"I really hate earthquakes."

—Katō Tomi, Grade 1, Zekkō Primary School

On 1 September 1923, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake and subsequent fires that burned for three days destroyed roughly 45% of Tokyo and 90% of Yokohama, and killed over 100,000 people across seven prefectures. The Great Kantō Earthquake destroyed the already fragile space that children occupied in Tokyo. Overnight everything changed, from the landscape of their neighborhoods to the food they ate and their daily routines. Historical records documenting children’s experiences of earthquakes and other natural hazards are scarce. For the Great Kantō Earthquake, however, there is a rich cache of children’s recollections.

When viewed alongside photographs, postcards, and lithograph prints, children’s recollections of the earthquake provide valuable insights into those fateful days in September 1923. In 1924, the City of Tokyo municipal government published a seven-volume collection titled Tōkyō shiritsu shōgakkō jidō: Shinsai kinen bunshū. These volumes contain essays and color drawings by children representing Tokyo’s 196 primary schools across the city’s fifteen wards. Children’s crayon drawings—often rendered in simple lines and colors—convey powerful emotions. From the teachers who viewed children’s drawings and writings, which were originally produced as part of their regular schoolwork, to the city officials who viewed them in a public exhibition in March 1924, adults were frequently reported as being moved to tears.

  • How did children experience and describe the earthquake and fires? What did they see and think and do and feel as the disaster unfolded?

  • How did a child’s experience in eastern Tokyo (shitamachi) compare to a child’s experience in western Tokyo (yamanote)?
  • Borland, Janet. Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2020, chapter 2.