"The lurid panorama lay out folded before us—but it was meaningless. There were no landmarks, no familiar buildings from which one might determine locality." In 1924, an American journalist in Japan offered a harrowing first-hand account of the Great Kanto earthquake.
By HENRY W. KINNEY
A view of destruction in Tokyo, seen from the top of the Imperial Hotel, which was the only hotel in the region that survived the 1923 earthquake. (USGS/George A. Lang Collection) See more archival images of the Kanto Earthquake.
As if it had slid suddenly into a sea of tossing, choppy waves, the coach pitched up and down, lurched drunkenly from side to side. The passengers clung to the seats.
‘Why the devil doesn’t the fool stop the train?’ growled the Englishman opposite me.
But we were already slowing down.
‘Jishin!’ (earthquake) yelled a Japanese, pointing out of the window.
I glanced out just as the stone face of an embankment shot down over the tracks. It did not slide or tumble down: it literally shot down, as if compelled by a sudden, gigantic pressure from the top, the stones spreading in a twinkling over the wide right-of-way. A four-story concrete building vanished, disintegrated in the flash of an eye. Tiles cascaded with precipitate speed from the roofs. The one predominating idea that struck the mind was the almost incredible rapidity of the destruction.
The conductor came to the front of the car, doffed his cap, scorning to let even an earthquake interfere with courtesy. ‘I’m sorry. This train will not proceed further toward Yokohama.’
We got out on the tracks. The inhabitants of Omori, a suburb of Tokyo, were flocking out on the right-of-way, seeking the safety it afforded from falling debris. ‘No wonder we can’t go on.’ The Englishman pointed to the track in front of us, the rails shimmering with snake-like undulations in the sunlight. We compared notes and found that we were both going to Kamakura, the seaside resort thirty-six miles from Tokyo. Twelve miles farther on lay Yokohama, where we expected to pick up a motor-car; but we hoped to find one in one of the numerous villages which form a chain between that city and Tokyo.
Another tremor shook the Earth, more tiles flopped down and cracks appeared with instantaneous suddenness in the houses. Still, most of them showed little damage. Omori was one of the few favored spots where the shock was comparatively merciful – still, at the time, we thought we must be at the centre of the disturbance.
That was one of the outstanding impressions on the minds of all men in the vast area affected by the quake; each thought at the moment that the damage must be confined to that particular region in which he found himself. Tokyo was certain that Yokohama was safe. The people of Yokohama thought to find Tokyo a haven of safety. All were sure that the country districts beyond the cities must be all right.
We walked along the tracks, stopping, tense, nervous, whenever a fresh vibration shook the earth, ready for flight somewhere, and yet desperate in the sickening realization that there could be safety nowhere when the very earth had refused the refuge from which one has a right to demand from it.
‘We had better hurry. There’s a typhoon coming.’ The Englishman pointed ahead. ‘Look at that.’
A huge cloud had appeared, rolling up swiftly into the clear blue – an uncanny thing, dense to the point where it seemed ponderous, dull brown and black, shot with sulphur, sinister, menacing.
The Tamagawa River, which divides the two prefectures of which Tokyo and Yokohama are the principal cities, formed also the dividing line between the two distinct phases of the disaster. Behind us, Tokyo suffered shocks of far less severity than those which devastated Yokohama, the principal damage being wrought by the fires which, immediately following it, swept devouringly through the capital. Yokohama, on the other hand, was smashed, utterly ruined by the shock. The flames merely reduced ruins to ashes, brought death to those who had been wounded or lay pinned under debris. Throughout the entire stricken area strange pranks of the quake had left some localities relatively unpunished, while others, scattered among the former, were flattened and shattered. It seemed as if the movement must be wave-like, smiting with greatest force the points touched by the crests of its billows.
The massive buttresses supporting the railroad bridge across the Tamagawa had been twisted, rocked out of place, and the tracks hung fantastically suspended between them. Oddly, a slight foot-bridge, formed by two widths of boards, was almost intact. We hurried across, the one thought in control being: what if another shock should catch us while on this bridge?
We had to jump from the bridge to the embankment. It had sunk, split, and shattered, one set of twisted tracks being more than six feet above the other. On the right was a mound of bricks, a huge, confused pile, with great beams and splintered wood protruding haphazardly – the remains of the greater part of the Meiji sugar factory. Beyond it, the remainder of the building was wrapped in flames, seething up toward the top story, where, exposed, it seemed almost indecently, and stripped of the walls which had hidden them, stood three vacuum pans, great boiler-like affairs, as if disdainfully unconcerned with the destruction creeping up toward them. Farther on was the large square ferro-concrete building of an electric-light plant, one side smashed in, but still holding together, resembling a battered pasteboard box.
