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Japan And Its Disastrous Earthquakes And Volcanoes

( Originally Published 1906 )

The Island Empire Subject to Convulsions of Nature—Legends of Ancient Disturbances—Famous Volcano of Fuji-yama Formed in One Night—More Than One Hundred Volcanoes in Japan—Two Hundred and Thirty-two Eruptions Recorded—Devastation of Thriving Towns and Busy Cities—The Capital a Sufferer—Scenes of Desolation after the Most Recent Great Earthquakes.

JAPAN may be considered the home of the volcano and the earthquake. Few months pass there without one or more earth shocks of considerable force, besides numerous lighter ones of too slight a nature to be worthy of remark. Japanese histories furnish many records of these phenomena.

There is an ancient legend of a great earthquake in 286 B.C., when Mount Fuji rose from the bottom of the sea in a single night. This is the highest and most famous mountain of the country. It rises more than 12,000 feet above the water level, and is in shape like a cone; the crater is 500. feet deep. It is regarded by the natives as a sacred mountain, and large numbers of pilgrims make the ascent to the summit at the commencement of the summer. The apex is shaped somewhat like an eight-petaled lotus flower, and offers from three to five peaks to view from different directions. Though now apparently extinct, it was in former times an active volcano, and the histories of the country mention several very disastrous eruptions. Japanese poets never weary in celebrating the praises of Fuji-san, or Fuji-yama, as it is variously called, and its conical form is one of the most familiar in Japanese painting and decorative art.

As japan has not yet been scientifically explored through-out, and, moreover, as there is considerable difficulty in defining the kind of mountain to be regarded as a volcano, it is impossible to give an absolute statement as to the number of volcanoes in the country. If under the term volcano be included all mountains which have been in a state of eruption within the 'historical period, those which have a true volcanic form, together with those that still exhibit on their flanks mat-ter ejected from a crater, we may conclude that there are at least 100 such mountains in the Japanese empire. Of this number about forty-eight are still active.

Altogether about 232 eruptions have been recorded, and of these the greater number took place in the southern districts. This may perhaps be accounted for by the fact that Japanese civilization advanced from the south. In consequence of this, records were made of various phenomena in the south when the northern regions were still unknown and unexplored.

The most famous of the active volcanoes is Asama-yama in Shinano. The earliest eruption of this mountain of which record now exists seems to have been in 165o. After that it was only feebly active for 133 years, when there occurred a very severe eruption in 1783. Even as late as 1870 there was a considerable emission of volcanic matter, at which time also violent shocks of earthquake were felt at Yokohama. The crater is very deep, with irregular rocky walls of a sulphur character, from apertures in which fumes are constantly sent forth.

Probably the earliest authentic instance of an earthquake in japan is that which is said to have occurred in 416 A.D., when the imperial palace at Kioto was thrown to the ground. Again, in 599, the buildings throughout the province of Yamato were all destroyed, and special prayers were ordered to be offered up to the deity of earthquakes. In 679 a tremendous shock caused many fissures to open in the provinces of Chikuzen and Chikugo, in Kiushiu; the largest of these chasms was over four miles in length and about twenty feet in width. In 829 the northern province of Dewa was visited in a similar manner; the castle of Akita was overthrown, deep rifts were formed in the ground in every direction, and the Akita river was dried up.

To descend to more recent instances, in 1702 the lofty walls of the outside and inside moats of the castle of Yeddo were destroyed, tidal waves broke along the coast in the vicinity, and the road leading through the famous pass of Hakone, in the hills to the east of Fuji-yama was closed up by the alteration in the surface of the earth. A period of unusual activity was between the years 178o and 1800, a time when there was great activity elsewhere on the globe. It was during this period that Mount Unsen was blown up, and from 27,000 to 53,000 persons (according to different accounts) perished; that many islands were formed in the Satsuma sea; that Sakurajima threw out so much pumice material that it was possible to walk a distance of twenty-three miles upon the floating debris in the sea; and that Asama ejected so many blocks of stone—one of which is said to have been forty-two feet in diameter—and a lava-stream sixty-eight kilometres in length.

In 1854 an earthquake destroyed the town of Shimoda, in the province of Idzu, and a Russian frigate, lying in the harbor at the time, was so severely damaged by the waves caused by the shock that she had to be abandoned. In 1855 came a great earthquake which was felt most severely at Yedo, though its destructive power extended for some distance to the west along the line of the Tokaido. It is stated that on this occasion there were in all 14,241 dwelling houses and 1,649 fire proof store houses overturned in the city, and a destructive fire which raged at the same time further increased the loss of life and property.

