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The Great Japanese Earthquake of 1923


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In 1923 there occurred in Japan an earthquake which, in its far-reaching consequences - industrial, social and political - and in its terrible destruction of life and property, must be placed among the greatest calamities in the history of the world.

Practically the whole of Tokio, the capital city., was razed to the ground; Yokohama, the flourishing seaport town, was completely destroyed; some 100,000 people lost their lives; over half a million houses were wrecked and nearly two million persons left homeless. The loss of national wealth was estimated at 500,000,000!

The story of the tragedy, gleaned from eye-witness accounts, reads like pages from a book describing the horrors of a Dante's Inferno.

The earthquake occurred on Saturday, September i, just before noon.

The sun was shining hotly from a blue sky. Although midsummer was long past, the heat was oppressive. And not a breath of wind stirred.

In Yokohama - Japan's Liverpool - the large hotels were already crowded with people about to sit down to "tiffin." Rickshaw men ran at jog-trot through the streets, chattering gaily with one another, shouting curses and imprecations when busy traffic barred their way. The big business houses were preparing to shut down for the afternoon. Everywhere was bustle and turmoil - a typical Saturday noon in Yokohama.

Certainly no one had any foreboding of the terrible tragedy which was about to sweep the town out of existence.

The bund, or water-front, was gay with streamers, for the Canadian-Pacific liner, Empress of Australia, was about to sail for Vancouver, carrying with her a large company of visitors and business people. Assembled on the mole, near which the liner was moored, were most of the members of the British colony, waving coloured flags and shouting light-hearted good-byes to their friends on board.

Suddenly, the mole reared its back in the air - "like a giant caterpillar," as one survivor described it. Just as suddenly it subsided, then reared again and broke into shattered pieces. The earth shook and trembled, and above the cry of horror that rose from thousands of fear-gripped throats came the deafening crash of falling buildings and splintering timbers. In thirty seconds Yokohama resembled a charnel house.

The pandemonium and terror that reigned is practically indescribable.

Women, children and men, fighting together in a struggling mass, streamed out from wrecked homes into the streets, trampling on each other in their frenzy to get away from the falling buildings. In the roads themselves, huge chasms large enough to hold a motor-car opened up, rippled like a series of waves, then closed again, burying for ever the unfortunate victims who had fallen into their depths. Apart from the debris, many of the streets were made impassable by barriers of fallen wires, some of which, alive with electricity, killed by electrocution those on whom they fell.

To many the hour of noon on that September Saturday must have appeared as the end of the world - and for many it was the end of the world, a gruesome end beyond all imagination.

When the mole broke in pieces, a number of those who had been waving "good-bye" to their friends were flung in wild heaps into the water. Almost at the same moment the warehouses on the dock-side toppled over; the concrete sea-wall swung backwards and forwards as though pushed by some giant hand, then it collapsed, and wave after Wave swept forward, carrying burdens of living and dead and piling them high on the promenade.

Fortunately, there were other liners in the harbour - among them being the P. & O. Dongola, the French Andre Lebon, and the American President Jefferson - and these immediately set about the perilous work of rescue.

Meanwhile, people on the promenade were stampeding madly, many falling unconscious into the mud and water never to rise again.

Later, to add to the horror of the situation, cascades of oil from the burst tanks behind the naval dockyard began to flow down into the harbour. Flames from upheaved gas-mains were already roaring like large acetylene torches, and as the oil came into contact with them it ignited and poured onwards in streams of terrible death. In places, the surface of the water in the harbour was six inches deep with burning oil and had it not been for the fine seamanship of the captain of the Empress of Australia, she would have burned where she lay, for her propellers were fouled. The story of her escape has been told by Major Brackley.

Major Brackley, then Air Adviser to the Japanese Imperial Navy, was in Tokio at the time of the earthquake, and he, together with two young Americans, decided to walk the twenty miles to Yokohama, hoping that the seaport had escaped the disaster.

They arrived in Yokohama the next morning, only to find there even worse conditions than in Tokio. It was a place of ruin and fire.

