On September 1st 1923 (Taisho
12 in Japanese reckoning), just before noon, an earthquake
8.3 occured near the densely populated Kanto
region, encompassing Tokyo
, the two most populous cities of Japan
The timing was highly unfortunate, as most households were in the process of preparing lunch - on gas ranges using open fire.
This resulted in a large number of fires springing up immediately. Fuelled by the small wooden houses built very closely together that are characteristic of traditional Japanese urban architecture, and by strong winds, the fires proceeded to consume major parts of the cities. Attempts to put them out were mostly futile, partually because most water pipes had burst during the quake.
The most terrible scene of this tragedy occurred in Honjo ward, where about 40,000 people had escaped to the largest open space they could find, a military clothing depot. There, they were surrounded by fire, and hit with a firestorm of superheated air that lasted almost two hours and left all but 2,000 of the refugees dead - literally baked alive.
The total death toll of earthquake and fires was over 140,000, and over 3 million people lost their home. In Yokohama, 86% of all houses were destroyed.
Rebuilding was surprisingly quick, helped by foreign aid, but unfortunately, people didn't heed the lessons learned, and most areas were rebuilt in the same style, with the same deadly reasults when the cities were hit by large-scale fires again some 20 years later - this time caused by US bombers.