A Brief History
On March 2, 1657, the city of Tokyo, Japan, then known as Edo, suffered a catastrophic fire that lasted 3 days and killed 100,000 Japanese people, a death toll greater than either of the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
The carnage caused by the Great Fire of Meireki (or sometimes known as the Furisode Fire) combined to destroy about 60 to 70% of the buildings in Edo. The legendary cause of the fire was a priest attempting to burn a cursed kimono that had been owned by 3 girls, one after the other, that died before getting a chance to wear the cursed clothing. A great gust of wind is said to have taken the burning cloth and spread the fire.
Historically, wind did play a major role in spreading the fire, as gales of hurricane force were said to have been blowing. Whatever the source, the wind spread the flames across a city that was built almost entirely of wood and paper buildings, firefighters unable to keep up with the rapid spread of flames caused by the wind. The fire brigade established in Edo was a novel idea, but the force was nowhere near large enough to deal with a conflagration of this magnitude. The fire lasted 3 days until the winds subsided, but the incredible amount of smoke persisted for a few more days and hampered recovery efforts. Reconstruction of the city lasted the next 2 years.
Tokyo has been no stranger to massive catastrophe, as evidenced by Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, a natural disaster that cost about 100,000 lives and precipitated another great fire that actually caused most of the fatalities. The 7.9 magnitude quake lasted only 4 to 10 minutes, but broke the water mains stifling fire fighting efforts. Compounding the problems, a typhoon and tsunami struck Tokyo Bay at the same time! This disaster was shamefully compounded by people as well, with false rumors of Koreans in Tokyo being responsible for the fire and looting, resulting in vigilante groups pursuing and killing Koreans in Tokyo, necessitating the Army being sent to Tokyo to restore order and protect Koreans, although police and army personnel had killed a few thousand Koreans themselves! The devastation and chaos was so great thoughts of moving the capital to a different city were considered.
Another disaster of similar scope, this time cause by humans, occurred in 1945 when the United States Army Air Forces bombed Tokyo with incendiary bombs, once again burning the city on a massive scale and killing around 100,000 Japanese. The physical destruction and cost of lives eclipsed either of the atom bomb attacks that occurred later.
Question for students (and subscribers): Can you think of a city that has suffered 3 catastrophes of the scale of the Tokyo catastrophes? If you know of any city that has possibly suffered worse than Tokyo, please share that information with your fellow readers in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
1657 by Country: 1657 in Denmark, 1657 in England, 1657 in Ireland, 1657 in Japan, Second Protectorate Parliament, Great Fire of Meirek. Books LLC, 2010.