Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake

Detail, Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake; F1975.12

Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake

One of the "Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake" by Japanese artist Nishimura Goun
One of the “Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake” by Japanese artist Nishimura Goun


Ninety-three years ago today, the Great Kanto Earthquake rocked Japan, destroying Tokyo and Yokohama and wreaking widespread damage. The jolt struck at 11:58 am, when many residents were cooking their lunches over open fires. As stoves were overturned and gas mains ruptured, blazes quickly erupted, ravaging the cities’ wooden houses and anything else in their paths. A 300-foot-tall fire tornado, or “dragon twist,” tore through an area near Tokyo’s Sumida River where tens of thousands had sought shelter from the chaos; only a few hundred survived.

The earthquake’s epicenter was in the waters of Sagami Bay, triggering a tsunami that reached heights of forty feet. In the ancient capital of Kamakura, a twenty-foot wave killed some three hundred people and shifted the city’s Great Buddha—weighing in at 121 tons—by more than a foot. A total of about 140,000 people perished in the disaster.

Nishimura Goun (1877–1938), a Kyoto painter known for his soft, lyrical renderings of birds, fish, animals, and flowers, turned to the earthquake as the subject for this handscroll, which he completed two years afterward. To report the devastation of September 1, 1923, Goun adopted the traditional horizontal format of episodes linked by text. Although Goun was a Kyoto artist, his scenes seem to be based on first-hand observation. The result is an odd union of harsh subject matter and his signature gentle style.


Joelle Seligson

Joelle Seligson is digital editor at the Freer|Sackler.

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