But no one was to be seen about the buildings. It struck the mind, uneasily, that surely human beings, scores of the hundreds of workmen crowding these factories when the shock struck them, must be lying, imprisoned, somewhere under these piles of debris. But the streams of people on the tracks flowed on, both ways, stopping for a moment to view the destruction and offer brief comment, but continuing on, each one governed entirely by the thoughts uppermost in his mind – escape from the holocaust, anxiety to learn the fate of dear ones.
It seemed impossible that any inanimate manifestation of nature could be so insanely malicious as was the shock which smote Kawasaki, a large village just on the Yokohama side of the river. The houses, most of them two-storied, frail wooden structures with paper windows, crowned with roofs of heavy tiles, had not only been smashed, but had been torn apart, rended into splintered beams and raveled and torn fragments of boards, jumbled together, as if they had been battered by a gigantic flail. They had been thrown in every direction, backwards, against each other, in the street. The most diabolical intent could have produced no more stupendous result.
The part of the village nearest Yokohama had suffered far less. Many houses were only partly damaged. The stock of an earthenware dealer was almost intact, tier upon tier of gayly decorated dishes, rice-bowls, saki-cups, standing immaculately precise and orderly on their shelves under a roof which had been knocked drunkenly askew. A little farther on, a woman was busy in a half-ruined cake-shop, making ready for business while the earth was still trembling.
The heat became unbearably oppressive, stinging the throat with a dryness unfamiliar in Japan, where the curse of the heat is ordinarily its excessive moisture. We stopped at a small shop. The rear was down, but in the front sat the woman in charge, discussing the earthquake, it seemed almost languidly, with no more concern than if it had been an unusually heavy rainstorm.
Yes, she had beer, Kirin beer; was that all right? It was not very cold. She was very sorry. Now, where was the opener? She hunted about in the confusion, showing more annoyance at the disappearance of the trivial instrument than at the other consequences of the disaster. Finally she found it, brought glasses, served us, with the usual courteous phrases. And the price was as usual, forty-five sen. In the course of my long wanderings throughout the devastated area, on that day and on those following, I saw or heard of no instance of profiteering among the common people. Even the last bottle, the last candle, the last bit of fruit, were sold at ordinary prices, even before martial law made profiteering an offense. It was not thought of.
A couple of Japanese, clerks evidently, entered. ‘You had better not go to Yokohama,’ they advised. ‘Yokohama is gone, and now she is burning. That’ – they pointed to the huge cloud which was now rolling up, ever closer, so that it now hung low over us – that’s the smoke from the oil tanks. The whole city is burning.’
Of course, this must be an exaggeration. That the Japanese section should be wiped out was natural; they burn so easily, these frail collections of wood and paper; but that the foreign settlement, the streets upon streets of solid buildings of brick and concrete, should be destroyed was unthinkable.
Still, as we pressed on, scattered fires became more numerous; presently, at Higashikanagawa, entire blocks were burning. It became necessary to make detours to avoid them. Finally we were forced back to the refuge of the railway tracks. There they sat, the inhabitants, in groups, each family guarding the household goods which it had snatched up in flight. Futon, padded quilts, predominated, but all manner of other goods might be seen, even shoji, the latticed paper-covered doors and windows, and chests of drawers. The quietness was striking. There was no wailing; they conversed in low tones; but generally they sat silent, staring at the destruction. One admired their stoicism, the spirit which had made the shikataganai, ‘it can’t be helped’ phrase, almost the Japanese national motto. There was no confusion, no crying out; even the children were hushed.
But the attitude had its tremendous disadvantage. It was also apathy. Men sat stolidly and watched fires creep onward, which they might in many cases have stopped with little effort. They might have saved entire blocks had they tried, had they had a little leadership. There was another conspicuous feature, the utter lack of leadership. The Japanese official, in ordinary life ubiquitous and often obnoxious with his fussy exactions, seemed to have vanished from the earth—even the police. It is the fault of Japanese officialdom that it can act only according to prescribed routine, hide-bound regulations. There were no rules regarding handling of such earthquakes, no precedents. So the people, accustomed to act only under leadership, remained inactive, and the officials, who should have taken charge, were out of sight – and the fire spread on, unchecked.
The station-master had received authentic news. Yes, Yokohama was entirely destroyed, and Tokyo was in flames. Look!
