On November 26, 1866, a horrifying fire devastated the young settlement of Yokohama. The fire has been largely forgotten, but it gave birth to the urban plan that still defines downtown Yokohama today.
In Japanese, the fire is known as the Great Keiō Fire (慶応大火, Keiō Taika). It was also called the Pork Shop Fire (豚屋家事, Butaya Kaji), as it started at a pork restaurant in the Japanese town.
The fire started just before nine in the morning and then quickly spread to the foreign settlement. It continued to burn all day long, until late at night.
Fire fighters were absolutely helpless, and troops encamped in the settlement resorted to blowing up several buildings to stop the fire. It generally had the opposite effect.
The fire was especially devastating to the brothel district of Miyozaki (港崎遊郭), known to the foreign inhabitants as Yoshiwara. It was completely leveled.
Sadly, the people who worked here had no way out. The fire approached through the only entrance way, and the quarter was surrounded by a moat to prevent the women from escaping.
Many tried to escape by laying make-shift bridges over the moat. But in the panic and because of their unwieldy kimono, countless women fell into the water and drowned. Of the 400 people that perished in the fire, the majority were prostitutes.
Several month after the fire, Dutch trading company Carst, Lels & Co. published a notice about the fire in Dutch daily Opregte Haarlemsche Courant. Three of their buildings were destroyed, the company explained. But thankfully they were all insured.
According to the company, the insured loss to Yokohama came to 2 million dollars, an enormous amount at the time. The report ended on a dark note: “To determine the total loss, however, a large sum must be added for uninsured buildings and goods.”1
The enormous loss is not surprising. At the time, Yokohama accounted for approximately 80% of Japan’s foreign trade.2
The fire led to the 3rd Land Treaty (第三回地所規則) between the inhabitants and the Shogunate government. British engineer Richard Henry Brunton (1841-1901) was employed to create a fireproof urban plan for Yokohama.
Amongst other things, Brunton suggested to create Yokohama Park, and a 36-meter wide avenue between the Japanese and foreign settlements, to serve as fire breaks. That street still exists, and is now known as Nihon Ōdori (日本大通り).
The park was completed in 1876. Today, it is the location of Yokohama Stadium. When you search carefully, you can find a stone lantern in the park that functions as a monument to the red light district that was once located here.
There is also a bust of Brunton. He tirelessly watches Nihon Ōdori, and the urban framework that he designed.
Another element of the land treaty was the construction of the Negishi Race Course (根岸競馬場). It was built shortly after the fire and became one of the most popular attractions of the area.
Even Emperor Meiji visited some fourteen times.3 In 1943 (Showa 18), however, the course became the property of the Imperial Armed Forces and horses never raced here again.
We have no photographs of the fire or its aftermath. The fire actually damaged the studio and many negatives of famed photographer Felice Beato (1832–1909), who had settled in Yokohama three years earlier.4
But we do have a detailed report of the fire by Scottish journalist John Reddie Black (1826–1880). Within two days, he published it in The Daily Japan Herald. At the time, he didn’t yet know how bad the death toll really was.5
Black specifically mentions the heroic behavior of the Japanese and Chinese. Especially the servants assisting their employers. Even though they were worried about their own homes, family and friends.
But he had few good words for the British sailors and troops. A sentiment repeated by others in private letters.
Dojima and Sonesaki on both sides of Osaka’s Shijimi River (蜆川) were devastated by the Great Kita Fire of July 31, 1909 (Meiji 42). The river, which played an important part in Osaka culture was filled in with the rubble and forever vanished from Osaka’s townscape.
On July 31, 1909 (Meiji 42) a fire broke out at a knit-wear factory in the northern part of Osaka that would continue to rage for 24 hours. It destroyed 122 ha. (301 acres) of the city, the equivalent of 228 football fields.
At 4:20 in the morning on July 31, 1909 (Meiji 42) a fire broke out at a knit-wear factory in Osaka’s Kita-ku, the northern part of the city. Within hours, a huge area south of Osaka station was engulfed in flames.