"Send milk for infants immediately!"

Ōsaka Asahi shinbun, 5 September 1923

In the immediate aftermath of this unprecedented catastrophe, concerns about children were paramount. Not only did they witness and experience extreme suffering and hardship at the time of the earthquake and fires, but two-thirds of Tokyo’s children also lost their homes and their schools.

Government officials, medical experts, and teachers, identified Tokyo’s earthquake children as a discrete and vulnerable group with unique needs distinct from adults. Newborn babies and infants needed milk. Lost children needed to be reunited with their parents, and orphaned children needed guardians. Homeless children from areas annihilated by fire needed everything from clothes and food, to shelter, school items, and toys.

Extensive media coverage of Tokyo’s earthquake children—typically portrayed as innocent and vulnerable victims—helped to elicit support and keep their needs at the forefront of public awareness. From September onwards, newspapers published stories about school children, lost children, orphaned children, homeless children and newborn babies on an almost daily basis. These stories also helped mobilize relief and donations of items ranging from milk to textbooks. At the same time, reports of donors helping children enabled various actors—from the imperial family to the Darigold milk powder company—to demonstrate their benevolence and also gain positive publicity.

Aided by the mass media, people across the nation came to view children in the capital not merely as distant objects of concern, but as familiar and entirely deserving objects of sympathy in urgent need of assistance. With an abundance of dire news and images of suffering children reaching national audiences often within hours via newspapers’ evening editions, it is not surprising that sympathetic people of all ages across Japan and from around the world responded quickly and generously.

  • What did children yearn for most in the days immediately after the earthquake?

  • How did people across Japan respond to children and their post-disaster needs?

  • How did different members of the Imperial Family provide comfort to victims?

  • How were lost children reunited with their parents?

  • What challenges did children face as winter approached, and how was this reported in newspapers?
  • Borland, Janet. Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2020, chapter 3.

  • Borland, Janet, and J. Charles Schencking. “Objects of concern, ambassadors of gratitude: Children, humanitarianism, and transpacific diplomacy following Japan's 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 13, no. 2 (2020): 195-225.