A Local Perspective on Life in Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan.

The Anniversary of The Great Kanto Earthquake (Sept. 1st) is Disaster Prevention Day in Japan- and- the connection between earthquake prevention and the Kashima Grand Shrine

Tokyo`s Shita-Machi burning after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923- note Mt Tsukuba on the right



There used to be a cannon, located in the plaza in front of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, which since 1871 had been used to announce the arrival of 12 noon. On September 1, 1923 the usual DON (bang!) never sounded. A little more than a minute before midday, a tremendous earthquake, whose epicenter was in Sagami Bay, hit Tokyo with terrific force. Tokyo University’s seismograph, the only one in the vicinity to have survived the first violent spasm, recorded nearly 2000 more shock waves over the next 3-day period. Over that time, much of the Shita-Machi area of Tokyo had burned down, leaving more than 200,000 dead. Though Tsukuba lay beyond the reach of what came to be called The Great Kanto Earthquake (Kanto Daishinsai) many native Tsukubans and Ibarakians have heard from their grandparents how at that time the sky glowed red to the south at night, and was darkened in the day by drifting smoke .

Since 1923, September First has been a day to commemorate that tragedy and also to remind all those residing in this disaster prone land of the need to be ready for any possible scenario. Thus, this day is both Shinsai Kinenbi (震災記念日, Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Day), with its annual service at Yokoame Park in Sumida Ward (where the greatest number of victims perished), and Disaster Prevention Day (Bo-sai no Hi, 防災の日), on which you might see firemen leading schoolchildren in evacuation drills (though you are more likely to see this on Sept 2nd as the 1st is the first day back to school!), and plenty of safety tips offered on TV. You might want to take a look at Tsukuba City’s advice for earthquakes. It is both informative and amusing. We are instructed to hide under a desk, secure an exit and turn off the gas and electricity among other things, all at the same time! We are also rightly warned not to listen to rumors, which is an important lesson learned from 1923 when rumors of Koreans poisoning the wells led to the slaughter of large numbers of Koreans by rioting mobs, and the subsequent suppression of Socialists (who were said to be egging on the Koreans!)

I don’t mean in any way to make light of this subject.  Though it’s been a long time since 1923, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, which had Kobe burning helplessly for days, and more recently the Earthquake in Niigata Prefecture (a few years back) which had left people living in shelters for years ( they STILL might still be there !), show us that there is still a long way to go in terms of preparedness and prevention of death and destruction. I don’t want to seem pessimistic, but the BIG ONE WILL COME SOMEDAY. Sometimes it’s as if you can FEEL the pressure building up on the tectonic plates. It probably would be a very good idea to read up on how to prepare.

As you know, earthquakes are not the only threat. In fact, this area has had much worse luck with flooding over the years. That is one reason why, to the astonishment of many foreigners, most Japanese don’t complain about the concreting over of ALL THE RIVERBANKS. For centuries they have been living in fear of unpredictable rivers and flooding. For them, concrete means progress and security (and it seems to have worked this year!). Tsukuba City also offers some tips on dealing with typhoons, floods and fires.


Before the disciplines of geology and seismology were introduced to Japan, there was a very CURIOUS understanding of the cause of earthquakes and this  has a STRONG CONNECTION to Ibaraki Prefecture.

The Deity of Kashima subdoing the earthquake causing catfish with a stone- the KANAME ISHI (要石)- in a NAMAZU-E picture

Another interesting NAMAZU-E showing EBISU asleep at the Kaname Ishi while the catfish goes wild and causes havoc


A NAMAZU-E image depicting the God of Kashima subdoing the earthquake causing catfish

The trembling of the earth was believed to be caused by the slashing about of a giant subterranean CATFISH (namazu). In order to keep this very dangerous fish restrained, the God of Kashima (Kashima Myojin) pressed down on its head with a heavy stone called the KANAME ISHI (要石), which can be found to this day within the precincts of Ibaraki’s most important shrine, Kashima Jingu. This protective stone became especially popular after a terrible earthquake hit Edo in 1855. That disaster struck in the 10th month, during which it is believed that ALL THE 8,000,000 Gods of Japan leave their own shrines and go to Izumo (Shimane Prefecture). It thus became a firm conviction among most Edo-ites that the earthquake had occurred because the God of Kashima had been away and unable to keep the giant catfish under control. The people beseeched the God to be more vigilant after that and the catfish and kaname ishi became popular subjects of devotion.

The stone, which now protrudes slightly out of the ground, is still considered by believers to keep Kanto safe from earthquakes.

The KANAME-ISHI at Kashima Grand Shrine in Eastern Ibaraki Prefecture. It has long been believed that this stone helps prevent earthquakes by pressing down on the head of a giant subterranian catfish!

Near Ryogoku Station in Tokyo, not far from the Sumo Arena (Kokugikan), is the Tokyo To- Irei Do  ( 東京都慰霊堂) which is a museum and memorial hall dedicated to the two great disasters which befell the Shita-Machi area in the 2oth century- The Great Kanto Eathquake of September 1, 1923, and the Great Tokyo Air-Raid of March 10th 1945. There are services held honoring the spirits of those who perished in these tragedies on their repsective memorial days each year.

That means that this Wednesday morning ( Sept 1, 2010) the ceremonies commemorating the Great Earthquake will be held from 10-11 AM.

If you cant make it on that day, a visit ANYTIME you are in Ryogoku is worthwhile.

There are some pictures of the Memorial Hall and its compound at this site:


The Tokyo Memorial Temple For Two Great Disasters the day before the memorial services for the victims of the Great Kanto Eathquake of 1923

At the time of the great quake of 1923, the grounds of what is now the Earthquake Memorial Park, which surround the memorial hall ( temple), was an unused open area. When the disaster struck and the fires started to spread, thousands rushed to take shelter there. It got so crowded that late comers were turned away. Those who were not let in, proved to be the lucky ones in the end as they would have had to flee elsewhere. Tens of thousands who had come to seek refuge in this place were killed by the fires , heat and smoke which consumed the area.

A monument at the Earthquake Memorial Park

The remains of those who perished at this spot were gathered and placed in large funerary urns. A temple was eventually constructed there 7 years later. Besides the temple there are various monuments ( including one to the Koreans who were massacred after the quake) and a museum which displays some artifacts which attest to the great heat created by the fires ( melted machinery, glass, etc) and to the work done by foreign charities to aid the victims ( blankets, and clothes from the US, France, Austria etc).

In 1951, it was decided that this memorial would also be used to commemorate the vicitms of the great air-raid of 1945.

Once again, I would recommend a short visit to this site to anyone who happens to be visiting Ryogoku at any time  of year. If not for anything else, then to put things into perspective. You know never really know what going to happen next- especially in a natural disaster-prone country like Japan. One minute you could be getting ready for lunch in a huge, peacefull and prosperous city, and the next minute………….

Old Red Cross posters calling for donations to help the victims of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake

Some glass bottles which were melted by the heat created by the post-quake fires

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