We looked back. From the direction of Tokyo vast clouds were curling and spiraling into the sky, miles high. This point, beyond which a wall of fire blocked ingress into Yokohama, became a clearing-house for reports from the two cities, and from the countryside beyond. Yes, Yokosoka, the great naval station was a total wreck, and Kakamura. What! Kakamura, eighteen miles beyond Yokohama? I thought of my son, twelve years old, commonly known as ‘The Shrimp.’ Until this moment I had regarded him as safe, as a matter of course, in the big foreign villa on the Kamakura beach, where we lived with the rest of a bachelors’ mess. It becomes habit with the foreigner in Japan to regard the great mass misfortunes – fires, floods, typhoons – as something affecting almost entirely the Japanese only. They are always the ones to suffer, with their flimsy houses. We regarded these things with the intense sympathy accorded less fortunate fellow beings, but impersonally.
People taking refuge to Japan's countryside climb and clinch to one of few trains leaving the capital in 1923.
(AP Photo) See more archival images of the Kanto Earthquake.
‘I’ve got to push on. We’ve got to get through.’ The Englishman had caught me by the shoulder, pale, eyes glaring. ‘Are you game?’
We found a road leading steeply up along the side of the hill range that forms the land-side boundary of Yokohama. A narrow line of houses separated us from the side of the bluff, which fell off abruptly down toward the main city. These were the houses of the well-to-do, and the inhabitants were busy saving their belongings, family treasures, valuable furnishings, handsome carved screens, rich silken garments, brocades, lacquered tables, objets d’art. From below came the roar of the flames, advancing upward like waves against a cliff. One felt certain that all those things must eventually be consumed, anyway. It seemed a pity; still, these vast piles of valuable furnishings seemed less pathetic than had the pitifully scant belongings of the poor, below. But they were all the same in the face of misfortune, rich and poor. There was no confusion, no wild lamentation, no tears.
Presently we came to a point where a main road, running obliquely down into the city, gave a view of the entire scene. The lurid panorama lay out folded before us – but it was meaningless. There were no landmarks, no familiar buildings from which one might determine locality. Yokohama, the city of almost half a million souls, had become a vast plain of fire, of red, devouring sheets of flame which played and flickered. Here and there a remnant of a building, a few shattered walls, stood up like rocks above the expanse of flame, unrecognizable. There seemed to be nothing left to burn. It was as if the very earth were now burning. It presented exactly the aspect of a gigantic Christmas pudding over which the spirits were blazing, devouring nothing. For the city was gone.
‘How are you, Mr. Kinney?’ A Japanese had come up to me, his head bound up turban-like in a towel. ‘Mr. Tait is dead. We were in the Chartered Bank. The whole thing came down at the first shock. I got this.’ He pointed to a wound in his head. ‘There are some foreigners here.’
He led us to a group of blackamoors sitting in a beer-shop. The flames were climbing up the hillside steadily. Plainly it could be only a matter of minutes before they would reach here. Still, ‘business as usual.’ The owner was selling beer calmly, while has family was carrying away the furniture.
‘You from Tokyo?’ A stout man spoke up. Like the rest, he was black, but he had been wiping perspiration from his bald head, so now it presented a singularly ludicrous appearance, like a bald-headed zebra. ‘I hear that you people in Tokyo were lucky, not much of a quake, only fire.’ The mere wiping out by flames of more than half of the sixth largest city of the world seemed to him negligible. ‘You should have been here. We got it.’
‘I was in my office. You know my building, on Main Street, shaped like an L. The shock was like a bucking horse, three great shakes. It shot me out of my chair. I just missed being crushed by the safe. The go-down in the backyard, solid stone, mind you, was down in a second. It went so suddenly that the eye could not follow the details of the movement. We got to the stairway, I and my Japanese staff, and just then the far side of the L went down, just vanished, and as we gazed at it, presto! the whole part of the building, right up to the stairs, shot out of sight. We were clinging to the rail, watching the house vanishing piecemeal, expecting that next would be our turn. Then we rushed down the stairs.
The whole street, Main Street, was a jumble of bricks, houses sprawling over it everywhere, roofs lying in the middle of it. One couldn’t walk over it. There was no street. One must make one’s way over ruins where, only two minutes before, had been our city, the town that I have seen grow into a modern city since I was a boy.
‘And all over were people, people one knew, whom one had danced with, dined with, played bridge with, reduced, in a moment, to the uttermost depth of despair, standing, crying, wildly, by the ruins, clawing at them, desperately, to reach others caught under the bricks; and already, here and there, the flames were leaping forth, coming closer and closer, while the poor wretches in the debris were yelling for help. A man called to me, “Here, help me get my wife out.” She was caught by the waist. Her entire upper body was free, and she was staring at us and straining, slim, jeweled hands pressing frantically at the great beam that held her, unhurt, but tightly pinned. Half of the beam was covered by bricks. We might as well have tried to lift a house. We tugged away, helplessly. We caught at men who rushed by, called them to assist. One or two stopped, but most of them shook themselves free. I wanted to hit them. It seemed so damnably callous. And still, they also had wives, children, somewhere, in their homes on the Bluff, and were obsessed by the anxiety to find them, to know. And I wanted to get home, too, but I couldn’t leave that woman. And then the flames came and drove us back. I had to half strangle that poor devil to pull him away. The roar of the flames drowned her cries. So I rushed along.
