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Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II
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Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II

by Joshua Hammer

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Yokohama Burning is the story of the worst natural disaster of the twentieth century: the earthquakes, fires, and tsunamis of September 1923 that destroyed Yokohama and most of Tokyo and killed 140,000 people during two days of horror.

With cinematic vividness and from multiple perspectives, acclaimed Newsweek correspondent Joshua Hammer


Yokohama Burning is the story of the worst natural disaster of the twentieth century: the earthquakes, fires, and tsunamis of September 1923 that destroyed Yokohama and most of Tokyo and killed 140,000 people during two days of horror.

With cinematic vividness and from multiple perspectives, acclaimed Newsweek correspondent Joshua Hammer re-creates harrowing scenes of death, escape, and rescue. He also places the tumultuous events in the context of history and demonstrates how they set Japan on a path to even greater tragedy.

At two minutes to noon on Saturday, September 1, 1923, life in the two cities was humming along at its usual pace. An international merchant fleet, an early harbinger of globalization, floated in Yokohama harbor and loaded tea and silk on the docks. More than three thousand rickshaws worked the streets of the port. Diplomats, sailors, spies, traders, and other expatriates lunched at the Grand Hotel on Yokohama's Bund and prowled the dockside quarter known as Bloodtown. Eighteen miles north, in Tokyo, the young Prince Regent, Hirohito, was meeting in his palace with his advisers, and the noted American anthropologist Frederick Starr was hard at work in his hotel room on a book about Mount Fuji. Then, in a mighty shake of the earth, the world as they knew it ended.

When the temblor struck, poorly constructed buildings fell instantly, crushing to death thousands of people or pinning them in the wreckage. Minutes later, a great wall of water washed over coastal resort towns, inundating people without warning. Chemicals exploded, charcoal braziers overturned, neighborhoods of flimsy wooden houses went up in flames. With water mains broken, fire brigades could only look on helplessly as the inferno spread.

Joshua Hammer searched diaries, letters, and newspaper accounts and conducted interviews with nonagenarian survivors to piece together a minute-by-minute account of the catastrophe. But the author offers more than a disaster narrative. He details the emerging study of seismology, the nascent wireless communications network that alerted the world, and the massive, American-led relief effort that seemed to promise a bright new era in U.S.-Japanese relations.

Hammer shows that the calamity led in fact to a hardening of racist attitudes in both Japan and the United States, and drove Japan, then a fledgling democracy, into the hands of radical militarists with imperial ambitions. He argues persuasively that the forces that ripped through the archipelago on September 1, 1923, would reverberate, traumatically, for decades to come.

Yokohama Burning, a story of national tragedy and individual heroism, combines a dramatic narrative and historical perspective that will linger with the reader for a long time.

Editorial Reviews

Kunio Francis Tanabe
The author's panoramic approach -- showing glimpses of Japan's past while intermittently focusing on the lives of several Western and Japanese characters -- serves the reader well.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Shortly before noon on September 1, 1923, a massive earthquake and devastating fire destroyed Yokohama and parts of Tokyo, and killed over 140,000 people. Using vigorous prose, Newsweek journalist Hammer (A Season in Bethlehem) skillfully sets the sociopolitical stage for the catastrophe, drawing a picture of Japan's rapid economic growth, Westernization and integration into the world community. However, underneath this veneer of progress lurked a growing militaristic, xenophobic impulse. While the mass death that followed the quake is bad enough, Hammer describes in grisly detail the wanton killing of Korean immigrants by roving bands of sword-wielding Japanese. Following the chaos of the disaster, in Hammer's telling, the forces of imperialism took increasing control of the nation's agenda, and Japan began its march to war with the West. Too much of Hammer's recounting comes from the observations of outsiders: American and British diplomats, scientists and world travelers. One wishes there were a more nuanced treatment of the average Japanese who were crushed, burned or hacked to death as a result of this cataclysm. Instead they are swallowed up in Hammer's big-picture rendition. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Sept. 14) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Yokohama Burning is a book filled with chaos and movement, but it's also like a painting, with its images frozen forever in time. A hand reaches out for a porcelain cup; a boy kneels at a low Japanese table; people gather around the bar of a private club, the expressions on their faces just beginning to change. Joshua Hammer masterfully assembles the pieces of this story and unfurls them with such skill that not only are we caught up in the lives and deaths of his subjects, we come to see the Japanese earthquake of 1923 as a dividing line: on one side, a lost and simpler world; after, a march to war, and to darker and more familiar times." — Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World

"The response to a natural disaster often reveals uncomfortable truths about a society — think, for example, of Hurricane Katrina. Joshua Hammer's fast-paced, intriguing account of a less familiar but even greater catastrophe shows how the brutal response to it laid bare similar uncomfortable truths that eerily foreshadow Japan's role in launching World War II." — Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

"Josh Hammer has written a compelling tale of both individual tragedy and resilience, as well as a finely wrought account of a Japan in the throes of social and political transition. In a few shattering minutes, the Yokohama earthquake, symbolically and in some measure actually, jolted Japan onto a path of militarism that would shadow Asia for decades to come." — Edward A. Gargan, author of The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong

Product Details

Free Press
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6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

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Yokohama Burning

The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II
By Joshua Hammer

Free Press

Copyright © 2006 Joshua Hammer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743264657


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, andit 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 ten years 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


Excerpted from Yokohama Burning by Joshua Hammer Copyright © 2006 by Joshua Hammer. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Joshua Hammer was born in New York and graduated from Princeton University with a cum laude degree in English literature. He joined the staff of Newsweek as a business and media writer in 1988, and between 1992 and 2006 served as a bureau chief and correspondent-at-large on five continents. Hammer is now a contributing editor to Smithsonian and Outside, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, and has written for publications including the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, the Condé Nast Traveler, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Atavist. He is the author of four nonfiction books, including The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, and has won numerous journalism awards. Since 2007 he has been based in Berlin, Germany, and continues to travel widely around the world.

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