The Honjo district of eastern Tokyo is one of the city's poorer neighborhoods, a nondescript sprawl of low-rent office buildings, noodle bars, and old wooden houses on the east bank of the murky Sumida River. On an asphalt promenade built along the riverbank, an army of the homeless -- the forlorn fruit of Japan's long economic recession -- have pitched camp, hanging their laundry out to dry and cooking rice in bubbling pots over portable stoves. The district's main landmarks are an old sumo stadium, known as the Kokugikan, a gargantuan municipal museum, and, tucked away in a small park on the grounds of the former Army Clothing Depot, an ugly, reinforced-concrete exhibition hall built in 1930. In gloomy corridors, a thin collection of relics gathers dust on shelves and inside smudged display cases: burned biscuits, metal pipes, a piece of a corrugated iron roof wrapped around a tree trunk. An occasional Boy Scout troop and an errant tourist wander through, but otherwise the place seems forgotten, a neglected backwater in a part of the city that remains as marginalized as it was eighty years ago. The building is the Earthquake Memorial Hall, and it commemorates the most destructive earthquake of them all, the one by which all other seismic events are measured: the Kanto Daishinsai, or Great Kanto Earthquake, that occurred at two minutes before noon on September 1, 1923.
The epic temblor has faded from the national consciousness, shunted aside decades ago in the wake of human-made catastrophes: the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Allied firebombing of dozens of Japanese cities at the end of World War II. Every tenyears an official commemoration takes place, and seismologists are trotted out on television to ponder the question "Can it happen again?" But with only a handful of survivors still alive, nobody speaks much anymore about the earthquake that killed 140,000 people (including hundreds of Americans and Europeans), burned two cities to the ground, unleashed tsunamis, floods, mud slides, and avalanches, and stands as an apocalyptic vision of Japan's eternal instability. "But that's such an old story," I was told by one Japanese friend when I told her I was considering writing a book about the great disaster.
I first heard about the Great Kanto Earthquake a quarter of a century ago, during a year that I lived in Tokyo, teaching English at Sophia University as a Princeton-in-Asia Fellow and writing film reviews for the Asahi Evening News, an English-language daily. One winter morning in 1980 I was standing in the kitchen of a friend's home in Kawasaki, a hilly suburb southwest of Tokyo, when an earthquake hit. The violent shaking lasted about twenty seconds: sake cups and tea sets slid off shelves, doors flew open, the house rocked on its foundations so forcefully that I feared it would fly off its hillside perch. After the vibrations subsided, my Japanese hosts picked themselves up and, without a word, swept the porcelain shards from the kitchen floor and carried on as if nothing had happened. Their equanimity was born of experience. The Japanese archipelago is the most active seismic zone on the planet, suffering destructive earthquakes on average once every three years. Fifteen hundred seismic tremors jolt the islands annually. During that afternoon, my friend's stepfather told me that he had been a small boy living in Tokyo at the time of the Kanto Daishinsai, and his dimly remembered tales of fleeing the burning city lodged themselves in my consciousness and remained there.
The earthquake intrigued me. Not only had it been one of the twentieth century's worst natural disasters, but it had struck at a critical moment in Japan's history. In the aftermath of the Great War, the country was booming: Japan had embraced the West, was developing the trappings of a liberal democracy, and was modernizing at a breathless pace. But it was also building a Pacific empire, expanding militarily across Asia. Secret societies of right-wing military officers and proto-fascists, such as the Black Dragons, plotted coups and assassinations in back rooms in Tokyo and dreamed of Asian conquest. These two Japans coexisted in a state of tension. How had the catastrophe affected that balance? Did a link exist between the national trauma and Japan's plunge into World War II? During my year in Japan, I learned about a thriving community of foreigners, mostly Americans and Britons, who had lived in the doomed silk trading port of Yokohama, then one of the most dynamic, heterogeneous cities of the Far East. The portrait that emerged of Yokohama in the 1920s -- a nest of spies and sailors, millionaires and riffraff -- stayed with me as well.
Years later, when I began to investigate in earnest the earthquake and the era, I searched for firsthand accounts of expatriates living in Japan at the time. At the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I found a trove of letters, diaries, and mementos that had belonged to Lyman Cotten, the American naval attaché in Tokyo in 1922 and 1923. From yellowing envelopes, I unfolded brittle copies of the English-language Japan Times' "Earthquake Extra," written and produced by an American editor in his suite at Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel in the days immediately after the catastrophe. I inspected a Japanese military laissez-passer, with a faded photograph and official red Japanese seal, that Cotten had carried around the stricken capital, which was then under martial law. I sifted through yellowing telegrams dispatched from Nikko, the Japanese Imperial retreat, assuring relatives in America of the Cotten family's safety. These artifacts, combined with Cotten's vivid personal accounts of life in post-Great War Japan and of the disaster, propelled me onward. At the Boston Athenaeum Library across from State House, I uncovered an unpublished manuscript written by an American missionary who had narrowly survived the inferno in Yokohama; her vivid, typewritten narrative had remained on a shelf, unopened, since a fellow missionary donated it to the library in 1924.
I began a search for survivors. I cruised the Internet for clues, sent out a flood of e-mails. I tracked down an octogenarian in San Jose, California, named Jishin Martin; he had been born in Tokyo three days after the disaster, and his missionary parents had named him after the Japanese word for earthquake. Too young to remember the event, he put me in contact with his older brother, James, who had been six years old when the disaster took place. Thrilled to be meeting an eyewitness, I interviewed him at a nursing home in Washington, D.C., only to discover that he and his family had lived on the periphery of the earthquake zone and had survived the catastrophe unscathed. His only memory was bivouacking in a tent at a missionary school for a few days because his house walls had been cracked by the seismic vibrations. I came away disappointed, wondering if I would find any living person who could give the disaster a sense of immediacy.
A few months later, in Japan, I scoured senior citizens' centers, visited the tourism department, met with members of an association of Korean immigrants, and made my way through a succession of municipal ministries and ward offices -- without success. Then, just when I was about to give up hope, an official in the Yokohama city government put me in touch with a ninety-three-year-old man who, the official told me, was still living in a house built on the plot of land where he had been born in 1911. One humid morning in July 2004, in the lobby of a shabby municipal building on the port's outskirts, my interpreter and I made the acquaintance of a dapper, wizened pensioner named Shigeo Tsuchiya. I bowed, he bowed, and Tsuchiya's government handler led us into a stuffy conference room. Under fluorescent lights, we sipped green tea and began to talk. "I haven't spoken about this in years," he said. Then he told me his story.
Copyright © 2006 by Joshua Hammer