Tokyo (1923) Accommodation of victims after the Great Kanto Earthquake

Tokyo (1923) Accommodation of victims after the Great Kanto Earthquake

Due to its location at the crossing of four tectonic plates, Japan has always been the stage of numerous natural disasters. The Great Kanto earthquake hit especially hard, destroying life and property.

Reconstruction of the city began at once. But the most immediate need was not to rebuild the destroyed buildings or revive the fallen economy, but to ensure the livelihood of the victims. Those lucky enough to get away with their lives were unfortunately left homeless as there was a severe lack of housing after the earthquake took down everything. As Kenzou Fukuda, professor of economics at the Tokyo University of Commerce and leader of social reform movement stressed, ‘the key issue of reconstruction should be the revitalization of people’. (Yamanaka 2011:2). However, relocating such a large group of people is no easy feat, and had long-term impacts on the city.

Needless to say, a lot of temporary shelters were built as an immediate measure to provide housing for everyone before their houses were built or repaired.(Figure 1) Faced with public pressure and a urgent demand for shelter, the building code was relaxed assuming that temporary structures did not need to conform to regulations and would be taken down within a few years. Landowners were thus allowed to construct cheap housing normally prohibited. As a result, much of the central area, even areas designated as fireproof districts, was rebuilt with wooden buildings, as timber construction is much faster and cheaper. Although landlords were expected to upgrade substandard housing and to remove temporary structures within five years-the city ultimately failed to enforce its own laws. ‘Temporary’ wooden structures were rendered permanent by default, and once again huge parts of the city turned into highly flammable areas. These areas went up in flames again in subsequent earthquakes and following the bombing of the Second World War.

Figure 1: Temporary wooden shelter for victims

Besides temporary shelters constructed immediately, victims were also relocated to existing evacuation shelters that were used as schools or civic centers in normal times. As these buildings were built to serve another use, victims usually occupy the main assembly hall and thus have limited individual living space. Due to a lack of privacy, some would choose to live with friends and family elsewhere, or moved to other districts outside the affected area, resulting in a huge rise in suburban population. Migration occurred as a haphazard sprawl, creating a belt of unplanned growth on the fridge of Tokyo. Subcenters like Shinjuku started to rise, decongesting the city center. This movement help facilitate the improvement of infrastructure, roads and transportation, made possible by an increasing traffic need.

For the construction of permanent housing, people started building with fire resistant materials. Communal housing was provided by the government using reinforced concrete as the main material.  As a  significant number of concrete blocks started to rise up in the city, juxtaposition with traditional timber constructions was created. A new movement called Toshibi or Beautiful Urban Scape arose to try and fight the messy appearance of the metropolis.

This is why earthquake mitigation planning is extremely important. By designating stable buildings as temporary shelters and having a relocating plan ready, urban sprawl could be prevented, saving the cityscape and preventing the disruption of town planning.


Ishida Yorifusa. 1992. Mikan no Tôkyô keikaku. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobô

Hanes E. Jeffrey, Urban Planning as an Urban Problem: The Reconstruction of Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake

2 Comments on “Tokyo (1923) Accommodation of victims after the Great Kanto Earthquake

  1. The most interesting part of this post for me is how the relocation of people causing the suburban population boom and other changes.It reminds me of other city events involving a large amount of “temporary homeless people”, not necessarily disasters. Maybe to some extent, urban renewal, region transformation, and demolitions in places like mainland China would have undetected long-lasting influence on suburban structure and development.
    However, I would be appreciated it if there is a general mapping of temporary shelter plan after the earthquake, how and why they chose to arrange in a certain way, and if the housing problem had any influence on the city planning later etc.I would think this is more relevant with the title of this post.

  2. I do agree that “Prioritizing and ensuring the livelihood of the victims after earthquake” is of the utmost importance when formulating a relocation plan. Take a look at the relocation experience from other countries, for example the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine, and we can see that the evacuated people can hardly sustain their livelihood in the relocated region and social conflicts sometimes arise between the evacuated people and local residents. Another important elements to accommodate evacuated people that we should not neglect is the living environments of temporary shelters, as a poor living environment in temporary building can deter people from moving in. For example, it was found that many affected people refused to move to the the temporary shelter in the exclusion zone of Montserrat in 1995 because of the lack of privacy, overcrowding and poor sanitation in the shelter. Hence, ensuring a decent living environment is also important.

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