text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Passing outside you see just one more Buddhist temple in one more urban park; the name of the park doesn’t say much either: Yokoami-cho Koen (横網町公園) or “Yokoami-cho Public Park”. Still, if you look a little closer, you notice that it is not a temple but a monument and a museum –the official translation is “Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall” but in Japanese the name offers some hints: Tokyo-to Irei-do (東京都慰霊堂) or “hall for comforting the spirits of the dead”. Because this building, bearing the signature of Chuta Ito, the man who also designed the Meiji Jingu, the shrine for the Meiji Emperor is dedicated to the dead of the biggest natural disaster this city has known: the great Kanto earthquake.
Tokyo had well established its identity as “Tokyo” and had been disconnected from Edo. The Taisho Emperor, son of the beloved Meiji had been sitting on the throne for 12 years but his neurological problems had already kept him off his essential duties allowing his son, the man who would become emperor three years later and who would remain in Japanese history as “Showa” but whom the whole world would know as “Hirohito”, to start emerging on the scene. All over the country were appearing buildings in the new, red-brick Western style, railroads were connecting neighborhoods, municipalities, towns and villages, factories were manufacturing machines, Western clothes were replacing kimono and Japan was staring the future for which the militarists surrounding the Crown Prince were planning the role of the leader of, at least, Asia. And then, at the depths of the Sagami Bay, 30 miles south of Tokyo, two enormous plates moved –and kept on moving for four minutes.
That day Tokyo (and the surrounding prefectures of Kanagawa, Chiba and Shizuoka) realized that no matter how much it had modernized, there were things it could never combat: thousands of braziers and stoves cooking meals were knocked over and started countless fires which were joined in a firestorm; this firestorm, boosted by the typhoon that hit the city almost at the same time, created fire tornadoes that snatched and incinerated anything in their passage. The biggest of those scorching twisters hit in the area around the old army clothing depot in Yokoami-cho, at the spot where 38.000 people had sought refuge, hoping that crossing the river they would be safe. And it is at that same spot that seven years later, in 1930, the city would built the Irei-do, to house the ashes of those 38.000 as well as of 20.000 more unidentified victims of the 140.000 people who died that day, two minutes before the noon of September 1st, 1923.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.