This Day In History: Great Tokyo Fire Devastates The City (1923)


On the 31st of August 1923 a great earthquake strikes Tokyo and causes devastation to the Japanese capital and kills many of its citizens. However, a greater disaster was to follow. The earthquake and its aftershocks caused several fires to break out in the city. On this day in 1923, a great fire sweeps through the streets and narrow alleyways of Tokyo. The earthquake and the fire resulted in a terrible loss of life. The Great Kwanto Earthquake and the subsequent fire are believed to have killed some 142,000 people. The fire that was caused by the earthquake has come to be known as the Great Fire of Tokyo. It believed to have killed more people than the actual earthquake.

At about noon on September 1, an 8.3-magnitude quake, centered in Sagami Bay struck the area.  The actual quake was only to last five minutes but it shook everything in the city. The quake caused many  buildings to collapse, including the historic  Asakusa Tower. The day after the earthquake struck there was a series of aftershocks, these are tremors that often cause buildings to shake and collapse. Several fires had been started by the earthquake but the aftershocks made it worse.  The blaze had been started by fires from kitchens. At this time many of the city’s kitchens had fires for cooking.  The earthquake had struck when people were preparing their midday meal. This led to a great and uncontrollable fire sweeping through the Japanese capital. The fire swept down the coast from Tokyo, but a Tsunami quenched these fires.

The Devastation caused by the earthquake (1923)

The vast fires sucked huge amounts of  oxygen,  and this produced literal windstorms of fire that engulfed people and buildings.  The smoke was almost as lethal as the fire. It has been estimated that some 30,000 people, who had escaped the earthquake died because of suffocation at a park from the fumes. The Tokyo fire brigades were unable to fight the fires, the earthquake has damaged the water pipes and they had difficulty getting access to water. A passing British ship saved several thousand citizens of Tokyo by evacuating them from the port area. It is believed that some thousands of square miles had been destroyed by the fire and that up to half of the city had been gutted by the fires or destroyed by the quake. The city had been truly devastated. Many great buildings and works of arts are destroyed in the fire. Many of Japan’s rarest books and manuscripts are lost when the Imperial University Library was engulfed by fire.

The residents of Japan were bewildered and in a state of shock. Some Japanese blamed Korean immigrants for starting the  fires and killed several hundred Koreans, some reports believe that the death toll was far higher. The Koreans are all innocent and they had nothing to do with the fire, which was a result of the earthquake.