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