To their great relief they saw through the curtain of fire and smoke that enwrapped the harbour the outlines of the Empress of Australia.

They endeavoured to make their way to the pier where she was berthed, but found themselves hopelessly cut off by the burning merchandise that was piled on the wharf-sides, the fiercely blazing warehouses, and the pools of flaming oil by which the entire place was flooded.

At last they managed to secure the services of a small Japanese fishing boat, and, after being rowed round to the far side of the liner, they got aboard.

The liner was already full of refugees. Many of them in desperate straits from terrible injuries were lying on the decks, destitute of clothing, except for sheets from the ship's stores, which had been thrown over them.

"At this time," relates Major Brackley, "the Empress of Australia was in the gravest danger of being destroyed by fire from the burning warehouses on one side and on the other from the flaming oil on the water, which was slowly drifting towards her."

The crew were continuously engaged in keeping the firehoses of the ship playing on her sides. To make matters worse, the ship was unable to move. One of her propellers had become entangled in the anchor chain of an American ship which had been thrown against her by the earthquake. And the burning oil was steadily drifting towards her.

In desperation Captain Robinson sent out an SOS. It was answered by a Dutch tanker which lay in safety outside the harbour. The Dutch ship said, "I'll come in and try to help you, but remember, I'm full of oil."

Braving a terrible fate, the little Dutch tanker made up to the big liner and managed to pull her bows round sufficiently to enable Captain Robinson to draw clear of the danger zone and literally to wriggle out of the harbour.

Once outside, anchor was dropped and the work of rescue was continued.

In the words of Major Brackley: "It would be impossible adequately to praise the services of Captain Robinson and the officers and crew of the Empress of Australia in that terrible situation. The officers and crew of the Dongola also played a magnificent part."

An American woman, one of the crowd on the mole who had gone down to watch the departure of the Empress of Australia, gives a remarkable pen-picture of the horror of the catastrophe as she saw it from the deck of the liner after her rescue.

"Coupled with seething, roaring flames and flying sparks were a horrible blood-red sun and dense clouds of smoke. The whole of the city was in ruins. Countless lighters filled the bay, and the vessels trapped inside the fallen breakwater were momentarily threatened by the mountainous onrushing oil flames which, whirling and roaring, wrapped themselves round whatever lay in their path. Blackened hulls of lighters and barges drifted haphazardly, a constant menace to the lifeboats bent on the dangerous work of rescue.

"As each lifeboat arrived at the ship, ladened with smoke-blackened, half-fainting men, women and children in rags and tatters, the moans and groans of the injured mingled with cries of those who sought news of their loved ones.

"The lifeboat crews worked courageously, with superhuman effort - but not all could be saved. The shrieks of those who remained on shore and on the fast-burning pier rang like death knells in our ears.

"Lasting as the horrors did for twenty-six hours without a break, one marvels at how many of the survivors came through with sound minds."

At Kamakura, a seaside health resort, about fifteen miles south-west of Yokohama, hundreds of happy holiday-makers, laughing and sporting in the sea, were suddenly swept out by a huge tidal wave and drowned.

The American hospital on The Bluff, the residential district of Yokohama, was flung bodily off the hillside into the cemetery, where it collapsed like a pack of cards among the corpses that had been flung up from their graves by the first great upheaval.

Flames were already sweeping through the town, devouring the wood-and-paper wreckage of the houses in the native quarter with insatiable ferocity, and sweeping with scorching blast through the living walls of half-demented humanity that were packed to suffocation in the narrow streets. Children were trampled to death before the agonised eyes of parents, and none could move in that dreadful press to save them.

Many who were caught in the business section were forced by the flames to jump into the bay. With the fire licking their backs they waded out thirty feet or so, for the tide was on the ebb - and that thirty feet saved them from death by cremation.

Some idea of the fierce intensity of the ravaging fire may be formed from the fact that even on the tenth day after the fire the steel lining inside the strong-room of the Chartered Bank was too hot to be touched!