‘I got home soon enough. The family was safe. The house was gone, of course. It had slid bodily down the Bluff, right into Motomachi below, and was just one part of the great bonfire. But the family was safe. I was lucky,’ he lowered his voice, glancing at a tall Scotchman sitting aside, chin cupped in his hand, staring dully at the conflagration. ‘That chap, McWhirter, you know, his whole family was caught under the house. If they were not killed, then they were burned, his wife and three children.’
‘I wonder how many were killed in the Grand and the Oriental Hotel?’ A young chap spoke up. ‘I was right in the entrance of our office when the shake shot me out on hands and knees, and when I tried to scramble up, it threw me down again. And in just that time that it took me to get to my knees and look back, these three shocks, coming rat-tat-tat, in the space of time that it would take you to clap your hands three times, the whole city had gone. I had faced a city of square mile on square mile of houses, great office-buildings, banks, hotels, stores, homes; and when I turned back again, it had vanished as if by some gigantic sweep of malevolent magic. As far as one could see was but a flat, irregular expanse of brick and wood. I couldn’t see half a dozen houses standing. And then it was all blotted out by the dust, thicker than the thickest fog. You could not see a foot before you. And then that was suddenly cleared, as if a curtain had been snatched away, by the typhoon that sprang up just then, the gale that Fate seemed to need to help the flames finish the destruction. I am a newspaperman, and I’ve been thinking how I’m going to write this. Phrases and images, monstrous incidents that have flickered before me all this afternoon, are running in my mind haphazard; but I can’t do it. It can’t be done. It’s too viciously, demoniacally monstrous.’
The others nodded, silently, approvingly, finding relief in hearing, in words which they themselves could not find, some expression of the feelings which swirled through their confused minds.
‘Some people rushed into the water at the Bund and sat there, just heads out, ducking them when the heat became too intense. I heard later that, when the flames became worse, some were dropped by the heat as they rushed across the Bund, and lay there to be roasted. I got to the park. It was filled with people and the flames on all sides made everything, even humans, so dry that we became inflammable, like tinder. Sparks, chunks of flaming debris, came flying among us. Clothing, even hair, caught fire in a moment. Luckily the mains had burst, and we sat in about a foot of water. One would see someone catching fire, literally having his clothes or hair spring into blaze, and then someone would slap a chunk of wet mud on him.
‘I was fool enough to get away from there. I wanted to see it all, but it’s a wonder I got through, just luck in dodging flames on all sides. There were dead everywhere. The canals were full of them. I heard that hundreds flocked into the Yokohama Specie Bank, which was still standing; but the flames came there, too. They couldn’t get out. There were flames all about them. So they were all roasted alive.’
Another took up the tale, and another—harrowing incidents of families wiped out, husbands watching wives burn, and mothers clawing with slender fingers at piles of masonry under which they could hear their children crying, while the flames were coming on, mercilessly. The United Club had come down in a heap; everyone of the usual noon-day tiffin crowd there had been killed. So-and-so had been crushed, So-and-so burned—familiar names, one’s intimates of yesterday. Already the disaster seemed strangely old, as if one had lived in this atmosphere of misery for many years; as if normal times, orderly routine of business and three meals a day were a thing remote, a long past period of peace. The mind lost all sense of ordinary proportion. Men who had lost every possession congratulated themselves on their good luck. By common thought it became regarded as almost indecent to deplore loss of mere property.
So Farley was dead. He had promised to get me some statistics. Miss Newman had been burned, caught like an animal in a trap. She was to have had tiffin with me the next day. Robinson must have been in the Club by that time—so he must be dead. But the disaster was still too fresh. There was too little information. One thought over the list of one’s friends, remembering constantly new names. How had they fared? Were they alive? Then, as during the weeks that followed, with the survivors scattered wide, the constant topic was inquiry, gradual adjustment to familiarity with the thought of this new, reduced company of friends and acquaintances.
‘Come on; have you rested long enough?’ The Englishman had stood up. We started on. Down below the streets were filled with dead, but here, on the higher levels, there were none to be seen, and only very few wounded. In fact, the number of wounded throughout the area was astonishingly small. The injured ones had scant chance to escape from the flames.
