A view of destruction in Tokyo, seen from the top of the Imperial Hotel, which was the only hotel in the region that survived the 1923 earthquake.

A view of destruction in Tokyo, seen from the top of the Imperial Hotel, which was the only hotel in the region that survived the 1923 earthquake. “A good idea of the tremendous devastation in Tokyo wrought by earthquake and fire.” J.H. Messervey, from a letter dated March 5, 1924. Image of Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan, after the September 1, 1923 earthquake.

The Great Kanto Earthquake, sometimes called the Great Tokyo Earthquake, rocked Japan on September 1, 1923. The city of Yokohama was hit even worse than Tokyo was, although both were devastated. It was the deadliest earthquake in Japanese history. The earthquake had a magnitude of 7.9 on the moment magnitude scale with its focus deep beneath Izu Ōshima Island in Sagami Bay. The cause was a rupture of part of the convergent boundary where the Philippine Sea Plate is subducting beneath the Okhotsk Plate along the line of the Sagami Trough.

The total death toll from the disaster is estimated at about 142,800. The quake struck at 11:58 am, so many people were cooking lunch. In the wood-built cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, upended cooking fires and broken gas mains set off firestorms that raced through homes and offices. Fire and tremors together claimed 90 percent of the homes in Yokohama and left 60% of Tokyo’s people homeless. The Taisho Emperor and Empress Teimei were on holiday in the mountains, and so escaped the disaster.

Most horrifying of the immediate results was the fate of 38,000 to 44,000 working class Tokyo residents who fled to the open ground of the Rikugun Honjo Hifukusho, once called the Army Clothing Depot. Flames surrounded them, and at about 4:00 in the afternoon, a “fire tornado” some 300 feet tall roared through the area. Only 300 of the people gathered there survived.

The temblor destroyed two of Japan’s largest cities and traumatized the nation; it also whipped up nationalist and racist passions. And the quake may have emboldened right-wing forces at the very moment that the country was poised between military expansion and an embrace of Western democracy, only 18 years before Japan would enter World War II.

The earthquake also exposed the darker side of humanity. Within hours of the catastrophe, rumors spread that Korean immigrants were poisoning wells and using the breakdown of authority to plot the overthrow of the Japanese government. (Japan had occupied Korea in 1905, annexed it five years later and ruled the territory with an iron grip.) Roving bands of Japanese prowled the ruins of Yokohama and Tokyo, setting up makeshift roadblocks and massacring Koreans across the earthquake zone. According to some estimates, the death toll was as high as 6,000.

These archival images, drawn from the U.S. Geological Survey, AP, and Brown University’s Dana and Vera Reynolds Collection, show the horrifying wreckage. They’re a reminder that Japan has faced brutally difficult rebuilding efforts, and succeeded in building back better.

The remains of the famous Maruzen bookstore located in Nihombashi district of Tokyo after fire. The Maruzen bookstores was the largest bookstore and main provider of Western and European literature in Tokyo.

The remains of the famous Maruzen bookstore located in Nihombashi district of Tokyo after fire. The Maruzen bookstores was the largest bookstore and main provider of Western and European literature in Tokyo.

People gathering in front of a sign posted on a bridge by a river.

People gathering in front of a sign posted on a bridge by a river.

Collapsed Remains of the Azuma Bridge on the Sumida River. The wooden floor of the bridge burned down during the fires caused by the earthquake, leaving only the metal supports

Collapsed Remains of the Azuma Bridge on the Sumida River. The wooden floor of the bridge burned down during the fires caused by the earthquake, leaving only the metal supports

“A good idea of the tremendous devastation in Tokyo wrought by earthquake and fire. Enclosed find a few snaps taken on the top of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo which is the only hotel in the earthquake district that survived.” J.H. Messervey, letter dated March 5, 1924. Image of Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan, Earthquake from September 1, 1923.

A view of the devastation in Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake and fire, seen from the top of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

A view of the devastation in Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake and fire, seen from the top of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

A view of the devastation in Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake and fire, seen from the top of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

A view of the devastation in Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake and fire, seen from the top of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.

A man stands atop a fissured road.

A man stands atop a fissured road.

A refugee site. Perhaps a former refugee site devastated by fire, with burnt cars, tires, canisters, and pieces of debris.

A refugee site. Perhaps a former refugee site devastated by fire, with burnt cars, tires, canisters, and pieces of debris.

People take refuge on a Nihonbashi street in Japan in 1923. Buildings across the streets are burning and billowing smoke and flame from an earthquake that hit.

People take refuge on a Nihonbashi street in Japan in 1923. Buildings across the streets are burning and billowing smoke and flame from an earthquake that hit.

People taking refuge to Japan's countryside climb and clinch to one of few trains leaving the capital in 1923.

People taking refuge to Japan’s countryside climb and clinch to one of few trains leaving the capital in 1923.

Congestion of refugees fleeing their homes in the Ueno vicinity in Tokyo.

Congestion of refugees fleeing their homes in the Ueno vicinity in Tokyo.

A fallen bridge.

A fallen bridge.

In the vicinity of the badly damaged Manseibashi Train Station in Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan. The statue of Takeo Hirose.

In the vicinity of the badly damaged Manseibashi Train Station in Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan. The statue of Takeo Hirose.

People walk in the devastated area of Yuoguku in Tokyo, Japan, after the earthquake that struck on Sept. 1, 1923. In the background is the gutted domed building Kokugikan, National Sumo Wrestling arena, in the Ryoguku district.

People walk in the devastated area of Yuoguku in Tokyo, Japan, after the earthquake that struck on Sept. 1, 1923. In the background is the gutted domed building Kokugikan, National Sumo Wrestling arena, in the Ryoguku district.

Fissures in the road in the Yokohama Oebashi vicinity.

Fissures in the road in the Yokohama Oebashi vicinity.

A man tries to earn some money by offering haircuts in the remains of a building.

A man tries to earn some money by offering haircuts in the remains of a building.

The Akasaka district, one of Tokyo's residential areas, lies in ruins after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake on Sept. 1, 1923.

The Akasaka district, one of Tokyo’s residential areas, lies in ruins after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake on Sept. 1, 1923.

Fissure in unknown road.

Fissure in unknown road.

Destruction of the city.

Destruction of the city.

okyo and Yokohama, Japan, Earthquake September 1, 1923.

okyo and Yokohama, Japan, Earthquake September 1, 1923. “I enclose also a photo of the ruins of the Grand Hotel at Yokohama where I stopped last year.” J.H. Messervey, letter dated March 5, 1924.

Many People sit on street car railway in front of their crushed houses in Japan 1923 after an earthquake. Fortunately, this area did not suffer from fire.

Many People sit on street car railway in front of their crushed houses in Japan 1923 after an earthquake. Fortunately, this area did not suffer from fire.

(Photo credit: U.S. Geological Survey / AP / Brown University).