Our History: Empress a witness to disaster

While working as a diplomat in Tokyo in the 1980s, Victoria author Anne Park Shannon became intrigued with the stories of Canadians whose lives were shaped by their encounters with Japan. In this excerpt from her 2012 book, Finding Japan, scenes from the Great Japan Earthquake of 1923 are described through eyewitness accounts of Canadian businesspeople stationed in Yokohama and Tokyo at the time.


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According to myth, the Japanese archipelago is inhabited by a giant catfish pinned down under a powerful rock by the Kashima god. Whenever the god lets down his guard, the catfish thrashes about and causes earthquakes.

At two minutes before noon on Sept. 1, 1923, the catfish must have done a back flip. The massive earthquake that struck the Kanto plain left an estimated 143,000 dead, another 100,000 injured and a further two million homeless. Much of the damage came from the fires that ravaged vast sections of Yokohama and Tokyo, as the earthquake struck just when hibachis were being lit to cook the mid-day meal.

Samuel Robinson, captain of the Canadian Pacific Empress of Australia, was loading passengers in Yokohama at the moment the earthquake struck. He and his crew watched the impact unfold minute by ghastly minute, recording their observations in the ship’s log: “The vessel shook all over in a most terrifying fashion, and also rocked very quickly and violently until it seemed as though the masts and funnels must carry away.” The long wharf beside the ship simply vanished.

“Three or four hundred people were on the wharf … saying goodbye to their friends, with paper streamers in their hands, when the earthquake happened. A number fell, or were thrown by the motion, down the fissures as they opened and closed as the land waves passed — some of the openings being three or four feet wide — either disappearing into the water below or being crushed to death.”

Robinson also watched the impact unfold on Yokohama itself. “A dense pall of dust rose up hundreds of feet above the town and a terrible roar came from it, which was probably caused by the simultaneous falling of hundreds of brick and stone buildings in the Settlement, also possibly by the earthquake itself.”

Only after the wind dropped in mid-afternoon, however, did the full magnitude of the disaster become apparent. The entire town was destroyed, including the residential district on the bluff. Fires burned fiercely along the foreshore and in all directions for miles around. A northward glare in the sky in the direction of Tokyo and Yokosuka indicated they, too, were burning.

He and the crew also soon realized their own danger, as gusts of intensely hot air and burning matter threatened to set fire to a nearby freight shed. The Empress itself was then struck heavily by a large Japanese steamer, the Lyons Maru, which had lost its moorings. Securing themselves as best they could, they turned to the task of rescue, launching lifeboats through the night to bring survivors back to the ship and ferrying fresh water to those huddling in Yokohama Park.

The danger, however, was far from over. Toward morning a huge, furiously burning mass was spotted near the foreshore about half a mile away. Initially thought to be drums of stored paint, it turned out to be fuel oil from burst storage tanks floating in the harbour. Thick, greasy, rolling flames shot up in a whirling column of fire a hundred feet wide and several hundred feet high. As the fiery masses roared toward them, Robinson realized they had to get away as fast as possible.

“We had then over 2,000 people on board and I was very anxious.” Eventually the ship was manoeuvred to safety beyond the breakwater, where it became the headquarters for rescue work until the immediate crisis passed. The first merchant vessel to arrive after the earthquake was another Canadian Pacific Empress bringing a Canadian gift of condensed milk, canned fish, flour and relief supplies from the Canadian Red Cross and the Japanese Canadian community, along with two Vancouver nurses.

The Great Earthquake of 1923 was the end of old Yokohama. Visiting what remained of the city in the days that followed, Robinson and his party found the devastation absolute. It was a tumbled mass of debris, and only someone with a thorough knowledge of the streets and buildings could distinguish where the foreign settlement had even been.

Picking their way through the tangle of fallen wires and piles of brick and stone, they located No. 14 on the Bund, the site of the Canadian Pacific office, which had been there since the 1890s and also housed the Canadian government trade office. The building had simply disappeared. Looking about, they came upon the charred remains of two staff members; they covered them up and located a burial party.

Elmer MacDowell, the resident Alcan (Aluminum Company of Canada) representative, was far luckier. On a visit to Tokyo the day the earthquake struck, he watched in horror from a seven-storey building as an adjacent one disintegrated before his eyes. After spending the night with thousands of others in a park, he walked the 25 miles back to Yokohama, where he could find no trace of his office, of the club where he lived or of any of the 12 men with whom he had breakfasted the previous morning. Locating a rowboat, he made his way out to Robinson’s ship in the harbour.

W.D. Cameron, the Sun Life Assurance representative, was walking home after a swim at Hakone, the mountain resort south of Yokohama, when he felt the earth suddenly move beneath his feet, he recounted in the eyewitness account he prepared for his company.

“Crouching, I watched as the house wrenched about, swinging and jumping much like a rat shaking in the grip of a relentless terrier’s mouth. To stand or walk was a physical impossibility. Those who did not crouch in terror the instant the shock began were thrown violently to the ground. The earth split and cracked in all directions, oozing water from some of the deeper fissures.

“Immediately [after] the shock subsided we rushed out and lay flat in the middle of the village street, and what a sight met us there! Houses sprawled in fantastic shapes testifying to the violent manner in which they were hurled to destruction; terror-stricken inhabitants and visitors huddled together, many praying to God and Buddha — a scene hardly to be equalled by the ravages of modern warfare.”

Suspecting the event was probably a local occurrence, Cameron joined forces with Arthur Bryan, the Canadian trade commissioner in Yokohama. Together they begged and battled their way onto a crowded Japanese steamer bound north for Tokyo, where the British produced a car to convey them through the smoking ruins.

Locating his house, Cameron found it still standing. But the Sun Life office was completely demolished, as were surrounding buildings in what was left of the Nihombashi district, including the huge Mitsukoshi Department Store, the Mitsui Bank and part of the Bank of Japan.

Arthur Bryan, meanwhile, was at the British Embassy sending a message to Canada, where it was assumed he had perished. “Bryan given up for dead,” ran a headline in the Ottawa Journal.

“I am safe but lost absolutely everything send immediately funds,” he cabled. By “everything” he meant his office, the office records and his own cottage by the sea. Following the quake, the Canadian trade office, like much of the Yokohama foreign business community, shifted to Kobe.

Excerpted from Finding Japan: Early Canadian Encounters with Asia, © Anne Park Shannon, 2012, Heritage House Publishing

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