The villages on the west side of Yokohama had been mainly rustic in character—mud walls with heavy thatch, several foot thick, as roofs. The buildings had collapsed exactly as if some huge pressure had suddenly been applied on the rooftrees, squelching them down flat, walls bulging out from under the eaves, or throwing them to one side. Frequently the streets were blocked where roofs from both sides had encountered each other in the middle of the thoroughfare. Progress became laborious. One climbed over the roofs. In the first village, Hodogaya, nearly all the houses were down; but here also the inhabitants were calm, stoically poking about in the ruins for pots needed for water, material for construction of temporary shelters. Many such were already up. One saw in them families. They had almost an air of repose, contentment, as they sat there, conversing, eating, children playing with toys contrived out of the flotsam of destruction.
It was evident that in this section, Yokohama and the country west thereof, must have been the centre of the shock. East of the city we had seen crevices in the earth, collapse of embankments, road-fills, made ground, but here the ground yawned in vast fissures several feet wide, jumbling it so that it presented exactly the aspect of broken ice-floes in a river, the confused surface of a lava flow. As darkness fell and we came away from the light of the vast bonfire made by Yokohama—there were but few fires in these villages—progress became difficult. One was uneasy from a sense of impending, hovering danger, close at hand; for even though the mind had quickly adjusted itself to familiarity with the abnormal, so that one regarded wrecked buildings, ruin, with the casual interest of almost indifference, quietness was ever disturbed by recurrent tremors, uneasy rumbling vibrations of the earth.
We stopped at a partly ruined shop for a drink. There was no more beer, but would we have tea? A hibachi (fire-pot) had been saved, on which a kettle was gurgling peacefully. The woman prepared the tea in tiny handle-less bowls. Her husband produced zabuton (small cushions). Would we deign to be seated? The same pleasant courtesy as ever. No, of course, they would take no money for tea, just tea. And we must take along some cakes for the journey. They forced them upon us. Of course, they would take no pay. Good-bye, good luck.
Behind us loomed the great expanse of the nimbus from the Yokohama fires, and farther away, the reflection of the Tokyo conflagration; but ahead all was blackness, punctuated only by the twinkling light of a paper lantern, dancing in front of us like a firefly. We caught up to it. The bearer was a burly Japanese, competent, one of the few Japanese who seemed to have a sense of leadership and organization. He headed a small caravan of about a dozen—men, a few women, and a couple of children—plodding along behind the faint glimmer. Might we join and benefit from the light? If course. At once they made a place for us, insisting that we take the best one, immediately following the lantern-bearer.
So we crept on, slowly. Where the road had been demolished by cracks, the leader stopped, holding his light high. ‘Abunai’ (look out). Precariously we would advance, often creeping on hands and knees from floe to floe—it seems the only word—of earth. We gained the railroad track, but it was little better. Embankments had slid into the rice-patches, leaving tracks and ties suspended in mid-air, swaying as we crawled over them in the darkness. The women and kiddies came along bravely, needing little help. There was no word of complaint.
Beyond the Totsuka station we passed a train which had been overturned, lying on its side, the locomotive, some twenty feet ahead, having been thrown in the opposite direction; but all was silent; there was no one about. It was a strange part of the disaster that there was hardly any evidence of human wreckage outside of Yokohama proper, where corpses littered the streets and canals, where humans had been caught by the instantaneous violence of the shock or cut off by fire, and in Tokyo, where most of the dead, hundreds and thousands in a heap, lay in places where they had been burned or roasted when the flames hemmed in the open spaces which they had sought for safety. In most other places the ruins covered the dead, hid them from sight.
The Ofuna junction station was in ruins, but on the tracks between the wrecked buildings the train officials had formed a sort of relief station. They brought water and insisted that we lie down on blankets which they had spread over the ties between the rails. But there was no rest. The Ofuna people had news of Kamakura, only two miles away. The shock had been bad there, hidoix (terrible). The whole down had been smashed flat and then had burned. There was nothing left. We hurried on. As we came out of the long tunnel through which one enters hill-guarded Kamakura, we saw a few detached houses—flat; beyond them a wide area of flame, licking the ground far and wide. Most of the town had been consumed and the fire was now only playing over the embers.
The way of the lantern-bearer and the Englishman led to the left. They departed. ‘Good luck. Hope you’ll find everything all right.’
Beyond the light of the flames, I stumbled into the blackness of the cryptomeria avenue leading to the beach. The great straight trees had been flung about like straws. Some of them blocked the road, and I must climb over them, feeling my way through tangled limbs/ At the river the bridge had collapsed entirely. I made my way to the mouth, to ford it, but there was almost no water. The entire beach and the sea-floor had been raised about six feet by the quake, and where there had been only a narrow beach strip lay now a wide, wet expanse of sand.
