimate to 6000 to 8000. 

Some attest to a thought that believes the Great Kanto earthquake stood as a “moral wake-up” call for the Japanese people for the state of the nation’s political and social ideology. Over the years, the term “tenken” or “tenbatsu” arose to mean a divine punishment to describe the events that occurred. Despite the sweeping consequences of the Great Kanto, commenters began to tell a larger story on the fate of the event—as if to say, it was an opportunity (koki)—to reconstruct and illuminate new values for Tokyo (Schencking 2008). The next phase of the disaster brought about discussion and people had put their energy toward interpreting the event, “and, in doing so, asked why the earthquake struck Tokyo and what messages, divine or otherwise, lay behind it.” 

When the Great Kanto Earthquake first hit at 11:58 AM. At this time, many residents were cooking lunch over open fires. In direct effect from the Great Kanto Earthquake, gas was spilled and active stoves were knocked down, causing a huge outburst of fire spreading as the earthquake occurred. This fires spreading lasted 46 hours, depicted in “Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake,” by Japanese artist Nishimura Goun, the “300-foot tall fire tornado, or ‘dragon twist’” rapidly traveled through the area. Out of around 40,000 people affected by this disaster, a few hundred people survived. (The Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art). 

Moreover, a woodcut constructed by Unpo Takishima, depicts the Ueno district of Tokyo set ablaze as a result of the massive fire-spread. Joseph Dahlmann, a Jesuit priest who “witnessed the calamity from a hilltop,” helped provide a “new impulse to the fury of the conflagration” (The Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art). The artwork of this event is massively depicted in regards to the fiery wrath that set multiple regions of Japan ablaze. While the earthquake was a devastating event that massively impacted Japan, the fires were more so devastating for the civilians, who were directly affected by the conflagration. The earthquake, devastating in magnitude, was grossly underscored by the widespread fires that burned homes, destroyed property, and killed thousands. The art piece, “Hi ni Oware Mizu ni Oboru” (Chased by the Fire, Drowned in the Water), painted by the artist Nyosen Hamada, further illustrates the nature of the disaster; considered to be “the worst natural disaster ever to strike quake-prone Japan” (Smithsonian). To paint the scale of which death occurred, another piece of art, “Kyouryo no Ensho” (Burning Bridge in Honjo,” by artist Nyosen Hamada, illustrates a burning ship with multiple civilians diving into the water, where “an estimated 44,000 people died when they sought refuge near Tokyo’s Sumida River in the first few hours, only to be immolated by a freak pillar of fire known as a ‘dragon twist’” (Smithsonian).

When considering significant seismic events such as the Great Kanto Earthquake and their effects, the aftermath that most people focus on is physical. This earthquake killed over 100,000 people, caused irreversible damage to property and buildings, and spread fire for 46 hours. Under all of this physical damage, there are layers of societal damage- from a huge spike in poverty to racial discrimination and massacres. In the Broken Earth trilogy, it seems N.K Jemisin intended to represent this type of real world inequity, racism, and violence in a setting where seismic events and natural disasters were constantly affecting the characters. We believe that this contrast between physical and societal damage is meant to show how poorly humans handle devastation. In the Broken Earth trilogy, devastation is consistent in each character’s life. We see the direct physical and mental effects of quakes, Seasons, and ultimately The Rifting. Throughout this trilogy, we quickly learn that this society repeatedly reacts to devastation with violence. The Fulcrum violently controls and sedates orogenes for their node maintainers, and the Guardians take control over orogenes through violence in order to gain power. Orogenes, in turn, naturally respond to threats with violence. This violence reflects many aspects of Tokyo’s reaction to the Great Kanto Earthquake. It seems Jemisin is attempting to show us that our response to natural disasters such as seismic events may reflect the reality of human nature. Additionally, she may be attempting to aid us in realizing that our natural response to these disasters frequently further damages the societies affected by them. Jemisin gives us an example of how we as humans might be successful in the reparation of physical damage and of the damage of our society. Castrima is a community that is introduced in the Broken Earth trilogy. This “comm” stands to show the positive effects of working together without discrimination in order to survive and succeed. Orogenes, who have been historically discriminated against and controlled for their power, are the leaders in this comm. Although we see some doubt about the effectiveness of this society, the comm is successful in surviving the Season until the end of the trilogy.


Collection of 1923 Japan earthquake massacre testimonies released. (n.d.). Collection of 1923 Japan Earthquake Massacre Testimonies Released.

Hammer, J. (2013, November 15). The Great Japan earthquake of 1923. Smithsonian Magazine.

National Museum of Asian Art. (2023, April 17). Scenes of the 1923 earthquake – National Museum of Asian Art

Schencking, J. C. (2008). The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Culture of Catastrophe and Reconstruction in 1920s Japan. Journal of Japanese Studies, 34(2), 295–331.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2024, March 19). Tokyo-Yokohama earthquake of 1923 | Death Toll & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. (n.d.).

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