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This account of how fires spread during the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake is based on various records, including a report compiled by a panel of experts set up within the Cabinet Office to study what lessons can be learned from past disasters. The blue shading on the map represents oceans, rivers and waterways.Times and places for some photographs and videos are estimates.
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100th anniversary of
the Great Kanto Earthquake
How fires spread across Tokyo for 46 hours

The Great Kanto Earthquake occurred on Sept. 1, 1923. Fires triggered by the quake were initially localized. How did they turn into infernos that burned down 40% of the Japanese capital? Here is a reconstruction of how the fires lasted for 46 hours, based on records.

Fires fanned by strong winds engulf wooden neighborhoods

The earthquake that hit central Tokyo at 11:58 a.m. registered magnitude 7.9. Striking as families were cooking meals, the quake caused fires at numerous places. Blazes that were not immediately extinguished merged and grew. Fanned by strong winds, they turned into massive firestorms and engulfed communities where many people lived and worked in wooden buildings.

Outbreak of
earthquake
1 Sept. 1923,
11:58 JST

Massive quake hits at lunchtime

The earthquake hit at lunchtime, when families were cooking over fires on traditional stoves ("kamado") and charcoal grills ("shichirin"). Records show that fires broke out at 98 locations from when the earthquake struck just before noon until 11 p.m. Although 27 of the fires were extinguished immediately, the other 71 spread.

1Following the quake, people are on alert for aftershocks near the middle of the Chuo-dori street in the Ginza district. At this point, flames were not approaching them.
Following the quake, people are on alert for aftershocks near the middle of the Chuo-dori street in the Ginza district. At this point, flames were not approaching them.

Collection of the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum

2Fires begin to spread to notable buildings, including the Imperial Theater.
Fires begin to spread to notable buildings, including the Imperial Theater.

Collection of the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum

3The offices of Tokyo Electric Light Co., now Tokyo Electric Power Co., in the Yurakucho district are engulfed in flames after the earthquake struck.
The offices of Tokyo Electric Light Co., now Tokyo Electric Power Co., in the Yurakucho district are engulfed in flames after the earthquake struck.

Collection of the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum

4People take refuge on major streets in the Nihonbashi-Muromachi area. The tall building on the left is the Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi Main Store.
People take refuge on major streets in the Nihonbashi-Muromachi area. The tall building on the left is the Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi Main Store.

Collection of the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum

5A fire broke out in the forestry bureau's building due to a short circuit and spread to the nearby Home Ministry due to southerly winds.
A fire broke out in the forestry bureau's building due to a short circuit and spread to the nearby Home Ministry due to southerly winds.

Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan

6Smoke rises from the forestry building as strong winds fan the fire.
Smoke rises from the forestry building as strong winds fan the fire.

Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan

1hour
after the quake
1 Sept. 1923,
13:00 JST

Fires expanded to Asakusa Ward (now the east part of Taito Ward), Kanda Ward (now the north part of Chiyoda Ward) and Honjo Ward (now the south part of Sumida Ward), with some places surrounded by flames.

7A traditional Japanese storehouse called a "dozo" burns in Kanda Ward.
A traditional Japanese storehouse called a 'dozo' burns in Kanda Ward.

Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan

2hours
after the quake
1 Sept. 1923,
14:00 JST

Fires merged and destroyed more than half of Asakusa, Kanda and Honjo wards.

8The upper floors of the Asakusa Ryounkaku, which was Japan's first Western-style skyscraper and its tallest building, nicknamed "Asakusa Juni-kai" ("Asakusa 12 Stories"), collapsed in the quake.

Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan

9Kanda goes up in flames, as seen from Kudanzaka-ue. People seeking shelter can also be seen.
Kanda goes up in flames, as seen from Kudanzaka-ue. People seeking shelter can also be seen.

Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan

3hours
after the quake
1 Sept. 1923,
15:00 JST

Fires intensified further, leaving numerous people with nowhere to escape.

10People watch fires on the other side of the Sumida River from the western end of Azuma Bridge.
隅田川にかかる吾妻橋の西詰めから対岸の火災をみる人々

Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan

4hours
after the quake
1 Sept. 1923,
16:00 JST

Fires bore down on the site of the former Army Clothing Depot in Honjo Ward from the north, east and south, spreading to household goods brought there by evacuees seeking shelter in the large open space.

