Tokyo (1923-1930) I What would Tokyo look like today if the Great Kanto Earthquake hadn’t happened?

The Great Kanto Earthquake from 1923 did extensive damage on the city of Tokyo. Virtually the entire city was leveled with the ground and about 140,000 people were killed [1]. Despite the whole destruction the earthquake caused, it also did something good for Tokyo and its citizens, it clear the way for a large scale redevelopment of the city, which was definitely needed. Figure 1 shows the numerous winding streets and narrow back alleys that constituted the bigger part of the road network of the entire city prior to the 1923 calamity.

Fig. 1 Tokyo before the Great Kanto Earthquake


The road network wasn’t well organised and that could lead to many problems in the future development of the city. As it is visible from figure 1, the only part of Tokyo that had mostly straight streets and wasn’t so congested with them, like most of the other parts, was the part located on the right bank of the Sumida River.

Although that was the situation in Tokyo, a major redevelopment of the city couldn’t take place before the earthquake as the city was densely populated and most of its area was occupied by different buildings and structures. Hence, for a redevelopment to happen, a major relocation of people and land readjustment would have to take place in parallel. And that’s where the earthquake came to “help”. By destroying the city it made the task much easier.

In other words, the city of Tokyo was ready to be redeveloped. In the days following the earthquake, numerous reconstruction ideas were discussed, some more grand than other. The main figure that advocated for a complete and modern reconstruction of the city was Goto Shinpei, who was appointed Home Minister after the calamity struck. Even though he had amazing ideas about the redevelopment of Tokyo, his plan wasn’t accepted because of its “extravagant budget” [1] of about 4 billion yen. A few months later, when the government decided to spend not more than 500 million yen on the reconstruction program, many of the great visions for the future Tokyo had perished.

Even though the plan that was very grand at first had shrunk down to a much modest version, the city was reconstructed and 7 years later, in 1930, the city of Tokyo had definitely changed its appearance. The visible change was probably due to the fact that the largest amount of money (about 54 percent of the overall spending) was spent on land readjustment, improvement of streets, bridges, and canals [2]. As it can be seen on Figure 2, Tokyo now had gotten rid of most of its winding streets and narrow back alleys, its streets had become straight and wider. Also many of the streets now had sidewalks, which allowed for safe usage for pedestrians, something that the streets of Tokyo lacked before the calamity. Numerous bridges were constructed and the canals were improved, so they could allow larger boats to enter. All these changes improved the efficiency in moving around Tokyo, and as mentioned above, drastically changed the appearance of the city. The improved transport infrastructure not only made the movement around Tokyo more convenient, but also allowed for many other developments to happen (e.g. construction of buildings was easier when the streets around were wider).

Fig. 2 Reconstruction Plan for the City of Tokyo



After what was mentioned above comes the question, what would Tokyo look like today if the Great Kanto Earthquake hadn’t happened? Would the city have been as developed as it is today? Perhaps not. Perhaps Tokyo would still have its winding and narrow streets and back alleys, which wouldn’t have allowed for other developments to take place and it wouldn’t be one of the most developed cities in the world. The earthquake of 1923 definitely helped Tokyo to reach its present stage, by not only clearing the ground for major redevelopment to take place, but also making people realise that the city wasn’t very safe and efficient and a change was much needed.




[1] 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), 125-26.

[2] 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), 263-315.

1 Comment on “Tokyo (1923-1930) I What would Tokyo look like today if the Great Kanto Earthquake hadn’t happened?

  1. To me I think its quite contradictory to see that earthquake is a good chance in providing a situation for city restructuring. Although it did carry out reform on road redevelopment, it actually costed a great number of death of the Japanese people. Moreover, I think it is particularly interesting to see the reason of restructuring of urban plan in Japan, it was usually associated with different incidents like the earthquake in Tokyo and war defeat in Hiroshima. Since different incidents occurred in different period of time and context, the product of the urban planning was significantly different. Personally, I would suggest you looking more into the organisation that bring the redevelopment of the urban structure like the War Damaged Reconstruction Agency. According to my knowledge, War Damaged Reconstruction Agency also had effort in affecting the Great Kanto Earthquake which later set a base model for the reconstruction of Hiroshima in the post-war period.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.