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On September 1st 1923 (Taisho 12 in Japanese reckoning), just before noon, an earthquake of magnitude 8.3 occured near the densely populated Kanto region, encompassing Tokyo and Yokohama, the two most populous cities of Japan.

The timing was highly unfortunate, as most households were in the process of preparing lunch - on gas ranges using open fire. This resulted in a large number of fires springing up immediately. Fuelled by the small wooden houses built very closely together that are characteristic of traditional Japanese urban architecture, and by strong winds, the fires proceeded to consume major parts of the cities. Attempts to put them out were mostly futile, partually because most water pipes had burst during the quake.

The most terrible scene of this tragedy occurred in Honjo ward, where about 40,000 people had escaped to the largest open space they could find, a military clothing depot. There, they were surrounded by fire, and hit with a firestorm of superheated air that lasted almost two hours and left all but 2,000 of the refugees dead - literally baked alive.

The total death toll of earthquake and fires was over 140,000, and over 3 million people lost their home. In Yokohama, 86% of all houses were destroyed.

Rebuilding was surprisingly quick, helped by foreign aid, but unfortunately, people didn't heed the lessons learned, and most areas were rebuilt in the same style, with the same deadly reasults when the cities were hit by large-scale fires again some 20 years later - this time caused by US bombers.

In the aftermath of this devastating earthquake, one of the large buildings left standing in Tokyo was Frank Lloyd Wright's majestic Imperial Hotel, completed in 1923.

Rumours in Wright's home country, the United States, were that his hotel was the only left in the whole city, a rumour that Wright, always the self-promoter, did not dispel. At this time his reputation in America was poor due to his unorthodox personal life and his flamboyant professional one, so the earthquake was something of a blessing for the architect, as he gained a heroic cast in from its survival.

In a horrifying, and little known chapter in the story of the Great Tokyo Earthquake, many of the survivors took out their anger and frustration by murdering innocent Chinese and Koreans.

Tokyo was in chaos in the first few days after the earthquake, and most neighborhoods formed watch groups, originally to keep order and prevent looting. However, rumors soon began to spread that the fires raging across the city had been started by Koreans, Chinese, or Communists who were allegedly using the confusion of the Earthquake to initiate a revolt. The watch groups turned vigilante, lynching accused criminals on the spot. A typical tactic was to force passers-by to speak simple sentences in Japanese. If their accent was judged to be Chinese or Korean they were murdered, often by disembowlment.

The police did nothing to stop these crimes and later help cover them up. The police themselves were involved in rounding up and executing Koreans in at least two recorded instances, one in Ueno and another in Kameido. The police also took advantage of the chaos to murder dissidents that they otherwise could not punish with normal, lawful means - communists, union leaders, and outspoken feminists.

As order was slowly restored, police and government officials decided to cover up the murders. Bodies that had been buried in mass graves were exhumed and then cremated or thrown into rivers. Arrest records were destroyed or falsified. In the end, the total death toll reported by the Ministry of Justice was a laughably low 243. The real total was probably at least 5,000.

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