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Woman's notes on 1923 Kanto quake damage, false rumors uncovered in east Japan

Akiko Kuno holds the notes that her mother Ikuyo Watanabe wrote, in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward on Aug. 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Nami Takata)
Ikuyo Watanabe, who wrote the notes on the Great Kanto Earthquake, is pictured in this photo provided by her daughter Akiko Kuno.
The notes by Ikuyo Watanabe, headlined "Great Kanto Earthquake" are pictured in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward on Aug. 28, 2020. (Mainichi/Nami Takata)

A collection of notes relaying the damage caused by the Great Kanto Earthquake of Sept. 1, 1923, and the subsequent spread of false rumors has been uncovered, attracting the attention of experts who have drawn parallels with the rumors that have spread in recent times though social media when emergencies occur.

    Sept. 1 in Japan is Disaster Prevention Day, and this year marks the 97th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake. The collection of notes on the disaster were handwritten by Ikuyo Watanabe (maiden name Tase) who passed away in 1998 at the age of 85. Watanabe's second daughter Akiko Kuno, 80, a resident of Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, found the 16 pages titled "Great Kanto Earthquake," written in pencil, around 2014. Their exact date is unclear, but they are thought to have been written after the war, reflecting the damage at the time. Kuno had been keeping them at home but she has now decided to donate them to a museum so the information can be passed down to future generations.

    The first entry in the notes starts with the date Sept. 1, 1923. Ikuyo was 11 years old at the time and in her fifth year of elementary school. She had lived with her grandmother, parents and three siblings in the Sakainotani district of Yokohama's Nishi Ward, south of the capital. Her father ran a Japanese mint store, and the family was well off, with a hired servant on hand.

    That same day, Ikuyo was putting her socks on, about to go shopping with the family, when the quake struck. "It felt like something under my bottom jolted upward," she wrote, describing the sudden shake. "I froze, wondering if the world was ending, and buried my head in my mother's chest." Though the family home did not collapse in the quake and escaped fire, the family temporarily evacuated to a nearby mountain.

    "I can't see the sky to the east, but the sky to the north is covered with smoke. It felt like something awful was opening a huge hand and steadily coming this way," she wrote, describing the scene she saw from the mountain. The family later built a hut in their garden, and took in people who had nowhere to go.

    In the wake of the earthquake, many Koreans were slaughtered by residents in various areas who believed false rumors. In her notes, Ikuyo said she heard from her elder brother that several men were beaten with a rod and bound to the exercising bars on the grounds of her school on the third day after the quake. She wrote that rumors about Koreans had been circulating the same day. "The rumors said that Koreans were going around poisoning the wells -- so the rice we ate before was sour because ... It chilled me," she wrote.

    On the fourth day after the quake, Ikuyo was reunited with her grandmother, who had gone missing. Her grandmother had evacuated to Yokohama Park in the city's Naka Ward, where she had access to water from the pond, but there were fires all around and she couldn't go anywhere. When her grandmother finally arrived back home, Ikuyo wrote, "My aunt ran as fast as her legs could carry her and hugged my grandmother. After that it was tears and more tears."

    Ikuyo subsequently evacuated to Yamagata in northern Japan with her mother and elder sister. She attended a local school but couldn't understand the local dialect, and had trouble getting along with classmates at first. But she soon fitted in and was sad to leave in the end. Before the beginning of the next year, she returned to Yokohama, where she experienced the magnitude 7.3 Tanzawa Earthquake -- believed to be an aftershock of the Great Kanto Earthquake -- that struck on Jan. 15, 1924, and claimed the lives of 13 people in the central south region of Kanagawa Prefecture.

    Again, the day after the Tanzawa temblor, false rumors and stories began to spread. "(They said) the quake had completely destroyed the Kansai area; that another quake was going to hit the Tokyo and Yokohama regions on a certain month, day, hour and minute; that a famous fortune-teller was making announcements -- there was no end to the rumors in the city," Ikuyo wrote.

    As a young girl, Ikuyo thought it strange for all the unconfirmed information to be swirling about.

    "It was at that time that my father taught me the difficult phrase 'ryugen higo' (groundless rumor that spreads through word of mouth). I wonder who, where and how they started saying such things. It was alarmist. ... When you think about it, they were all flimsy statements, but to the people there, they were frightening words," she recounted.

    Ikuyo closed her collection of notes by writing, "Restoration of the Tokyo and Yokohama areas surged ahead. ... People's lives began to flourish, as if they had long forgotten that hideous disaster."

    Ritsuto Yoshida, a researcher at the Yokohama Archives of History in the city's Naka Ward, commented, "During times of disaster, false rumors always spread. Recently the same thing happened with the coronavirus. Here, we see details of what took place during a disaster nearly 100 years ago, and it should be a lesson that links up with the current times."

    Kuno commented, "Even if there is a disaster, it's easy for tragic things to be forgotten, like the saying, 'Once on shore we pray no more.' There are a lot of things to be learned from my mother's notes." She plans to donate the notes to the Yokohama Archives of History in the near future.

    (Japanese original by Nami Takata, Yokohama Bureau)

    -- The Great Kanto Earthquake struck at 11:58 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1923. Its hypocenter was in the northwest of Sagami Bay, and it had an estimated magnitude of 7.9. The tremor left some 105,000 people dead or missing, including about 27,000 in the city of Yokohama.

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