"This disaster was not an act of God, it was an act of humans."

—Ichikawa Genzō, School Principal, 1923

"As we approach the second anniversary of the great earthquake, I am acutely aware that I must do everything I can to make people across the nation understand earthquakes."

—Imamura Akitsune, Seismologist, 1925

Before 1923, Japan’s primary school curriculum contained only four lessons that were broadly related to disasters. None of them was about earthquakes. The Great Kantō Earthquake powerfully illustrated the extent to which teachers and government officials had failed to prepare children—and society at large—for a catastrophic emergency. In 1923 the Japanese people were anything but prepared, calm, and orderly following the magnitude 7.9 earthquake. People panicked and believed and spread wild rumors, and some even murdered.

When analyzing and reflecting on the events of September 1923, it is no surprise that experts ranging from teachers to seismologists talked about “learning lessons” and better preparing for future disasters. Despite the optimistic hopes of many individuals to learn lessons from the disaster, however, it took 13 years before the Ministry of Education published Japan’s first lesson about earthquakes in the primary school curriculum in 1936.

The new lesson, titled “Monogoto ni awateru na” or “Don’t panic” was included in the moral education textbook for third graders. It tells the story of a young girl called Shizuko – “calm child” – who calmly extinguished a fire in her house and led her grandmother and little sister to safety. It is based on the true story of a 10-year old boy called Itoi Shigeyuki whose heroic actions saved his family and house at the time of the 1927 Tango Earthquake which struck western Japan. In addition to this lesson about an earthquake, the Ministry of Education also published a lesson about a typhoon in the fourth grade moral textbook (based on the 1934 Muroto Typhoon), and a lesson about a tsunami in the fifth grade Japanese language kokugo reader (based on the 1854 Ansei Nankai Earthquake).

  • Japan’s first lesson about an earthquake was published in a 1936 moral education textbook. Why did it take so long?

  • In the thirteen years after the Great Kantō Earthquake, who campaigned most strongly for the inclusion of a lesson on earthquakes in the primary school curriculum?

  • What is the significance of a durian?

  • What special instructions were included in the teacher’s manual?

  • What was the fate of this earthquake lesson when textbooks were revised in 1943?
  • Borland, Janet. Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2020, chapter 6.

  • Borland, Janet. “Capitalising on catastrophe: Reinvigorating the Japanese state with moral values through education following the 1923 Great Kantô Earthquake.” Modern Asian Studies 40, no. 4 (2006): 875-907.

  • Borland, Janet. “Stories of ideal Japanese subjects from the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923.” Japanese Studies 25, no. 1 (2005): 21-34.