What was possibly the gravest disaster of its class in this land of volcanoes, since the terrible eruptions which came in the twenty years ending in 'Soo, occurred in the Bandaisan region in northern Japan, on July 15, 1888. At about eight o'clock in the morning of that day, almost in the twinkling of an eye, Little Bandaisan was blown into the air, and wiped out of the map of Japan. A few moments later its debris had buried or devastated the surrounding country for miles, and a dozen or more of upland hamlets had been overwhelmed in the earthen deluge, or wrecked by other phenomena attending the outburst. Several hundreds of people had met with sudden and terrible death; scores of others had been injured; and the long roll of disaster included the destruction of horses and cattle, damming up of rivers, and laying waste of large tracts of rice-land and mulberry groves.

A small party was organized in Tokio to visit the scene. As the travelers approached the mountain, they were told that twenty miles in a straight line from Bandai-san no noise or earthquake was experienced on the 15th, but mist and gloom prevailed for about seven hours, the result of a shower of impalpable blue-gray ash, which fell to a depth of half an inch, and greatly puzzled the inhabitants. An ascent of about 3,000 feet was made to the back of the newly formed crater, so as to obtain a clear view of it and of the country which had been overwhelmed. Only on nearing the end of the ascent was the party again brought face to face with signs of the explosion. Here, besides the rain of :fine, gray, ashen mud which had fallen on and still covered the ground and all vegetation, they came upon a number of freshly opened pits, evidently in some way the work of the volcano. Ascending the last steep rise to the ridge behind Little Bandai-san, signs of the great disaster grew in number and intensity.

The London Times correspondent, who was one of the party, wrote: "Fetid vapors swept over us, emanating; from evil looking pools. Great trees, torn up by their roots, lay all around; and the whole face of the mountain wore the look of having been withered by some fierce and baleful blast. A few minutes further and we had gained the crest of the narrow ridge, and now, for the first time, looked forth upon the sight we had come to see. I hardly know which to pronounce the more astonishing, the prospect that now opened before our eyes or the suddenness with which it burst upon us. To the former no more fitting phrase, perhaps, can be applied than that of absolute, unredeemed desolation—so intense, so sad, and so bewildering that I despair of describing it adequately in detail.

"On our right, a little above us, rose the in-curved rear wall of what, eight days before, had been Sho-Bandai-san, a ragged, almost sheer cliff, falling, with scarce a break, to a depth of fully boo feet. In front of the cliff everything had been blown away and scattered over the face of the country before it, in a roughly fan-shaped deposit of for the most part unknown depth—deep enough, however, to erase every land-mark, and conceal every feature of the deluged area. At the foot of the cliff, clouds of suffocating steam rose ceaselessly and angrily, and with loud roaring, from two great fissures in the crater bed, and now and then assailed us with their hellish odor. To our eyes, the base, denuded by the explosion, seemed to cover a space of between three and four square miles. This, however, can only be rough conjecture. Equally vague must be all present attempts to determine the volume of the disrupted matter. Yet, if we assume, as a very moderate calculation, that the mean depth of the debris covering a buried area of thirty square miles is not less than fifteen feet, we find that the work achieved by this great mine of Nature's firing was the upheaval and wide distribution of no fewer than 700,000,000 tons of earth, rocks, and other ponderous material. The real figure is probably very much greater."

The desolation beyond the crater, and the mighty mass thrown out by the volcano which covered the earth, were almost incredible. "Down the slopes of Bandai-san, across the valley of the Nagase-gawa, choking up the river, and stretching beyond it to the foot-hills, five or six miles away swept a vast, billowy sheet of ash-covered earth or mud, obliterating every foot of the erstwhile smiling landscape. Here and there the eyes rested on huge, disordered heaps of rocky debris, in the distance resembling nothing so much as the giant, concrete, black substructure of some modern break-water. It was curious to see on the farther side the sharp line of demarkation between the brown sea of mud and the green forests on which it had encroached; or, again, the lakes formed in every tributary glen of the Nagase-gawa by the massive dams so suddenly raised against the passage of their stream waters. One lake was conspicuous among the rest. It was there that the Nagase-gawa itself had been arrested at its issue from a narrow pass by a monster barrier of disrupted matter thrown right across its course. Neither living thing nor any sign of life could be discerned over the whole expanse. All was dismally silent and solitary. Beneath it, however, lay half a score of hamlets, and hundreds of corpses of men, women and children, who had been overtaken by swift and painful deaths."

Although the little village of Nagasaka was comparatively uninjured, nearly all its able-bodied inhabitants lost their lives in a manner which shows the extraordinary speed with which the mud-stream flowed. When Little Bandai-san blew up, and hot ashes and sand began to fall, the young and strong fled panic-stricken across the fields, making for the opposite hills by paths well known to all. A minute later came a thick darkness, as of midnight. Blinded by this, and dazed by the falling debris and other horrors of the scene, their steps, probably also their senses, failed them. And before the light returned every soul was caught by a swift bore of soft mud, which, rushing down the valley bed, overwhelmed them in a fate more horrible and not less sudden than that of Pharaoh and his host. None escaped save those who stayed at home—mostly the old and very young.

