Japan As They Saw It

The great earthquake of 1891

    The working day of Japan begins very early, and by four or five o’clock the houses are open and the stoves (hibachi) lighted. Breakfast is prepared, and the people make up for their early rising by a noonday siesta. Osaka was therefore fully awake and astir when the terrible earthquake of October 28th began, almost to a second, at 6.30 A.M. Perhaps it will be well to give our personal experiences first, and then add those of the city and neighbouring country as they were gradually brought home to us; for it must be remembered that we were instantly cut off from telegraphic communication with the north, and that news from the country came in but slowly over the shattered roads, so that several days passed before we could in any way estimate the terrible extent of the earthquake.
    Let us begin with our personal experiences. Arch-deacon Warren’s house, in which my father, Mrs. Bickersteth, and my brother were staying at the time, is two storeys high, and built of stone and wood. The second storey had been added some years after the house was first erected, and, probably because foreign buildings were rather new to the Japanese at the time, it was not very securely put together, and therefore suffered more than many others from the shocks. In Tokyo and the neighbourhood all the houses are warmed by stoves, and a chimney is almost unknown on account of the many small shocks which occur in various months of every year, rendering such a luxury as an open fireplace and chimney most undesirable. But in Osaka, where earthquakes are very uncommon, chimneys were to be seen in all the foreigners’ houses, Archdeacon Warren’s among them, and the Japanese freely used them in their factories. Very few people living at the time could even remember such an event as an earthquake. Only a day or so after our arrival, we had inquired if any shocks had been recently felt in Osaka, and the reply was immediately given, “We never have an earthquake here!” The events of the 28th were therefore as great an astonishment to our friends as to ourselves.
    My father and Mrs. Bickersteth were about to get up that morning when the first rumble of the earthquake began. They waited for a moment before doing anything, as after our experience at Tokyo they fully expected each oscillation would be the last. But instead of passing away the shock gained in intensity every second; and my father ran under the doorway, calling to Mrs. Bickersteth to follow him, as he knew that, narrow as it was, it would have afforded some slight shelter had the ceiling fallen in. She was just coming to him when another shock, worse than any before, dashed the door against his hand and foot, bruising them both. But Mrs. Bickersteth managed to cross the room, though it trembled, and shuddered, and swerved, in a way that words are wholly powerless to describe. As she did so the same shock which dashed the door on my father burst open the large windows behind her looking on the road, and with an awful crash threw down the chimney, which was built against the wall of their room, hurling it through the ceiling of the drawing-room, and wrecking that room completely.
    She and my father then remained under the doorway until the house was still. The worst shock lasted two and a half minutes, and it was scarcely over when my brother came up to see if they had been injured, saying he had never been so alarmed by any earthquake since he came to Japan. His room was on the ground floor, and he had left it and had run towards the front door, in order to escape into the garden. The chimney fell in as he passed the drawing-room door, and on opening it for a moment he saw that the room was a wreck open to the sky. He ran on into the garden, where Arch-deacon Warren had already taken refuge. They felt the earth reeling under them, a strong proof of the violence of the shock, as an earthquake which will vibrate most unpleasantly in a house will not be felt at all in the open air.
    The two Miss Warrens, who slept together in a room opposite my father’s, rushed out into the garden directly the earthquake began, but on the opposite side to that where the Archdeacon was standing with my brother. In the strong instinct of self-preservation aroused by an earthquake it is almost impossible to decide on the how, when, or where of an escape. But it was certainly a great mercy that they did not stay in their room, for just after they left it their large wardrobe fell down, pushing their bed before it, and had they been there it would have injured them severely.
    Meantime I was in Miss Tristram’s house (the Bishop Poole’s Girls’ School). Some alterations were being made in the dining-room, drawing-room, and the bedrooms above them. Miss Tristram had therefore kindly given up her own bedroom to me, and was sleeping on the other side of the quadrangle. Miss Bolton’s room was also a long way off, so I was quite alone, and within reach of nobody, either Japanese or English, when the earthquake began. I shall never forget how the intense horror grew upon me as second by second went past, and each one seemed worse than the last. The first sound was like a heavy dray being driven under the windows. I was in bed reading, and the maid had just brought in a cup of tea. Like my father, I was not really alarmed at first, only thinking to myself, “Another earthquake,” expecting it would stop, like those at Tokyo, before I had time to realize it had begun. But I found soon enough this was something entirely different. On it went, every window and wall creaking, swaying, rattling, until in utter terror I rushed from my room, thinking I would go downstairs into the quadrangle. But when I reached the staircase the very steps reeled before me, and I dared not go down into the narrow hall below. A sort of horror lest I should be crushed in it turned me aside to some empty rooms, through one of which I reached a long verandah running round the house. Here, to my great relief, I met one of the missionaries (Miss Bolton), and remained with her until the earthquake was over. The quadrangle was full of the school girls, screaming with terror; but no sound reached us from the outside streets until the earthquake ceased; and then a sort of prolonged wail seemed to go up from the city. We returned to our rooms, and saw many people rushing down the road; and a squadron of soldiers passed who had evidently been sent to keep order. Miss Tristram was on her knees when the earthquake began; she was knocked over, but sustained no injury, and as soon as possible came to see if I was also unhurt. We all dressed as quickly as we could, and long before we had finished Miss Warren kindly came to tell us that nobody at their house was injured, though the house itself was a wreck.
    We each one felt we had been preserved in imminent danger, for had the earthquake happened the night before, the drawing-room would have been occupied; and if the chimney by my father’s room had fallen to the right instead of to the left, he and Mrs. Bickersteth must inevitably have been crushed. Also, as regards myself, a wardrobe stood just above my bed, and it or the chimney might easily have fallen, as happened in the Warrens’ house at the same moment.
    We soon had messages from all the other missionaries to say they were also quite safe, though no less than seven chimneys had fallen in the Concession. The family of Mr. Fyson, the Principal of the Divinity College, could tell of a very remarkable escape. Directly the earthquake began Mrs. Fyson told the nurse to carry the baby into the garden while she followed with her other children. As the nurse crossed the courtyard she fell over one of the stepping-stones, probably through a vibration of the earthquake, and all the others following close behind fell upon her! But by the unwelcome delay they avoided a heavy chimney which crashed down in front of them, and the children escaped with a few bruises. If they had gone on another two yards they would have been crushed.
    About 8.30 A.M. I went to the Archdeacon’s house, and found young Mr. Warren already engaged in photographing the drawing-room, and the others waiting for breakfast in a little back room, as it was feared the dining-room chimney might collapse at any moment. The house looked exactly as if it had been bombarded. It was much older and less strongly built than the Girls’ School, and had suffered more severely from the shock. The walls of the staircase were marked with great patches where the plaster had come down, and the fallen furniture, and, above all, the wrecked drawing-room, looked desolate indeed.
    But the Archdeacon and his daughters made the very best of everything, truly burying all regret for personal losses in intense thankfulness that no member of the Mission nor any of our party had been injured.
    News now began to come in from the city. We heard first that a large bridge over the river near the Archdeacon’s house had been badly damaged. It was a slightly arched wooden one, supported on heavy piles; but the earth had evidently opened in the bed of the river beneath, for instead of being arched it had now partially collapsed in the centre. A straw rope was stretched across each end, and the police only allowed one or two people to go over at a time. Much worse news than the state of this bridge followed, viz.: that a large foreign-built factory had fallen in like a pack of cards, killing thirty of its employés and wounding many others. It was always kept open at night; but the night staff had left and those on duty by day had not all arrived, or the loss of life would have been much more serious. The following account of the disaster was given in the leading Kobe newspaper (The Hyogo News) of October 29th:

