Tokyo (1923) I The Great Kanto Earthquake – a Great Disaster or a Great Opportunity
One of the most destructive natural calamities that happened in Japan was the earthquake that took place on September 1st,1923 better known as the Great Kanto Earthquake. This disaster caused enormous damage in Tokyo and Yokohama, with about 140,000 killed or missing, more than 44 percent of urban Tokyo destroyed by fire and around 74 percent of all families affected. The densely populated central area of Tokyo was almost completely destroyed by the fires .
Although the earthquake caused such an extensive damage on the people and the city, the most surprising fact is that many saw this as an opportunity. An opportunity to rebuild Tokyo in a new, modern way, as a brand new city. Many figures from Japan’s higher class like Wakatsuki Reijiro (politician), Fokuda Tokuzo (economist), Abe Isoo (social welfare advocate), and Goto Shinpei (bureaucrat extraordinaire) – to name just a few – shared the optimistic idea that the Great Kanto Earthquake actually did something good for Tokyo and its citizens, and this chance that presented itself had to be exploited to the fullest .
Fig. 1 The earthquake as opportunity: a well-dressed catfish, symbolizing opportunity, shaking hands with Prime Minister Yamamoto Gannohyoe
The former finance minister, Wakatsuki Reijiro, toured the devastated landscape of Tokyo in the autumn of 1923 and among the feelings of sadness, he felt something stronger, an opportunity and optimism for Tokyo. Even when the leaders of the Meiji government moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo in 1868, they didn’t posses such a great opportunity and though the devastation of the earthquake was on a scale never seen before in Japan’s modern history, Wakatsuki pointed out the fact that much of “old Tokyo” was burned down. And even though many of Japan’s leaders like Wakatsuki were aware of the need for urban improvement before the earthquake, changes couldn’t be implemented freely or easily because the old city was there and the earthquake changed the entire situation in less than a week and created room for change .
Another supporter of the idea that the Great Kanto Earthquake created an amazing opportunity was Goto Shinpei, former home minister and mayor of Tokyo. He thought that this was an opportunity not only for Tokyo but for the entire country, because if the city was rebuild well, it could demonstrate Japan’s modern appearance to the world . Among these people, Abe Isoo was probably the one that best expressed the opportunism for Tokyo and Japan’s future by stating: “When we stand among the desolate ruins and imagine the birth of a new, ideal, Imperial Capital, we cannot help but feel inspired” .
The Great Kanto Earthquake leveled almost the entire Tokyo with the ground, which created an opportunity for the city to be rebuild. But can it really be accepted as an opportunity after all the lifes that it took and the destruction that it caused? Perhaps or perhaps not. Possibly only in the eyes of those who were not affected?
In the following posts we will talk about the different changes that happened in Tokyo, like policy changes, changes in architectural design, improvements in city planning, etc., for which the earthquake was a catalyst.
 Andre Sorenson, The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and planning from Edo to the twenty-first century (London and New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2002), 125.
 J. Charles Schencking, The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan, (New York/Hong Kong: Columbia University Press/Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 153-186.
 J. Charles Schencking, The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan, (New York/Hong Kong: Columbia University Press/Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 154.