A terrible earthquake convulsed central Japan on the morning of October 25, 1891. The waves of disturbance traversed thirty-one provinces, over which the earth's crust was violently shaken for ten minutes together, while slighter shocks were felt for a distance of 400 miles to the north, and traveled under the sea a like distance, making themselves felt in a neighboring island. In Tokio itself, though 170 miles from the center of disturbance, it produced an earthquake. greater than any felt for nearly forty years, lasting twelve minutes. Owing, however, to the character of the movement, which was a comparatively slow oscillation, the damage was confined to the wrecking of some roofs and chimneys. Very different were its results in the central zone of agitation, concerning which a correspondent wrote as follows: _

"There was a noise as of underground artillery, a shake, a second shake, and in less than thirty seconds the Nagoya Gifu plain, covering an area of 1,200 square miles, became a sea of waves, more than 40,000 houses fell, and thousands of people lost their lives. The sequence of events was approximately as follows: To commence at Tokio, the capital, which is some 200 miles from the scene of the disaster, on October 25th, very early in the morning, the inhabitants were alarmed by a long, easy swaying of the ground, and many sought refuge outside their doors. There were no shocks, but the ground moved back and forth, swung round, and rose and fell with the easy, gentle motion of a raft upon an ocean swell. Many became dizzy, and some were seized with nausea."

These indications, together with the movements of the seismographs, denoted a disturbance at a considerable distance, but the first surmise that it was located under the Pacific Ocean, was unfortunately incorrect. The scene of the catastrophe was indicated only by tidings from its outskirts, as all direct news was cut off by the interruption of railway and telegraphic communication. An exploratory and relief party started on the second day from Tokio, not knowing how far they would be able to proceed by train, and the correspondent who accompanied them thus described his experiences:

"Leaving Tokio by a night train, early next morning we were at Hamamatsu, 137 miles distant from Tokio, on the outside edge of the destructive area. Here, although the motion had been sufficiently severe to destroy some small warehouses, to displace the posts supporting the heavy roof of a temple, and to ruffle a few tiles along the eaves of the houses, nothing serious had occurred. At one point, owing to the lateral spreading of an embankment, there had been a slight sinkage of the line, and we had to proceed with caution. Crossing the entrance to the beautiful lake of Hamana Ko, which tradition says was joined to the sea by the breaking of a sand-spit by the sea waves accompanying an earthquake in 1498, we rose from the rice fields and passed over a country of hill and rock. Further along the line signs of violent movement became more numerous. Huge stone lanterns at the entrances of temples had been rotated or overturned, roofs had lost their tiles, especially along the ridge, sinkages in the line became numerous, and although there was yet another rock barrier between us and the plain of great destruction, it was evident that we were in an area where earth movements had been violent."

The theatre of maximum destruction was a plain, dotted with villages and homesteads, supporting, under the garden-like culture of Japan, 500 and 800 inhabitants to the square mile, and containing two cities, Nagoya and Gifu, with populations respectively of 162,000 and 30,000, giving probably a round total of half a million human beings. Within about twelve miles of Gifu, a subsidence on a vast scale took place, engulfing a whole range of hills, while over lesser areas the soil in many places slipped down, carrying with it dwellings and their inmates. Gifu was a total wreck, devastated by ruin and conflagration, causing the destruction of half its houses. Ogaki, nine miles to the west, fared even worse, for here only 113 out of 4,434 houses remained standing, and one-tenth of the population were killed or wounded. In one temple, where service was being held, only two out of the entire congregation escaped.

Nagoya, too, suffered heavily, and thousands of houses col-lapsed. The damage at this place was produced by three violent shocks in quick succession, preceded by a deep, booming sound. During the succeeding 206 hours, 6,600 earth spasms of greater or less intensity were felt at increasing intervals, occurring in the beginning probably at the rate of one a minute. The inhabitants were driven to bivouac in rude shelters-. in the streets, and there was great suffering among the injured, to whom it was impossible to give proper care for many days after the disaster. Some estimates placed the figure of the killed and wounded as high as 24,000, whilst not less than 300,000 were rendered homeless.

Owing to the frequency of earthquake shocks in japan, the study of their causes and effects has had a great deal of attention there since the introduction of modern science into the island empire. The Japanese have proved as energetic in this direction as they are in purely material progress on the lines of western civilization, and already they are recognized as the most advanced of all people in their study of seismology and its accompanying phenomena.



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