    “Arriving at Osaka we made for the Naniwa, the scene of the terrible disaster, which rumour, with its wonted exaggeration, had magnified into 300 killed. Fortunately it was only a tenth of that number who were thus suddenly hurried into eternity, but the catastrophe was none the less appalling. En route one could notice that almost every solid house had sustained more or less damage. Telegraph poles were out of the perpendicular, walls cracked, chimneys serrated, and leaning at peculiar angles. One big smoke-stack near the Naniwa Mill was frightfully cracked and disjointed, but still stood, though in a very precarious position.
    “The road to the mill as we neared it was thronged with spectators coming from, or going to, the scene of the disaster. Some were relatives, whose cheeks and eyes betrayed their loss, while all spoke in awed tones, remarkably contrasting with Japanese wonted vivacity. The view from the bend in the road where we first caught sight of the mill was one of desolation. The roof had disappeared, and jagged portions of the walls stood tottering. The mill was a three-storeyed one, with a serrated roof, the span between the walls being 120 feet, the walls themselves being only a brick and a half thick. There were no iron rods going through the walls and riveted outside, as there are in buildings of a similar size in England, the beams resting merely on small granite supports protruding from the thin wall, instead of being built into the wall. Consequently, when the big shock came, and the walls oscillated, the huge weight of the machinery pulled the roof downwards, and, slipping out of the supports, it fell with a crash, knocking the northern wall outwards.
    “There were some seven hundred people at work in the mill at the time, but on experiencing the [first] shock most of them managed to escape. Others were just making their exit when the crash came, and it was on the exit side that the wall fell, burying under its tons of brick and plaster the numerous unfortunate victims. It thundered through the second and first floors on the northern side, carrying away almost the whole length for a width of about 40 feet. There, piled up in inextricable confusion, were carding and spinning frames, nuts, screws, fragments of cotton, rafters, and human bodies in one indescribable mass. The cries of the wounded, the frantic shouting of anxious relatives, complemented the sickening spectacle, a spectacle only less mournful than that which was presented a little later, when relatives, pale-eyed mothers, and weeping children sought to recognize or identify the battered corpses laid out in the drying-room, their ghastly features, some crushed beyond recognition, looking more sickening in their white shrouds. And over all was the hush, the awe, the solemnity of death. ...”

