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The Great Japanese Earthquake of 1923 page 3

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In the open spaces and in the middle of the streets, people were sleeping on mats and torn-off doors, which they had dragged from their ruined homes. Even if their houses happened to be standing - which was very rare indeed - they were too afraid to chance sleeping under roofs.

To the hundreds and thousands of those who were encamped thus in the thoroughfares of the outer areas, there came, when night fell, a new terror. A cry went up that bands of fierce Koreans were murdering, looting, and poisoning the wells.

There is little doubt that this rumour was spread abroad purposely by the criminal elements in the city - the scum and refuse of the underworld and those who had been released or who had escaped from the prisons - in order to cover their own misdeeds. It certainly proved terribly effective.

Distracted refugees herded together in temples and school compounds, milling like frenzied cattle. And in such circumstances they fell easy prey to the robbers.

In the darkness valuables were snatched from grasping hands, and no one knew who had taken them. And those who strove to resist, crying out loudly that they were being robbed, were soon silenced by murderous thrusts of cold steel.

Until the city was placed under martial law, practically the whole area was at the mercy of the lawless.

One of the most heartrending sights was the unending stream of survivors tramping the streets in mournful procession, calling out the names of lost ones. Some carried placards bearing the names of those they sought. At night, the procession still tramped on, each pilgrim carrying a staff and a Japanese lantern. With their mouths covered by handkerchiefs to keep out the choking clouds of white dust, blown up by the strong winds, they looked like an army of lost ghosts seeking the way to Valhalla.

The heat was intense, and now and again the voice of one ' of the criers would crack from thirst and weariness, while a rapid crescendo of tone and a scream would till of some poor creature who had gone mad with the terrifying suspense. Many there were who committed suicide, unable to bear the, torture of mind and body any longer.

Most of the Europeans who escaped with their lives assembled in the Imperial Hotel, which was practically untouched. Soon, even the courtyard of the hotel was full to overflowing with little parties of campers.

Many stories are told of heroic deeds done by Japanese servants who endeavoured, to the bitter end, to guard the lives and property of their European masters. One Japanese nurse wandered for three days with her charge clutched tightly in her arms, refusing all nourishment for herself so that the child should not want, seeking her mistress. When, eventually, she found her, she made light of her heroic behaviour and refused the reward offered by the distracted mother.

Another Japanese nurse snatched her three-months-old charge from the very jaws of death - the raging furnace that had been their home - and, although badly burned herself, fought her way through dense crowds towards safety. Crossing a bridge, however, she, with countless others, was trapped by the flames. Immediately she plunged into the canal below, and, with the water up to her chin and holding the baby on her head, she stood there for twelve hours, while the flames raged each side of her. When eventually she managed to reach safety and find her mistress - after a week of wearied wanderings - she, too, calmly remarked that "she had only done her duty."

Then there is the story of the Japanese wireless operator in the station near Yokohama - a story which well illustrates the proverbial courage and stoicism of the Japanese nation.

Neither earthquake, fire, nor flood could blind him to his serious responsibilities. When others round him fled in terror, he stuck grimly to his post, repaired his shattered transmitters, and continued to broadcast to the outer world news of the great disaster and appeals for help, laboriously translating his messages into English so that they might be understood.

Until the arrival of British and American warships at Yokohama, this was the only first-hand news that came from Japan.

Questions poured in upon him from all quarters of the globe and he did his utmost to answer them clearly and concisely. Even, however, when the number of inquiries overwhelmed him he did not for a moment discard the innate sense of courtesy which is an attribute of his race. He merely sent out the polite signal: "Please not no more messages at present."

For a day or two Japan seemed dazed by the terrible blow which had descended so swiftly on her smiling land - then she turned her face to the future and, with admirable courage, set about the gigantic task of reconstruction.

Relief funds to help her through the dark hours had been opened in almost every civilised country throughout the world, and every one gave generously. Their Emperor, himself, who, at the time of the earthquake, was at his summer palace in Nikko and who had known nothing of the disaster for twenty-four hours, donated 1,000,000 from his private treasury to help his unfortunate people.

Relief ships from British and American ports steamed across the seas to Japan, laden with provisions, medical supplies and clothing. The entire world had been shocked by the disaster and practical expressions of sympathy were forthcoming on every hand.

By September 5 the situation in Tokio was well under control.

Parties of doctors and nurses from neighbouring cities were already doing good work among the injured, troops had taken over full control, and rice and bread were being doled out to the starving. Although, of course, provisions, shelter, clothing and means of transport were still very scarce, much progress had been made.

Transport troops and engineers worked cheerfully and with marvellous persistence restoring communications and traffic - blowing up partially destroyed buildings, clearing roads and canals, repairing bridges, gas-mains and water-mains. Others were busily engaged in constructing shacks for the homeless.

Dotted over the devastated landscape one could see queer little wooden signs: these bore notices informing the passer-by that such-and-such a person claimed the site as his own. Many Japanese had endeavoured to start rebuilding their homes and shops long before the white ashes had had time to cool down!

Some of the banks had already resumed business in temporary buildings - others announced that they were reopening shortly.

The Cabinet of the Japanese Government met twice daily on the lawn outside the Kasaka Palace.

Japan had set her hand to the plough with a will.

But while all this preliminary work was going on, the stream of refugees from the stricken city poured forth unceasingly. The country roads leading away from Tokio were blocked by endless processions, continuing day and night - processions of men, women and children, whose eyes were still dazed by suffering and terror.

When the railway service was partially re-established, trains would pull out of Tokio laden with 4,000 refugees at a time. And in their desire to escape south to safer regions they clung to every possible foothold - they even climbed on to the roofs of the carriages, from whence some were swept to death when the trains ran under bridges. But the news of such fatal accidents did not deter others from endeavouring to escape by this means - they had lived side by side with Death and were used to his chilly presence. To get free of the city - that was all that mattered.

Side by side with the work of reconstruction, the work of clearing away the dead went on. This, indeed, was a gruesome task.

Bodies were dragged together with instruments like butcher's hooks and taken in loads to charnel houses. Here, in large heaps, they were cremated with the aid of oil. Mounds of white ashes marked the places where such mournful ceremonies had been carried out.

Nevertheless, within the space of a fortnight, the scattered metropolis had drawn together and settled down to its new mode of life. Worshippers began to congregate in the temples once more - laughter and gay chatter were heard in the streets again.

But despite this brave mask of cheerfulness it was evident that the people realised the enormity of the disaster that had come upon them. The very nerve-centre of their empire had been shattered. And though their eyes looked bravely and steadfastly towards the bright to-morrow, their hearts could not forget the dark yesterday.

In September, 1923, Japan, the land of the Rising Sun, mourned the death of some 100,000 souls. The streets of her capital were desolate - her prosperous hives of industry silent. Her loss of national treasures, of collections of works of art, 'of valuable libraries was, in some respects, irreparable. But, like the phoenix of the fable, she rose afresh from the ashes of her own funeral pyre.

Japan is still the Land of the Rising Sun - but it will be years yet before the bitter memory of 1923 fades into obscurity.

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