11A view of fires spreading in Mukojima, as seen from Azuma Bridge.
A view of fires spreading in Mukojima, as seen from Azuma Bridge.

Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan

5hours
after the quake
1 Sept. 1923,
17:00 JST

Southerly winds turned into westerly ones toward the evening. The wind direction also shifted again later, expanding the spread of fires.

A work by painter Ryushu Tokunaga depicts people and houses being sucked up by a firestorm.
A work by painter Ryushu Tokunaga depicts people and houses being sucked up by a firestorm.

Collection of the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum

6hours
after the quake
1 Sept. 1923,
18:00 JST

Fires spread to Fukagawa Ward (now the west part of Koto Ward) as well.

7hours
after the quake
1 Sept. 1923,
19:00 JST

A spate of firestorms had hit Tokyo wards by this time.

8hours
after the quake
1 Sept. 1923,
20:00 JST

Fires intensified in Fukagawa Ward.

9hours
after the quake
1 Sept. 1923,
21:00 JST

Fires in Kyobashi Ward (now the south part of Chuo Ward) spread to Tsukishima across the Sumida River.

10hours
after the quake
1 Sept. 1923,
22:00 JST

Seven fires broke out in Kyobashi Ward due to flying sparks.

11hours
after the quake
1 Sept. 1923,
23:00 JST

Asakusa Park was spared from destruction.

12hours
after the quake
2 Sept. 1923,
00:00 JST

Temperatures rose sharply from this time in Kojimachi Ward (now the south part of Chiyoda Ward) due to fires, exceeding 45 degrees Celsius as of 1 a.m.

14hours
after the quake
2 Sept. 1923,
02:00 JST

The spread of fires further progressed in five wards -- Asakusa, Kanda, Fukagawa, Honjo and Nihonbashi (now the north part of Chuo Ward) -- with most areas destroyed in the fires at around 3 a.m.

16hours
after the quake
2 Sept. 1923,
04:00 JST

Much of the north of Shiba Ward (now the east part of Minato Ward) was destroyed by fire.

18hours
after the quake
2 Sept. 1923,
06:00 JST

Fires gradually spread in the southeast of Shitaya Ward (now the west part of Taito Ward).

21hours
after the quake
2 Sept. 1923,
09:00 JST

On Sept. 2, winds turned southerly in the morning and their speed increased toward noon.

24hours
after the quake
2 Sept. 1923,
12:00 JST

Fires in Shitaya Ward spread to the west as well.

27hours
after the quake
2 Sept. 1923,
15:00 JST

The spread of fires still continued. It was not until 10 a.m. on Sept. 3 that they were finally put out.

Final coverage of spreading fires

The spread of fires continued for 46 hours

Tokyo burned for 46 hours after the earthquake struck. At the time, the area of the city totaled 79.4 square kilometers. Of that, the fires burned 34.7 sq. km, or over 40%.

The Great Kanto Earthquake saw about 40% of Tokyo destroyed by fire.

More than 90% of the deaths in the quake were caused by fires. Buildings at the time lacked earthquake and fire resistance, compounding the damage.

  • 01About 90% of Honjo Ward was destroyed by fire and about 48,000 people died.(Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan)

  • 02Ueno Station smolders after burning to the ground.(Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan)

  • 03Kanda Bridge collapsed in the quake, and a makeshift bridge was built.(Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan)

  • 04The famed Akamon (Red Gate) of the University of Tokyo suffered partial damage.(Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan)

  • 05The quake left cracks in the ground in Kojimachi Ward.(Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan)

  • 06Evacuees crowd around Tabata Station.(Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan)

  • 07Barracks for evacuees were built in Hibiya Park.(Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan)

  • 08Fires at the former Army Clothing Depot left many dead. It became the site for the Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall, completed in 1930.(Collection of the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum)

  • 09The former Ryogoku Kokugikan was also destroyed by fire.(Collection of the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum)

01
About 90% of Honjo Ward was destroyed by fire and about 48,000 people died.
02
Ueno Station smolders after burning to the ground.
03
Kanda Bridge collapsed in the quake, and a makeshift bridge was built.
04
The famed Akamon (Red Gate) of the University of Tokyo suffered partial damage.
05
The quake left cracks in the ground in Kojimachi Ward.
06
Evacuees crowd around Tabata Station. (Collection of the National Film Archive of Japan)
07
Barracks for evacuees were built in Hibiya Park.
08
Fires at the former Army Clothing Depot left many dead. It became the site for the Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall, completed in 1930.
09
The former Ryogoku Kokugikan was also destroyed by fire.