By a queer twist of fate, although by strenuous efforts all the books in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank were rescued from the building before the flames could engulf them, they were destroyed by fire on the pier to which they had been transported for shipment!

All roads leading to the Yokohama Park were crowded beyond belief, for there lay comparative safety from the flames. The fact that the park was flooded by water from burst mains saved the lives of some 40,000 who congregated there, for, though the park was soon hemmed in by a circle of fire, the refugees escaped by flinging themselves down in the water and covering their faces with mud.

Miss Coutts, who with a woman friend was holidaying at Dzushi, some twenty miles from Yokohama, gave a dramatic eye-witness account of the earthquake when she arrived in Shanghai on September 8. She was among the 12,000 survivors - of whom 600 were British and American-rescued and transported into safety by the Empress of Australia.

"We were in our rooms," said Miss Coutts, "when we heard a deafening roar. Everything seemed falling. We rushed out and ran towards Yokohama.

"Late at night we came to the Seki Valley, on the outskirts of die city. People were lying by the roadside in all conditions - dead, stunned, or maimed.

"A man screamed to us in English: 'Koreans are looting.' We saw with our own eyes this foul work taking place farther on. These men just robbed their victims, then cut their throats.

"We were horrified at all we saw and nearly dead with fatigue, but we hurried into the city. The roads were full of giant chasms. We had to climb over piles of debris. There were no buildings standing.

"The first sight we saw in the city itself was ghastly. A tramcar was standing idly on the track with a load of passengers. They were all dead - electrocuted. We did not realise their terrible fate at first sight. We saw them sitting in their seats, all in natural attitudes. One woman's hand was extended and in her fingers was a coin, as though she had been on the point of paying her fare. Some were smiling - others staring straight ahead. All had died instantly.

"When we asked a Japanese how it happened, he pointed to the trolley wire. Then we saw that they had all been killed by an electric shock."

In Tokio, the capital city, the majority of the two million inhabitants were not greatly alarmed when the first earthquake shock was felt. It began just like any other, and they were fully accustomed to them, for they experienced on an average one sensible shock a week.

Rapidly, however, the horizontal motion of the shock began to increase in intensity. Then of a sudden, with a tremendous roar, the buildings began to collapse about the ears of the populace.

Terrified people streamed out from their houses and watched with wide-staring eyes the work of havoc going on around them. Cascades of tiles poured down like showers of deadly rain, maiming or killing those on whom they fell. The streets rolled and shook. They heaved up like switchbacks then sank again. Even the terrors of the destruction that was going on around them was overshadowed by the terror of this uncanny movement of the earth. The people were stunned. They literally did not know what to do.

Some stopped in their tracks, not daring to move; some began to run, haphazardly, here and there; others, thrown to the ground in violent heap, screamed aloud and fought desperately to avoid suffocation. For weeks afterwards this violence of the earth continued. It was fully three months before a normal condition of the earth was restored.

After their first, stupendous horror had subsided in a small degree, those left alive on the streets began to surge forward, seeking frenziedly for avenues of escape from the city of death.

The tramcars, however, were useless, for the powerhouse had been destroyed, and the rails in the streets were lying twisted and broken. Most of the bridges over the numerous canals and rivers that divide Tokio into a series of little islands had fallen down - for thousands, therefore, no way of escape was possible. They were trapped in their districts like caged beasts and like caged beasts they screamed with terror as the fire, caused by the broken gas-mains, surged onwards and burnt them alive. Many jumped into the canals and were drowned, choosing suicide rather than face death in such a furnace.

Railway stations - what were left of them - were besieged by frantic crowds, all borne thither by the vital instinct for self-preservation. To escape - anyhow - anywhere! To flee from the terror that was sweeping through the town, bringing death and destruction in its wake!

In the parks and open spaces one might have walked quite easily on the heads of the people, such was the terrific crowding.

Tsjui, a Japanese ex-police officer, describing his experiences on that dreadful day, tells how, at the first shock, he rushed into the street.

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