A fragment of moon had risen. I could see, dimly, the tower of our house looming up erect. Thank God! But as I went forward, I saw that the ten-foot-high sea wall had disappeared, the stones lying scattered wide over the sand. Half of the front garden had slid with it. Part of the two-story section of the house stood, leaning, the collapse of one wall leaving the rooms exposed, but the long one-story section was down, a chaos of tiles and splinters, prone, so that one might without effort have walked completely over it.
I ran to the back where my boy had occupied a room in a wing, half-Japanese construction. It stood, but had been wrenched over. I climbed in through the window. The bed was covered with plaster, but there was no one there.
From the servants’ compound I heard the clap of sticks and the drone of monotonous voices. The servants’ quarters were intact, and the cook was conducting a Buddhist service before a tiny household shrine, the rest of the servants squatting about him.
‘Thank God! It’s good to see danna-san. Young danna-san is all right.’
Yes, he had had a narrow escape, but he was safe, and the neighbors, wealthy Japanese, had taken him to a villa they owned up on a hill. The danna-san from Shanghai was dead, but the rest were safe. They were sleeping there. He waved his hand toward the dark shrubbery of the garden. Like almost all others in the quake zone, they preferred safety in the open to the precarious shelter of such rooms as remained. ‘You should have seen Conroy-san’—a grin spread over the cook’s face. He found much amusement in describing the escape on Conroy, one of the mess, his precipitate flight—he had been taking a bath; how he had dived, mother-naked, into the shrubbery, without even touching the window-frame.
I went back to my boy’s room, shook the ceiling off the bed and tried to sleep, but the constantly recurring tremors made me jump to the window every half-hour or so. In the morning the Shrimp appeared and told me of the death of the ‘Shanghai danna-san.’ He was a Dane, Juel Madsen, formerly a war correspondent and later drawing for the Graphic and making a collection of water-color sketches, and two weeks before he had told me how his first attempt at literature, travel-sketches in words, had been accepted by Gyldendalske, the great Copenhagen publishing firm.
He and the Shrimp had been reading on the verandah, facing the sea, when the shock came and brought the house down over them. A great beam struck them both down, and above them fell a thick layer of tiles and splintered wood. Madsen had evidently been struck on the spine. ‘Can you get out, Shrimp?’ he inquired. A moment later he groaned: ‘Why could I not have been killed outright?’ A few minutes after that, he died.
The Shrimp was struggling to extricate himself when the tidal wave, which swept the coast from Kamakura to Atami, rushed up, flooded the garden, tore down the sea wall, advancing to within a few feet of the ruins. ‘I thought sure I was a goner,’ related the Shrimp, ‘when I saw the water come on, and I couldn’t move.’ He got out about fifteen minutes later.
This tidal wave swept out a great section of the village near the beach. I saw a thirty-foot sampan that had been lifted neatly on top of the rood of a prostrated house. Vast portions of the hills facing the ocean on both sides of the bay had slid into the sea.
During the next few days we were busy salvaging food and clothing, and with some of our neighbors we organized a camp. The Japanese were kind, the servants invaluable. It was another pleasant feature of the disaster—the self-sacrificing faithfulness of the servants. Many who had families elsewhere stayed with their masters in spite of their personal anxieties. In many instances amahs brought to safety children whose parents had been killed. Others guarded property where the owners were absent. The villagers were helpful. A group of young men came and offered to help salvaging. Four days after the quake, an official come to inquire if we needed food.
The day after the disaster the servants insisted on tying red bands about our arms. Everyone wore them, Japanese and foreigners. It was a badge of rectitude, to protect one against the vengeance which was being visited on the Koreans. That was one of the most cruel phases of the days which followed—the blind, unreasoning hatred of the Koreans, of whom thousands had been employed as laborers. The report went about that they were committing incendiarism, arson, and rape, that they were poisoning wells, that they were in league with Japanese anarchists to make use of the situation to overthrow the existing order of things. No doubt, some of them became looters. A friend saw some engaged in looting in Yokohama—but Japanese were guilty, also.
Even official Japan was anxious, though more so for fear of the element harboring ‘dangerous thoughts,’ as the official phrase has it. Much of the activity of the military and navy authorities was concentrated on preparation to quell the revolt which they thought was impending. In the meantime Koreans were slaughtered right and left. Crowds killed on sight, frantically, any Korean whom they might find. Marines scoured the area, assisted by self-constituted guards of young men. Metheson, of the Chicago Tribune, saw three men killed in cold blood at Yokohama. Another friend of mine saw marines turn a looter over to the mob, which literally rent him in pieces. The minds of the people became inflamed, filled with bitter hatred, but the underlying reason was blind fear racking minds unbalanced by the horror of disaster.
