"New school, fire, new school… All I remember is going from one place to the next like a revolving lantern."

—Tanaka Teizō, Kinka Primary School

To understand why the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake and fires caused such widespread death and destruction, it is helpful to explore what Tokyo was like on the eve of the disaster. Vulnerability permeated every layer of Tokyo’s built environment from the ground up. Of the city’s 356,975 buildings, 91% were wooden and a mere 0.1% were concrete. Parks dotted haphazardly throughout the city ranged greatly in size and accounted for only 2.2% of Tokyo. These physical factors, coupled with the city’s location in an area of active and intense seismicity, magnified residents’ numerous social vulnerabilities.

Tokyo in 1922 was a young city. Children aged under 15 accounted for 30% of Tokyo’s population. By contrast, people aged over 60, accounted for less than 5% of the population. A child growing up in Tokyo faced many challenges in the early 1920s. In 1921, 14% of newborn babies died in their first year. Diarrhoea and enteritis was the most common cause of infant mortality. Illness, poor health, and malnutrition plagued children throughout their childhood. Children under the age of 15 accounted for 40% of the total number of deaths recorded in Tokyo in 1922.

School occupied a significant part of a child’s daily life. Children were expected to attend six years compulsory primary school education. By 1922, Tokyo’s attendance rates had reached 98.23%. Between 1916 and 1920, the number of school-age children increased at the rate of 11,150 per year. Classrooms, often holding sixty students, became so overcrowded that many schools conducted classes in a double shift system. Tokyo not only needed more schools for children, the city also needed safer school buildings.

Put simply, Tokyo was a disaster waiting to happen and children existed at the epicenter of vulnerability. The 1921 Asakusa Fire revealed many of Tokyo’s manifold vulnerabilities. In addition to destroying 1,700 houses and leaving thousands homeless, the fire burned down Fuji Primary School and displaced 1,490 children. One positive outcome emerged, however. Education officials and architects decided to rebuild the school using reinforced concrete. On 1 September 1923, children entered the newly constructed Fuji Primary School for the first time. Newspapers published photographs of the impressive three-story building and hailed it as the best school in Japan. The celebrations, however, were shortlived.

  • What warnings and recommendations did young seismologist and assistant professor at Tokyo Imperial University Imamura Akitsune propose in a 1905 article about Tokyo and the future possibility of earthquakes? How was his article received by fellow seismologists?

  • Who led campaigns in the early 1920s aimed at reducing risk and preventing disasters in daily life in the capital?

  • What did children learn about earthquakes in the primary school curriculum?

  • How did experts respond following the 1921 and 1922 earthquakes that struck Tokyo?
  • Borland, Janet. Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2020, chapter 1.

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