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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Japanese earthquakes – a century of urban devastation

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This article was originally published on Spacing Ottawa.

The harrowing images coming to us from across the Pacific are heightening the sense of dread felt around the world about the final tally of the death toll in northeastern Japan; at the time of posting authorities were advising the number of people killed by the quake and the subsequent tsunami could well exceed 10,000. The Flickr pool shown above — which also includeds video clips — is a real-time digital response to the earthquake, at once a quickly-evolving document of the scale of the damage and an appeal for humanitarian aid.

More localized and centered inland — and as a result not triggering a tsunami — the the powerful Kobe earthquake of 1995 still caused approximately 6,500 deaths and 10 trillion yen in damage. This disaster occurred just a few years before the social media era, but many images of its devastating impact in the Kansai region — particularly the damage to the transportation infrastructure — can still be viewed at online archives like this one.

Though this weekend’s quake of 8.9 on the Richter scale is the hardest to hit Japan since modern seismography enabled accurate measurement, it will not be the most damaging quake in terms of cost to human life. The Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1, 1923 put Japan’s largest urban centre square in its sights, hitting Tokyo at lunch time on when cooking fires were burning across the city. As the video below shows, the cameras of the day were on hand to capture the scenes in the streets of Tokyo streets in the immediate aftermath and the bravery of the film crews impresses to this day; we were taken aback at just how close the camera operators got to burning buildings and walls, some collapsing right in front of them as they kept rolling. Like the images we see from Sendai City and Ibaraki prefecture today, the scale of the devastation is beyond comprehension and — due to the effect of fire and smoke inhalation — in some ways even more shocking, as the narrow and impossibly crowded streets fill with the dead and a slow-moving river of refugees trying to find a way out of the burning city.