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Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire That Helped Forge the Path to World War IIby Joshua Hammer
Synopses & Reviews
Yokohama Burning is the story of the worst natural disaster of the twentieth century: the earthquakes, fires, and tsunamis of September 1923 that destroyed Yokohama and most of Tokyo and killed 140,000 people during two days of horror.
With cinematic vividness and from multiple perspectives, acclaimed Newsweek correspondent Joshua Hammer re-creates harrowing scenes of death, escape, and rescue. He also places the tumultuous events in the context of history and demonstrates how they set Japan on a path to even greater tragedy.
At two minutes to noon on Saturday, September 1, 1923, life in the two cities was humming along at its usual pace. An international merchant fleet, an early harbinger of globalization, floated in Yokohama harbor and loaded tea and silk on the docks. More than three thousand rickshaws worked the streets of the port. Diplomats, sailors, spies, traders, and other expatriates lunched at the Grand Hotel on Yokohama's Bund and prowled the dockside quarter known as Bloodtown. Eighteen miles north, in Tokyo, the young Prince Regent, Hirohito, was meeting in his palace with his advisers, and the noted American anthropologist Frederick Starr was hard at work in his hotel room on a book about Mount Fuji. Then, in a mighty shake of the earth, the world as they knew it ended.
When the temblor struck, poorly constructed buildings fell instantly, crushing to death thousands of people or pinning them in the wreckage. Minutes later, a great wall of water washed over coastal resort towns, inundating people without warning. Chemicals exploded, charcoal braziers overturned, neighborhoods of flimsy wooden houses went up in flames. With water mains broken, fire brigades could only look on helplessly as the inferno spread.
Joshua Hammer searched diaries, letters, and newspaper accounts and conducted interviews with nonagenarian survivors to piece together a minute-by-minute account of the catastrophe. But the author offers more than a disaster narrative. He details the emerging study of seismology, the nascent wireless communications network that alerted the world, and the massive, American-led relief effort that seemed to promise a bright new era in U.S.-Japanese relations.
Hammer shows that the calamity led in fact to a hardening of racist attitudes in both Japan and the United States, and drove Japan, then a fledgling democracy, into the hands of radical militarists with imperial ambitions. He argues persuasively that the forces that ripped through the archipelago on September 1, 1923, would reverberate, traumatically, for decades to come.
Yokohama Burning, a story of national tragedy and individual heroism, combines a dramatic narrative and historical perspective that will linger with the reader for a long time.
"Natural disasters fascinate: The more destructive and fearsome they are, the greater our curiosity and dread. The tsunami that engulfed the coasts of Indonesia, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka in 2004, the 1980 volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens and the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco linger in our minds thanks to the horrendous images televised into our homes. And when the devastation hits us directly,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) those images are far more difficult to erase. It's too bad that Joshua Hammer, a correspondent for Newsweek and author of 'Yokohama Burning,' wasn't able to meet my mother, who was 6 when the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 flattened much of Tokyo and Yokohama. She told us countless times how terrified she was when everything shook and fell around her, how she was taken to Yasukuni Shrine near her grandfather's house while much of Tokyo was in flames. The quake and fire were far more vivid for my grandparents, but they are long gone. Hammer did find a 95-year-old survivor named Shigeo Tsuchiya, a Yokohama resident who was 12 years old when the earthquake struck at 11:58 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 1, when many households had their kitchen fires burning. 'Children, get out of the house,' Shigeo's grandmother ordered. 