THE great KANTO earthquake on 1 September 1923 levelled a Japanese port, threw shipping into chaos and transformed vessels into shelters for hordes of refugees. The earthquake triggered a tsunami and deadly firestorms throughout the port city. The estimated death toll is upwards of 140,000.

The Daily Commercial News followed the disaster and the aftermath throughout September 1923, documenting the devastation at the port of Yokohama and the consequences for trade.

“There can be no doubt now that the loss to the Japanese nation is an enormous one, both in lives and money,” DCN wrote in the days following the earthquake.

“The great port of Yokohama is demolished, and that will affect the trade of Australian and Far Eastern shipping companies. It will mean that for some time to come passenger traffic will be a dead loss to the shipowner.

“The loss to Japan is stated to be £1,000,000,000, and if the reports of the damage are anywhere within reason, the loss is not overestimated. Coupled with this loss must come disorganisation of shipping services to South-Eastern Japanese ports, for Yokohama will be unapproachable for some time to come, and when it is possible to enter the port there will not be facilities for shipping.

“That practically means that Yokohama and Tokio [sic] will be isolated from overseas services. The nearest ports of importance to Yokohama are Nagoya and Kobe, and, as rail connection is severed, transportation of goods for the south-east means another problem.

“Our exports to Japan have stood around three to four millions for some years; but in 1919-20 we exported no less than £7,229,501 worth of goods to Kobe, Nagasaki, and Yokohama. As Australia does a greater trade with the south-eastern portion of Japan, it will be seen that this frightful disaster to the Japanese people will be reflected in our trade, and not only our trade, but that of the whole world.”


DCN soon began to receive and relay cable messages from Japan, containing requests for assistance and updates from shipping lines. But before the messages started flowing in, the publication pointed to Japan’s initial communication of the earthquake as an example of how radio transmission is used in disasters, and its importance at sea.

“Certainly we have our cyclones, but these cannot be compared with the menace of ice floes and tidal waves,” DCN wrote. “Most of our disasters have occurred through ships hugging the coasts, either by intention or miscalculation.

“In Australia we are singularly free from the frightful havoc caused by earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods. It must be admitted that we get a minimum of such disasters in comparison with the havoc caused in other countries.

“At present we have a concrete instance of what radio-telegraphy can do in saving life and property. But for this scientific harnessing of air-currents in transmitting information, we would have but a very meagre idea of what happened in Tokyo and Yokohama during the past few days. The fact that Japan was able to communicate with the outside world by radio saved many thousands of lives.

“By such disasters as this one in Japan we learn that communication can save many lives and much money for the nation, not only on land, but also on the sea,” DCN wrote.


DCN on 8 September published one cable message sent from the Kobe Chamber of Commerce to the Sydney Chamber of Commerce that may have helped launch a relief effort.

Gladly extend every facility and convenience possible for those desiring to handle export import cargo through Kobe in view of great calamity having overtaken Yokohama, the message read.

“It will, therefore, be seen that the Kobe Chamber of Commerce is prepared in every way to facilitate trade to and from the devastated portions of Japan,” DCN wrote.

“In case any of our traders are in doubt as to what is to be done in respect of shipments intended or ordered for Yokohama or Tokyo, they cannot do better than communicate direct with the Kobe Chamber of Commerce, which would no doubt find ways and means of clearing up the position and placing the desired procedure beyond doubt.”

The Commonwealth government provided a £60,000 for the relief of distress in Japan, and the Commonwealth Shipping Board was tasked with providing vessels and attending to shipping arrangements.

Later that month, DCN reported the logistics of food and relief shipments to Japan. Comptrollers in each state who received consignments ahead of export were to acknowledge receipt of donations via newspaper columns.

“All arrangements for shipping space will be made by the Commonwealth Shipping Board’s representative in each state, and the controller of stores has been asked to keep this official and the co-ordination officer advised.”


DCN continued to publish cable messages updating the Australian maritime community on vessel movements and the fate of shipping office personnel. An urgent coded cable from the Nippon Yusen Kaisha Branch Office in Kobe contained a few words that DCN described as mutilated.

The scrambled message confirmed the NYK office in Tokyo had escaped fire but was so badly damaged that it was useless. No head staff died, but some were injured and around eight office staff were missing. Family members also went missing or died, but some were safely sheltered on a NYK steamer in Yokohama.

Another cable suggested a ship had vanished, but it later turned up with refugees on board.

“The general manager at Sydney for the Messageries Maritimes Co. has received a cable from the head office that the steamer Andre Lebon, which was at Yokohama during the earthquake has not yet arrived at Kobe, and that it is impossible to communicate with her,” DCN wrote.

“It is probable that she was undergoing the usual overhaul before beginning the return journey, and for this reason may not yet have left Yokohama.

“But a vessel coming from Yokohama gave our Kobe agent excellent news of the Andre Lebon, and stated she has many refugees on board, including our manager at Yokohama and his family and our chief clerk,” DCN wrote.

The Australian shipping line Burns, Philp & Co received another cable from Japan advising NYK had received more than 8000 refugees on board their vessels in Yokohama. “This firm is informed that the N.Y.K. steamer Yoshino Maru was the first rescue steamer to arrive at Yokohama from Kobe with a full cargo of foodstuffs, and arrived there when the refugees were nearly starving,” DCN wrote. “Furthermore, it is understood that 21 vessels have been despatched to Yokohama with foodstuffs, and returned to Kobe with over 10,000 refugees.

“These vessels have commenced a regular service between Kobe and Yokohama, and the service is maintained twice every three days with the famous N.Y.K. fast steamers Nagasaki Maru and Shanghai Maru. It is indicated that the N.Y.K. are carrying a large number of Chinese from Yokohama to Kobe and Shanghai free of charge.”


 In Yokohama Harbor, the Empress of Australia would shelter refugees after the quake. 

Some ships not recognised in the pages of the DCN in September 1923 deserve mention in our pages now. RMS Empress of Australia (a Canadian ocean liner) was preparing to depart Yokohama when the earthquake hit. It narrowly escaped disaster – the dock collapsed from under crowds farewelling passengers. A passing ship allided with the ocean liner and it was soon in the path of burning oil moving across the harbour. Empress of Australia went on to rescue 2000 survivors.

The P&O liner Dongola was also in Yokohama at the time, at anchor in the inner harbour. A report from the captain described the ship’s experience in detail.

“At 11.55 a.m. [the] ship commenced to tremble and vibrate violently and on looking towards the shore it was seen that a terrible earthquake was taking place, buildings were collapsing in all directions and in a few minutes nothing could be seen for clouds of dust. When these cleared away fire could be seen starting in many directions and in half an hour the whole city was in flames.”

Dongola is said to have rescued hundreds of survivors and transported them to Kobe.

This article appeared in the September 2023 edition of DCN Magazine