We have seen some astonishing television pictures of a raging tsunami, but we still have no real idea of how many people may have been killed in Friday’s earthquake in Japan. The town of Rikuzentakada is almost completely underwater, while at the port of Minamisanriku, around 10,000 people are missing, though the authorities did manage to evacuate about 7,500.
Japan is no stranger to earthquakes. Back in 1703, Tokyo – then known as Edo – was devastated in a quake that killed an estimated 150,000 people, and there was a similar death toll in the one that struck the city just before noon on September 1, 1923.
Tokyo has always been a city of close-packed houses in narrow alleys, and in 1923 they were mainly built of wood and paper. Many families were cooking on open stoves, and when these fell over, they started fires all over the city, which then combined into furious conflagrations, which claimed more victims than the earthquake itself.
When the rebuilding began, there were suggestions that Japan’s capital should be moved to a new safer site, but people decided they wanted to go on living where they always had.
*I was interviewed about the earthquake on the BBC’s Three Counties Radio, and you can hear the interview via this link