We were practically isolated. Rumors came to us. Our landlord’s two small children were visiting us at our camp, when the news came that both their parents had been killed instantly at Yokohama. A handsome young Portuguese woman who had come to us sat for several days brooding in uncertainty over the fate of her family. One day she sneaked away, walked to Yokohama, a slim, delicate woman, essaying the long, precarious journey in high-heeled slippers. The day after she left, her husband arrived. Both her children had been crushed in the wreck of their home. It continued to come—driblet by driblet of news of death. We came to hate to talk about it, and yet we could not get away from it; it remained the only topic.
The principal shock had occurred at noon of Saturday, September first. On Tuesday we were relieved by the arrival of a Japanese destroyer—assistance, finally. A landing-party came ashore, but it merely took away the remains of a Japanese princess who had been killed in Kamakura. The rest of us, the living, Japanese and foreign, watched the vessel turn and steam out of the bay.
On Thursday relief came—American destroyers, a flock of them, which systematically scoured the entire coast section, taking off refugees, foreigners, and Japanese alike. It was a point of pride with the Americans that their first relief ship arrived three hours ahead of the British; but both nations alike, British and American, steaming at full speed from China, brought relief before the Japanese fleet, lying in home waters, had contrived to do so. The prompt action and practical work of the foreign nations stood in sharp contrast to the general inefficiency of the Japanese Government. Where the Japanese people generally rose inestimably in the respect of the foreign residents, the hopeless incompetence of officialdom was almost criminal, and September first, 1923, will remain forever a day of utter disgrace in the annals of the Japanese navy.
While the Americans, the British, the French were holding liners in Yokohama to act as relief ships, were transporting refugees back and forth from Tokyo to other cities, the Japanese did almost nothing, and in some cases they hindered. The first American destroyer bringing relief to Tokyo, was ordered out forthwith. The rule has it that no foreign war vessels may enter Tokyo. The commander refused to budge, and finally the American Embassy had the order rescinded. This incident I have had confirmed by the Embassy. While American and British vessels stood by in Yokohama, taking on board, freely, refugees of all nations, many Japanese ships would take only those who could pay for tickets, or tried to leave the port. On board the American destroyer on which I went to Yokohama, they told, gleefully, of the action of the commander of a British warship in Yokohama who warned all Japanese vessels that he would sink the first one that tried to depart without his leave; how one had tried to sneak out in the dead of night, and how he had turned his searchlight, also his guns, on it and signaled that he was about to fire—and all this, defiantly, under the eyes of a powerful squadron of Japanese vessels lying, virtually inactive, in Yokohama Bay.
The following day I went to Tokyo on a Japanese destroyer. A pitifully inadequate service of two destroyers a day was maintained between Tokyo and Yokohama by the Japanese. When I wished to return from Tokyo, a queue of several thousand refugees was waiting at the Shibaura landing, and to transport them there was only one destroyer, capable of carrying a few hundred.
‘Why don’t you employ some of these ships?’ I asked a Japanese officer, pointing at the dozen of war vessels, some of the large cruisers, lying right at hand.
He looked at them wistfully. ‘I wish we might.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘But we can’t do it without orders from the Admiralty.’
And while they were awaiting orders from the Admiralty, the British and the Americans had come from China and had transported the refugees, and were now threading their way between the motionless Japanese warships, bringing ton upon ton of supplies to the stricken city.
Among other reasons for going to Tokyo I had one special one. A novel of mine, Broken Butterflies, is due to be published early next year, and much of its action is laid out in the great buildings of Tokyo—the Foreign Office, Russian Embassy, Navy and War Department buildings, the Imperial Hotel. I was anxious to see how much of these scenes remained, and by some almost ridiculous freak of fortune they were all almost intact. Coming from Yokohama, where destruction had been absolutely complete, so that only half a dozen buildings remained, the impunity of large sections of Tokyo from the quake seemed a striking contrast. ‘Why, you can have had almost no shock at all,’ one exclaimed involuntarily to the Tokyo people—and the Tokyo-ites sniffed.
But while Tokyo seemed to have escaped fairly easily from the shock, this was only in comparison to Yokohama; and, in fact, the extent of damage, almost entirely through fire, and the toll of lives taken was even greater, for the areas destroyed and the number of lives lost, though they occurred only in sections of the capital, were actually far greater than the entire loss of the smaller city.