Water outages and strong winds also contribute to the expansion of damage

As the earthquake occurred at lunchtime, simultaneous fires started in traditional stoves ("kamado") and charcoal grills ("shichirin"). While water outages caused by the quake made it impossible to battle the fires, the blazes spread due to the strong winds that were blowing in the Kanto region.

Because many people took household goods with them while evacuating, not only did they block avenues of escape, but fires also spread to their belongings, causing tremendous damage.

Halfway down the road to the goal of resolving the city's Achilles' heel: dense wooden housing

If a huge earthquake occurred directly beneath the capital, areas with dense wooden housing will become central Tokyo's Achilles' heel. Such areas have halved in the past decade but still account for just over 10% of the total area of Tokyo's 23 wards. According to damage estimates by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, about 40% of the deaths resulting from such a quake would be caused by fires. Resolving the issue of areas with close-set wooden housing will be central to the reduction of damage.

Tokyo's dense wooden housing areas still total 8,600 hectares

Changes in Tokyo's dense wooden housing areas

Changes in Tokyo's dense wooden housing areas
Based on information from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government

In the wake of the massive 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government established a "special fireproof zone system" in 2012 and encouraged the demolition or rebuilding of aging wooden structures. Areas with dense wooden houses in Tokyo totaled 8,600 hectares as of 2020, down significantly from 16,000 in 2010.

Fireproof target yet to be achieved

The current situation of 'fireproof area rate' in each development district (%)

The current situation of 'fireproof area rate' in each development district (%)
Compiled based on Tokyo Metropolitan Government records

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government uses the "fireproof area rate" as an indicator of progress made in its efforts to resolve the issue of dense wooden housing areas. It is the percentage of things such as vacant lots and fire-resistant buildings in a district. The government designated 28 high-risk areas as "development districts" and is aiming to achieve a 70% fireproof area rate on average there. The initial target year for achieving the rate was fiscal 2020, but the current rate still stands at 65% on average.

Long-term perspective needed to resolve issue of dense wooden housing areas

Efforts to resolve the issue of dense wooden housing areas have not made as much progress as expected.
Efforts to resolve the issue of dense wooden housing areas have not made as much progress as expected. (Kyodo)

Lying behind the slow progress on resolving the issue of dense wooden housing is the aging of residents and restrictions on the use of land in areas where roads are narrow. Just rebuilding individual buildings is not enough. Itsuki Nakabayashi, a Tokyo Metropolitan University professor emeritus specializing in urban disaster prevention, said that resolving the issue of areas with dense wooden housing depends on how narrow streets can be widened, in addition to the development of roads with a certain width that is highly effective in blocking the spread of a fire. "The government needs to think about how to proceed with community development while staying close to residents from a long-term perspective," Nakabayashi said.

Earthquake-prone Japan needs to learn lessons from the past and prepare

The human and material damage from a massive quake would be enormous

It is now 100 years since the Great Kanto Earthquake. The cityscape has changed drastically due to high-rise condominiums and other buildings. People now rarely think of the 1923 tragedy. But the Japanese government says there is an approximately 70% chance that an earthquake in the magnitude 7 class will occur within 30 years. It is necessary to reflect on the past and extend preparations one by one.

Great Kanto EarthquakeGreat Hanshin EarthquakeGreat East Japan Earthquake
Date and time of occurrence Sept. 1, 1923
11:58
Jan. 17, 1995
5:46
Mar. 11, 2011
14:46
Size of earthquake
Magnitude
7.97.39.0
Direct deaths and missing people105,0005,50018,000
Completely destroyed or burned houses290,000110,000120,000
Economic damage5.5 billion yen9.6 trillion yen16.9 trillion yen
As a percentage of GDP37%2%3%

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Quotes are from White Paper on Disaster Management and other sources. All numbers in the table are approximate.