The footage titled, “Great Kanto Earthquake remembered,” from an Asahi Kodomo Graph newsreel released in 1939, shows significantly damaged Nihonbashi, Asakusa and Mukojima districts right after the Great Kanto Earthquake that occurred on Sept. 1, 1923. (From an Asahi Kodomo Graph newsreel)

Rare newsreel footage found in the National Film Archive of Japan (NFAJ) shows Tokyo's ruined landscape following the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and what one expert described as a lack of sense of urgency.

The video, taken and produced by The Asahi Shimbun, vividly conveys the turmoil and devastation following the massive quake, which occurred on Sept. 1, 1923. More than 100,000 people died in the temblor and subsequent fires.

Images include a famed statue of noted samurai Saigo Takamori (1828-1877) converted into a message board and spectators nonchalantly watching a building on fire.

Makoto Tsujimoto, a professor emeritus at the Tokyo University of Science, called the footage "valuable material” in what transpired after the major disaster.

The footage, which lasts less than two minutes, is titled, “Great Kanto Earthquake Remembered.” It was included in an Asahi Kodomo Graph newsreel, which was later renamed Asahi Home Graph, that were produced targeting children between 1938 and 1943.

The newsreel containing the Great Kanto Earthquake footage was shown at theaters and other facilities in 1939.

After World War II, the newsreels were confiscated by the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers and taken to the United States.

Thirty-two of the newsreels were later returned to Japan and now are stored at the National Film Archive of Japan. The Asahi Shimbun has been researching and organizing the newsreels for the past several years.


The clip starts with the narration, “Every year, September reminds us of the Great Kanto Earthquake.”

The video shows massive smoke pouring from the Metropolitan Police Department building as spectators stand watching; the Nakamise shopping street in the Asakusa district, Nihonbashi district and the Manseibashi bridge in the Akihabara district where numerous buildings burned down in the fire that occurred immediately after the quake; and passengers riding atop and clutching the sides of a freight train at Yokohama Station to flee the city.

Other scenes show completely destroyed houses in the Mukojima district in Sumida Ward and significant cracks in the ground.

The Takamori statue in Taito Ward had been converted into a message board and was covered with numerous missing person notices. The statue, located in Ueno Park near Ueno Station, an area engulfed by the great fire, survived the disaster.

At Yokohama Station, which was "severely damaged" according to the footage narration, passengers are even holding onto the sides of freight train cars to evacuate the city.

The final portion of the footage shows an overturned train near Oiso Station of the Tokaido Line. A freight train that left from Yokohama Station carrying evacuees who are riding on the top and sides passes by it.


The Great Kanto Earthquake occurred at 11:58 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1923. Its presumed magnitude was 7.9 and the maximum seismic intensity was 7, the highest level on the Japanese scale. The epicenter was along the Sagami Trough that stretches from Kanagawa Prefecture, Sagami Bay, to off the southern portion of the Boso Peninsula.

More than 90 percent of those who died in the disaster were killed by the subsequent fire, according to the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum in the capital’s Sumida Ward.

Before the disaster, there were thick clusters of wooden houses in Tokyo. That combustible material allowed the fire to continue to spread before it was extinguished around 10 a.m. on Sept. 3, almost two days after the quake occurred.

People brought futon mats, furniture and other household goods to evacuation centers, which further accelerated the spread of the fire, according to the museum.


The Asahi Shimbun interviewed Tsujimoto, who is knowledgeable about fire safety, after asking him to view the footage.

Previously, Tsujimoto analyzed how the fire had spread and how people had fled based on footage that was stored at the NFAJ, which was at that time the National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art, and other facilities.

Tsujimoto focused on the people watching the fire at the Metropolitan Police Department building, shown in the first 20 seconds or so of the footage, as lacking a sense of urgency.

“All everybody is doing is watching as they are focused too much on the blaze,” Tsujimoto said. “This is supposed to be the critical moment to think about what their families or they should be doing from now after encountering this unprecedented disaster.”

Tsujimoto previously found other footage during his research that showed some people laughing as they watched the building on fire.

During the two days as the fire spread, the wind direction changed many times. Many victims died after being engulfed by flames after fleeing to what they thought was safety. Flames from fires shot up in a wide variety of directions, many toward those fleeing in various directions, according to Tsujimoto.

“We need to learn from what happened so far following major earthquakes such as the fire after the Great Kanto Earthquake or the tsunami after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake,” he added.

Tsujimoto therefore advocated that such footage or images of disasters that are stored nationwide be made accessible to the public.