Yokohama’s Symbol of Recovery

Yokohama Centric

My name is Charles Borromeo. I have lived in Yokohama, Japan for more than half my lifetime. And I’ve experienced my share of earthquakes — some mildly surprising; others unnerving. Earthquakes are mother nature’s reminders of the fragility of human life.

Burritt Sabin in his masterful A Historical Guide to Yokohama subtitled his book Sketches of The Twice-Risen Phoenix.  He traced the history of the port city from the moment Commodore Perry in 1854 returned to Japan with a powerful squadron and with a letter from President Millard Fillmore requesting a treaty between their nations.

Yokohama historical guide

An engaging guidebook of Yokohama’s historical sites.

“The Tokugawa Shogunate could not allow the barbarians to enter through the gates of Edo, but Perry refused to anchor at the outport of Uraga. The two sides agreed to parley at a miserable village midway between Edo and Uraga. The village was Yokohama.”

On July 29, 1858 the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce on the deck of the USS Powhatan opened the ports of Yokohama and four other Japanese cities to trade and granted extraterritoriality to foreigners.

Nearly 145 years later on April 1, 1972,  I arrived in Japan. I was a young married man with one small daughter and one daughter on the way. With my MA degree, I parlayed a position as a teacher at Saint Joseph College and taught English, American History and Asian Studies. I fully intended to remain in Japan for two years in order to collect materials for a book about the Japanese Participation at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

Ah, but as the poet Robert Burns in his poem To A Mouse in 1786 wrote:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone] /In proving foresight may be vain:/The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry] /An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,/For promised joy.

Forty-two years later I am still living in the port city. My daughters have grown, and today they are raising families of their own. I have gone through the joys and travails of two marriages. Both my ex-wives live in the USA and have established successful careers in their new world. And I live alone in a small apartment in the capital city of Kanagawa Prefecture.

(Oh, yes, that book about the Japanese Participation at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. I never got around to writing it.)

In my forty years in Japan, I have become Yokohama-centric. Certainly, I have traveled to other parts of Japan — Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and to cities on the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku. My journeys nearly always took me southward. The farthest north I have visited was to my friend’s home in a remote village deep in the mountains of Niigata.

Of course, I have flown overseas to countries  in different parts of the world. When people there asked me where my hometown was, I inevitably answered, “Yokohama.”  The reply causes eyebrows to rise and faces to contort into smirks.

Yokohama has become my reference point, my center, my home. The events outside the city limits often carries as much interest for me as the news that a tree had fallen in a forest in Denmark.

But that all began to change on March 11, 2011.

The Great Kanto Earthquake 1923

Japan is one of the most seismically active countries in the world. It is located in a zone where the Eurasian, Pacific, Philippine and North American tectonic plates meet and occasionally shift. Nearly twenty percent of the world’s earthquakes of magnitude of six or greater happen in Japan.

Every day, earthquakes of varying intensities shake up the tranquility of everyday life.  Occasionally, the intensity of the quakes are strong enough to become headline stories in the national news media.

I’ve experienced earthquakes strong enough to shake open my kitchen  cupboard doors causing dishes and crystal glasses to cascade onto the kitchen floor. The debris on the floor is a microcosm of the death and destruction earthquakes can cause on a Biblical scale.

On September 1, 1923 at 11:58 a.m. the residents of Yokohama were getting ready for lunch. Proprietors of restaurants waited in anticipation for the lunch rush of business people, shopkeepers and traders. Mothers at home were preparing lunches for their toddlers and aging parents. And the Marianist Brothers at St. Joseph College at 85 Yamate-cho on the Bluff were getting ready for their midday meditation and prayers before lunch.

On October 23, 1923, Brother John Grote wrote to his fellow Marianist a detailed letter of that terrible moment in Yokohama’s history. “The first was a frightful vertical quake which suddenly changed to an equally frightful horizontal on, the former took everything off its foundation; the latter made everything crumble.”   Go to St. Joe’s Over the Years to read Bro. Grote’s eyewitness account.

Joshua Hammer in the May 11, 2011 Smithsonian Magazine wrote:

“The initial jolt was followed a few minutes later by a 40-foot-high tsunami. A series of towering waves swept away thousands of people. Then came fires, roaring through the wooden houses of Yokohama and Tokyo, the capital, burning everything—and everyone—in their path. The death toll would be about 140,000, including 44,000 who had sought refuge near Tokyo’s Sumida River in the first few hours, only to be immolated by a freak pillar of fire known as a ‘dragon twist.’”

Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923

A must read book about the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923

Rebuilding the devastated areas became the priority of the national and local governments. In Yokohama, among the myriad rebuilding projects facing city officials was how to rebuild the city’s port and Bund area.

Yokohama’s Symbol of Hope and Recovery

You can’t blame the people who enjoy Yamashita Park for being unaware of its historical significance. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 has been relegated to passages in history books and the yellowing pages of eyewitness accounts have been stored in archives. Moreover, there have been more recent earthquakes.

(To be continued)




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