“Listen up, earthquake! Listen up!
We are going to strengthen our bodies and sharpen our minds
wholeheartedly from now on.
When we grow up
we will build houses with strong foundations.
  Next time,
  no matter how hard you shake
  our pillars will not yield an inch.”

—Matano Yasunosuke, grade 3, Imakawa Primary School, 1924

Although Tokyo’s earthquake children remained objects of concern and investigation throughout the lengthy recovery project, teachers and city officials soon recognized the opportunity to use children and their essays as harbingers of hope, resilience, and reconstruction. Children were increasingly connected to official commemoration events from 1924 onward. As real and imagined symbols of resilience—returning to school in the ruins within weeks of the earthquake and writing essays about their dreams for a new Tokyo—Japanese government officials were quick to capitalise on the powerful emotional capital children possessed. In March 1924, for example, the City of Tokyo showcased children’s emotive firsthand records of the disaster in a public ‘Earthquake Memorial Exhibition’. On 1 September 1924, and to coincide with the first anniversary, the municipal government published these essays and drawings in a seven-volume collection with the goal of preserving children’s experiences for future generations to learn from.

Japanese children became viewed and portrayed as distinct sufferers with unique needs on both sides of the Pacific. American tourists on board the cruise ship Franconia visited Tokyo’s barracks in December 1923 bearing gifts for children. In return, children not only played an important role in mobilizing relief in America, but also serving as ambassadors of gratitude who thanked and moved Americans with their purity and innocence.

One organisation came up with a creative way for children to thank people around the world for their donations and compassion. The Sunday School Association of Japan invited over one hundred thousand children to draw pictures on postcards as a way of saying thank you to people overseas for their sympathy and donations. Following a public exhibition at Tokyo’s headquarters in April 1924, Japanese delegates travelled to Scotland in June 1924 for the Sixth Sunday School Association convention in Glasgow and distributed the postcards. Reverend Tsunashima Kakichi continued from Glasgow to the United States, where he led a gratitude tour and distributed children’s postcards to YMCA and American Red Cross chapters as a memorable token of thanks.

  • How else did Japan thank America for their generous donations and relief following the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake? What role did children and youth play?

  • In addition to using essays and drawings, what other methods did teachers and health officials employ in order to better understand children's experiences of the earthquake and fires?
  • Borland, Janet. Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2020, chapter 4.

  • Borland, Janet. “Voices of vulnerability and resilience: Children and their recollections in post-earthquake Tokyo.” Japanese Studies 36, no. 3 (2016): 299-317.

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