The Burning Poor

Differential Effects

The worst conflagration occurred in the Honjo district of Tokyo, the previous site of an Army Clothing Depot. Here, close to 40,000 people died within 15 minutes – the majority being from poor slum dwellings mentioned in the “Revealing Photography” page of this website.

The Site

As Japan modernized and expanded their military during the Meiji restoration, authorities decided that the Depot was too small to accommodate for the growing needs of the army, and moved the site to a more spacious, affluent area. As the wealthy areas of the city morphed and modernized, the once popular Depot became just an “untidy wedge shaped patch of fifteen acres” (Busch 1962, p.30).  Soon, however, the abandoned lot bustled again – yet this time with screams and cries from the burning poor.

The Fire Tornados

“It began with a ghastly noise, as if coming from deep underground in the direction of the Yasuda family’s forest… Soon after, an “enormous wall of fire… like a tidal wave” as if released from hell itself turned the air “as hot as melting rock” and ignited everything in its path, including scores of trapped people. The cries from humans went from “where is my boy?” to “there is no way to escape” to calm, resigned prayers of “Namu Amidabutsu” as a sense of imminent death descended over the parcel of land” (Schencking 2008, p.301)

The fire was inescapable and left a lasting dent in the hearts of families and friends of those who perished. However, these devastating effects were disproportionately felt. As the case for most disasters, the poor suffered more than the rich.

Poor Perish while Rich Relax

Singed bodies piled on top of each other after a fire tornado ripped through a former Army Clothing Depot in Honjo, Tokyo. Refugees from poor slum dwellings had gathered In this open area to escape fires in their own dense communities.

The majority of people who gathered in the Honjo district were from the urban slum dwellings that were described in the “Revealing Photography” section of this website. Because their own neighborhoods were densely packed, small fires quickly spread throughout their homes. Thus many sought refuge in open areas where fires would have nothing to “feed on”. As a result, tens of thousands of people packed their remaining belongings on handcarts and pushed through crowded streets toward safety. Unfortunately, the once vacant Honjo district was now packed and the whirlwind firestorm killed around 40,000 people in just fifteen minutes (Busch 1962, 80).

“It should not be supposed, however, that anything like the whole of Tokyo was burning” (Busch 1962, 84)

The metropolitan, Western fire department created during the Meiji era effectively extinguished fires in the central, affluent parts of Tokyo. However, since communication was down, the only way that firefighters in the middle of the city were informed of fires making “rapid headway” (Busch 1962, p.81) in poorer communities was by foot. Since the Honjo district, as well as other slum dwellings on the outskirts of the city were too far, they received no help. As the poor burned, those in the center of the city with access to fire-safe buildings and the fire department were “largely unscathed”. One foreigner even recalls watching the scenes of fires from afar as “one of dreadful but undeniable beauty”(Busch 1962, 85).