"The happiness I felt [when I stepped inside the new school building] is something I’ll never forget as long as I live. Compared to the other schools I attended, it was like another world."

—Matsushita Matsuko, Kinka Primary School

The Great Kantō Earthquake and fires destroyed 117 of Tokyo’s 196 primary schools—or roughly two-thirds—and displaced 145,998 children. The remaining 79 schools in Koishikawa, Ushigome, Yotsuya, Akasaka, and Azabu suffered varying degrees of structural damage from the earthquake. In December 1923, just three months after the earthquake, the decision was made to rebuild all 117 primary schools using reinforced concrete.

The three-storey reinforced concrete buildings were solid constructions, designed to withstand future disasters—including earthquakes, fires, typhoons, and floods. Built between 1924 and 1931, the new schools prioritized children’s safety. The interiors incorporated safety features designed to facilitate a quick evacuation. For example, classrooms had two doorways leading to a corridor, one at the front and another at the rear. Sliding doors were used not only because they occupied less floor space, but also because they were easy for children to open and close and safer if an exit became congested. Corridor and stairwell dimensions were calculated to enable a safe and efficient evacuation in an emergency. In addition, small parks were attached to 52 primary schools with the dual purpose of increasing the space available for children to play and exercise, and serving as a place of refuge in an emergency.

Tokyo’s reconstructed primary schools embodied architectural modernity. They reflected the new and important role that many educators and political elites believed state-of-the-art education facilities could play both in education and society as a whole. In daily life they would serve not only as places of formal learning, but also as social centers and spaces for communities to use. Moreover, the reinforced concrete buildings and adjacent small parks were designed to provide a place of refuge in every neighborhood in the event of an earthquake or fire. Some of the reconstructed primary schools still stand in Tokyo today.

  • How did the reconstruction budget affect the size and location of primary schools?

  • What kind of challenges did architects encounter during the reconstruction project?

  • What new features and facilities designed to promote health and hygiene were incorporated in the buildings?

  • How did overseas visitors and international media describe Tokyo’s reconstructed primary schools?

  • What disaster eventually led to nationwide regulations on school construction and seismic retrofitting of existing wooden school buildings?
  • Borland, Janet. Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2020, chapter 7.

  • Borland, Janet. “Small parks, big designs: Reconstructed Tokyo's new green spaces, 1923–1931.” Urban History 47, no. 1 (2020): 106-125.