'The family's small Shinto shrine toppled over. Live coals from the brazier spilled and ignited the tatami mat. ... Hundreds of neighbors had poured into (the street) screaming "Jishin da! Jishin da!" (Earthquake! Earthquake!). ... It seemed that every second house ... already was aflame.' Only a half-hour after the quake, 136 separate fires had ignited Tokyo. The fire swept through districts rich and poor, from Yoshiwara, where 175 brothels were clustered, to the ornate mansions, hotels and office buildings surrounding the Imperial Palace. (Located directly across from the palace, the old Imperial Hotel, built by Frank Lloyd Wright, withstood both fire and tremors, earning accolades for the famous architect.) By the end of September, police found 84,014 dead in Tokyo and about 200,000 injured. In nearby Yokohama, 'the police put the casualties at 30,771 dead and 47,908 injured out of a population of 434,170.' Two tectonic plates on the ocean floor had suddenly shifted 20 feet toward each other, one climbing atop the other, causing not only the earthquake but a tsunami that swelled to heights of 50 feet in some places. The sea rolled onto the towns and villages of Sagami Bay, southwest of Tokyo. Whole towns were swept away. As Hammer describes it, 'Very large boulders and large pine trees were tossed about like peas and straws in a boiling pot.' A train carrying 113 people toppled down a precipice near the hot-spring resort town of Atami after being hit by a huge mudslide, burying the travelers and residents of that unfortunate town. The ancient capital of Kamakura on the coast lost more than 2,000 inhabitants to the fire and 'avalanche of waterborne debris.' The earthquake destroyed an area encompassing several prefectures, far beyond Yokohama and Tokyo, and it should be referred to as the Great Kanto Earthquake. The author focuses mainly on my hometown, Yokohama, for a reason: The port city was Japan's center for trade, with a sizable international community. The casualty figures from the quake and fire reflect the city's cosmopolitan demographics: 167 Americans, 200 Russians, 61 British and 1,542 Chinese perished, according to figures in the book. Many were buried at the Foreign Cemetery on the Bluff, a block away from where I later attended school. The lucky survivors took refuge on ships that the earthquake left unharmed. One of the passengers was Jean-Baptiste Gasche, a French teacher I got to know at St. Joseph's College after it was rebuilt (the earthquake had reduced it to rubble). The three-story Grand Hotel on the Bund, where famous guests such as Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham and Charlie Chaplin stayed, cracked and crumbled with the violent tremor. Other landmark buildings such as the Oriental Palace, Christ Church and the Ferris Seminary met similar fates. The author's panoramic approach — showing glimpses of Japan's past while intermittently focusing on the lives of several Western and Japanese characters — serves the reader well. But the narrative seems forced when he follows the career of Lyman Atkinson Cotten, who was a naval attache at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. He was a secondary figure there, and his role was diminished further since at the time of the quake he was on holiday 100 miles away from the scenes of disaster. His colleagues were dismayed when Cotten delayed his return. (The author came across Cotten's hitherto obscure diary and letters at the University of North Carolina.) The story of a Japanese seismologist who warned of the impending disaster but was ignored by his university colleagues is far more interesting and significant. The explanation for Hammer's claim (in the book's subtitle) that the earthquake 'helped forge the path to World War II' appears mostly in an epilogue that may frustrate the reader because of its brevity. And Hammer's view of the massacre of Korean residents (by vigilantes who accused them of poisoning wells during the chaos after the earthquake) as foreshadowing the 1937 rape of Nanking may be provocative, but to make a convincing case would require many more pages than he provides. In Japan, Sept. 1 is still commemorated each year as Earthquake Preparation Day, with drills and instructions on what to do when the Big One comes. A Richter-scale magnitude 3 earthquake that shook Yokohama during my recent stay was followed almost immediately with detailed television reports on the locations of the tremors and assurances that no tsunami warnings had been issued. But it was an ample reminder that a bigger one could occur at any moment." Reviewed by Kunio Francis Tanabe, former senior editor and art director of Book World, who can be reached at kftanabe(at symbol)yahoo.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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In 1923, a devastating earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed Yokohama and much of Tokyo killing 160,000 people. This narrative-driven account shows how peoples' lives and 20th century history were changed forever as a result of this catastrophe.
Table of Contents
Prologue September 1, 1923
1 City of Silk
2 The Morning Before
3 On the Waterfront
4 The Catfish and the Keystone
6 Tokyo Burning
9 Spreading the News
10 Going Home
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