Great Kanto Earthquake Anniversary

Avid readers of this oft neglected blog may know that one of its writers resides in Tokyo and often runs through its many streets, alleys, parks and terraces. Anyone who has ever run in the 23-ku area will have been around the Imperial Palace at some point, but it's not likely that many know the lore around one of the trees there. It caught my eye to see a front page article on today's Sankei Shimbun about a tree in Otemachi. Then I remembered the 90th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake is coming up this weekend. Below is my abridged translation of the story.

The Forgotten Disaster Tree

90 years since the Great Kanto Earthquake: Lessons and preparations

"The lone surviving tree in the burnt remains of central Tokyo that gave people hope."

On a corner of the street in front of the palace in Tokyo's Otemachi 1-chome, there stands a large ginko tree with lush green branches. Runners around the palace pass just near the tree, but few notice the signboard about the tree that survived the inferno that ravaged Japan's capital in 1923.


There is still a black burn scar up the trunk of the tree that silently tells the story of the suffering from the disaster. According to the Chiyoda ward board of education, the tree is approximately 150 years old. Before the earthquake, it was located on the site of the old education ministry at Hitotsubashi 1-chome but was transferred to its current site as part of the reconstruction plan.

The burnt trunk

Like the lone "miracle pine" that survived the tsunami in 2011 in Iwate's Rikuzen-Takata, the ginko received much attention as a symbol of the imperial capital's reconstruction.

"I never noticed it. There are no other things in Tokyo that remind you of the 1923 quake," explains Kawasaki resident and once-a-week palace runner Kaori Kikuchi (38). For many, the happenings of 90 years past are now just distant memories.

The blaze caused many of the deaths in the Great Kanto Earthquake. Learning from the disaster, the national government created three large parks around Tokyo's shitamachi area―Sumida Koen, Kinshi Koen and Hamacho Koen―as part of the reconstruction effort.

Comparison of damage from past and future megaquakes 

However, the elevated metro expressway now runs above Sumida Koen, Japan's first riverside park. A public sports center was built at Hamacho Koen, changing the park's appearance from when it was built.

The Tokyo metropolitan government has designated both parks "evacuation areas from fires caused by earthquakes."

Ueno circa 1928

The parks were designed to allow one square meter for the estimated number of evacuees but a Tokyo official explained, "It is an unknown how well they will function in reality." It is undeniable that the parks are more about promoting public health and greening of the city, and the official admitted, "The top priority for Tokyo's parks has not been to protect against fires."

Hokkaido University graduate school professor Akira Koshizawa, an expert on the Imperial Reconstruction Plan had this to say about urban policy.

"The Tokyo metropolitan and ward governments that took over the parks from the national government did not fully understand the meaning of reconstruction, and redesigned the parks in their own ways. It's time we looked back on the Great Kanto Earthquake reconstruction to prepare for the next disaster."

September 1 marks the 90th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake. As the memory fades, the next megaquake draws nearer. The Tohoku earthquake of 2011 was an important reminder for us to learn from the past. Are we prepared for the future?

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