I walked about and saw most of the official building section remaining. The great modern business quarter at Marinouchi had suffered but little, though crushed and, occasionally, fire-gutted interiors were hidden by walls which had been damaged only a little, and the impression of relative lack of loss was in part false. The extensive residence sections of the well-to-do and middle classes were largely intact. Stores were doing business, cars were running in places, and electric lights had begun to function. But vast areas near the principle centre of the city had been laid waste for many blocks. The great retail-business street, the famous Ginza, had been completely wrecked by fire; and as one went on to the poorer sections, the tremendous congested quarters of the laboring classes, of the poor, Honjo and Fukagawa, even the miseries of Yokohawa were outdone. Fire had destroyed the buildings completely, and here one found the masses of the dead. These people had fled for escape to the open spaces, and the flames had hemmed them in; and even where fire had not reached them, they had been roasted in heaps of many thousands. In one place a mob of thirty-two thousand had been thus tortured. The naked bodies lay, twisted and contorted, naked or with only rags clinging to them, covering acre upon acre. At places the jam had been so congested that they had not been able even to fall to the ground. So they stood there, packed, the dead rubbing elbows with the dead.
I sought out my familiars among the foreign press correspondents in Tokyo, but they were an unhappy lot. They had covered the news, had made heroic efforts to get it out. Each one had in some way endeavored to rush out his stuff, had made his way through the flames and tremors, to telegraph and cable office, and, later, had tried to give the best possible picture through the maximum of fifty words allowed by the authorities. But they did not know what was going through. They found out later. Even where they had the ready assistance of the high officials in Tokyo, all the messages had been held up by some petty official at Nagasaki. There were no R.T.P. cards on file in Nagasaki, so he held the entire batch, a week’s desperate and painstaking effort of a dozen correspondents, and the first reports of the appalling event came to the rest of the world, mishandled and inaccurate, from Japanese sources in Osaka.
Tokyo was a relief. Not only was foreign relief well organized—it was that almost everywhere within a few days after the shock—but the Japanese worked well among their own people. The military had taken efficient control. There was no looting, though one sinister incident marred the record, when a captain of gendarmerie ran his sword through three defenseless prisoners, Socialists, one of them Japan’s foremost and most intellectual radical. The authorities deplored the event. The general in charge of the martial-law regime was discharged—a significant concession to the power of public opinion, indicating that the officials had finally decided that the power of the sword may not be used indiscriminately as before. They also deplored the Korean incident, warning the people against overt acts. It is possible that the reactionary hardheadedness of Japanese officialdom had been softened—even if it took an earthquake to do it.
But when I returned to Yokohama, I found a contrast to the efficiency of Tokyo. Looting was prevalent. Food and water supplies were inadequate. For some time no apparent move was made toward removing the dead. Characteristically, official effort was concentrated on the capital—the rest of the country must wait.
I went from Yokohama in the Empress of Australia, which had been turned over for relief work, with many hundreds of refugees. Almost all the remaining foreigners of Yokohama and many of those of Tokyo went to Kobe. All wanted to escape from the maddening atmosphere of tragedy hovering over those cities. The more resolute were already planning to resume business. Some even spoke of the tremendous opportunities offered by reconstruction.
In the Oriental Hotel in Kobe foreign relief committees of various nationalities were working strenuously, efficiently, to feed, house, and clothe the refugees. One saw heads of great business houses standing in line for shirts and trousers. Financiers appeared, dressed fantastically in blue-jacket uniforms borrowed on board destroyers. A clean collar seemed almost indecently conspicuous. But while some were scouring Kobe and Osaka for offices, or were cabling to the four corners of the earth for business, the miserable, deadening aura of tragedy hovered over the hotel, the lobby, and the halls, where they sat, men and women, going over and over again the flood of incidents—death, destruction, the innumerable hairbreadth escapes, each one seeming a private miracle.
Every newcomer was greeted, questioned. One saw them rush up, shake hands. ‘So glad you are all right.’ Then the inevitable question: ‘And how are the rest?’ Even when one could not hear it, one might know the answer. The questioner would smile, wring hands again—or he would fall away, shaking his head, or place a sympathetic hand on the other’s shoulder. There was no getting away from it, this pall of mass tragedy, even though the mind strove desperately to regain the ordinary, rational balance of normality.
In the lobby I met Mr. B.W. Fleisher, owner of the Japan Advertiser and the Trans-Pacific magazine, of which I am, or was, the editor. His entire plant was destroyed. He took me by the arm.
‘Come on, let us get out of here. This is what we must get away from, this continuous raking over the dead ashes. We must get busy—I have ordered a new plant already—all of us, especially us Americans. We owe it to Japan. The new Government has courage. It’s going to reconstruct on a vast, progressive scale—so we must forget our losses and lend a hand. America has a mission here.’
And that is the spirit of the Americans in Japan.