    To return to Archdeacon Warren’s house. We were still gathered round the breakfast-table when Mr. Fyson came in to say that he should fully understand if my father did not now feel able to address the Divinity students, as it had been previously planned he should do at 9 A.M. But my father said that if the students were ready he would certainly keep to the plan; and he gave them two addresses, the first in their respective class-rooms, on reading, Euclid, etc., and the second, in a larger room, on “The Divinity of Our Lord.” ...
    While my father was at the Divinity School my brother went out to telegraph inquiries to Tokyo as to our friends there. He received no answer from them, and in time we learned that all telegraphic communication between Osaka and the north had been cut off, and the railway by which we had travelled only the previous week had been broken in a dozen places.
    Later in the morning we started in jinrikshas with Archdeacon Warren to visit the C.M.S. High School for Boys on the other side of the city, which had been lately built and opened, chiefly through funds provided by the Rev. F. E. Wigram. The road did not take us near the factories, and the only very noticeable mark of the recent earthquake were the litters we passed now and then, in which the wounded or dead were being carried to their homes. The streets of the city seemed very quiet, the people showing wonderful self-control, though the sad and utterly hopeless look on some of their faces made one realize what it must be to have sorrow and death so close, and yet no comfort from religion to help in this world or the next.
    When we arrived at the High School, a large building on the outskirts of Osaka, we found our hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Price (the Principal and his wife), and their guests thinking and talking of little else but the events of the morning. They had rushed out of doors, but neither they nor any of the boys had sustained any injury. After luncheon we went all over the school house, and heard the boys, about fifty in number, translate into English, and work out a problem in Euclid. We also visited their dining-room and dormitories, and on returning to the large schoolroom, my father made a speech to the assembled school, to which one of the boys returned a very grateful answer in English.

Mary Bickersteth, Japan As We Saw It, 1893

Interior of the Naniwa Mill

The Great Earthquake in Japan, October 28th, 1891. Being a full description of the disasters resulting from the recent terrible catastrophe, taken from the accounts in the “Hyogo News” by its Special Correspondent, and from other sources, 1892

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