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Shibusawa Eiichi and the Great Kanto Earthquake
Shibusawa Eiichi and the Great Kanto Earthquake
 

Shiryokan dayori (Museum News) No. 326

Shibusawa Eiichi Memorial Foundation Bulletin Seien (July, 2010)

Miho NAGAI, Curator

Seien (July, 2010)
Seien

Shibusawa Eiichi and the Great Kanto Earthquake

This year is the third installment of the Shibusawa Memorial Museum’s thematic exhibition series “Thinking of Peace.” The series aims to reflect on peace by examining Shibusawa Eiichi’s efforts to foster international friendship and world peace.

As 2010 marks 80 years since the completion of reconstruction following the Great Kanto Earthquake, this year’s exhibition focuses on Shibusawa’s work in this area. The exhibition showcases the various projects Eiichi undertook to ensure the return of peace to the lives of the people.

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When the Earthquake Struck

Eiichi at the shelter of the Saitama Prefecture Rescue Committee November 17, 1923 (Private collection)
Eiichi at the shelter of the Saitama Prefecture Rescue Committee
November 17, 1923 (Private collection)

The magnitude 7.9 earthquake that struck the Kanto region on September 1, 1923 inflicted large-scale damage on the modern metropolises of Tokyo and Yokohama.

Shibusawa Eiichi was in the Shibusawa office in Tokyo’s Kabutocho when the earthquake struck. He had been working in his study but was able to escape with the rest of the staff as a large mirror fell off on the mantelpiece and the chandelier fell to the ground. It is said that the walls crumbled and the entire building slanted violently to one side. It was a miracle that Eiichi was able to escape without injury.

Eiichi planned to move documents from the office the next day but the building burnt to the ground that evening in one of the fires that ravaged the city. The fire destroyed not only important business documents, but also documents of historical importance such as those used in the compilation of the biography of Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Eiichi later deeply regretted his lack of foresight in regards to the threat of fire.

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At a Time Like This

Fortunately the Shibusawa residence in Asukayama sustained only minor damage but Eiichi’s children worried about their father’s safety as he was 83 years old and there were rumors that the homes of wealthy persons were being set on fire. His children tried to encourage Eiichi to flee to his hometown of Fukaya, in Saitama prefecture, but Eiichi refused. He told his children that “helping at a time like this can give an old man like me a reason to live,” and became actively involved in many relief and reconstruction projects. For example, he obtained rice from Saitama prefecture and distributed it as emergency rations to the local community of Takinogawa from his Asukayama home.

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The Relief and Rescue Operations of the Kyochokai

On September 4, a messenger from the Home Minister, Goto Shinpei, arrived at Eiichi’s home on horseback. Addressed to the vice president of the Kyochokai (Harmony Society), the simple missive he carried requested Eiichi go to the home minister’s residence that afternoon. The Kyochokai was a labor organization with the goal of fostering cooperation between laborers and capitalists. Eiichi had been involved since its foundation. Goto requested the Society’s help in relief operations for those affected by the disaster and Eiichi readily agreed. He travelled back and forth between the Kyochokai and the Home Ministry, working hard for the establishment of camps for displaced people, emergency rice distribution centers, information desks, notice boards, and temporary hospitals.

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Daishinsai Zengokai

On September 9, roughly forty entrepreneurs gathered in the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce. Eiichi chaired the meeting and proposed the formation of an organization of volunteers from the private sector who would work together to provide relief and reconstruction aid. The same day, with the participation of volunteers from the House of Lords and the Lower House, the Daishinsai Zengokai (Great Earthquake Disaster Rehabilitation Association) was formed. The Association set their goals as “helping victims and rebuilding the economy” and began investigating needs and collecting donations.

The underlying idea behind the establishment of the Zengokai was Eiichi’s belief that the private sector was uniquely able to respond with speed and detailed attention to those affected by the disaster. On behalf of the Association he began to actively solicit donations from Japanese and foreign businessmen. Through this type of fundraising the Zengokai was able to provide funds for many projects including the establishment of orphanages and nurseries for the children of laborers, as well as to provide assistance to foreigners affected by the disaster.

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Teito Fukko Shingikai

On September 16, Eiichi was invited to join the Teito Fukko Shingikai (Imperial Capital Reconstruction Council) by Prime Minister Yamamoto Gonbee. Eiichi heard the Council would be a high level affair and planned to refuse the invitation based on his rule of not becoming involved in politics. The prime minister’s enthusiasm, however, broke Eiichi’s resolve and he accepted the position.

The government had established the Teito Fukkoin (Imperial Capital Reconstruction Agency) as their department in charge of disaster reconstruction and the Imperial Capital Reconstruction Council was the Agency’s advisory committee. Composed of a range of men including cabinet ministers and influential men from the private sector, the Council was thrown into disarray when the non-cabinet members questioned the scale of the Agency’s budget.

Amidst this confusion and contrary to the Agency’s plans to focus on city planning, Eiichi argued that the development of the port area was vital to the economic recovery of the city of Tokyo. Eiichi’s focus on harbor construction dates back to his involvement with a precursor to the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce in the late 19th century. All of Eiichi’s actions were supported and nurtured by his feelings on and sense of responsibility towards the establishment of Tokyo as a modern city. The beliefs behind Eiichi’s actions had not changed as he continued to revere Matsudaira Sadanobu, the man who had established the Edo-machi kaisho (Edo Town Office) which had links to the later Tokyo Chamber of Commerce.

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Spiritual Recovery

Eiichi came to espouse the so-called “divine punishment theory,” advancing the belief that the unprecedented disaster that had struck Tokyo had been sent as a warning to the world. He preached the necessity of spartan measures for recovery, pointing out that the people had weak spirits and degenerate morals, and that life had become extravagant and frivolous.

The Shibusawa Memorial Museum is holding the special exhibition “Shibusawa Eiichi and the Great Kanto Earthquake: Looking to Reconstruction” as part of the thematic exhibition series “Thinking of Peace” from August 7 to September 23, 2010. We hope the items on display will provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about Shibusawa Eiichi’s involvement in reconstruction projects . We look forward to welcoming you to the museum.

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