#TBT From The NFPA Archives: 1934 Tragedy of Hakodate, Japan

Blog Post created by jrodowicz Employee on Mar 21, 2019

On March 21, 1934, the city of Hakodate, Japan was overwhelmed by a conflagration that destroyed more than half of the city’s buildings and caused the loss of more than two thousand lives.

While fires and conflagrations were not unusual in the seaside community, the weather conditions that occurred on this particular date made this incident particularly tragic. There was a heavy rain that day that later changed to snow. As the afternoon progressed the snow was accompanied by a gradually increasing southwest wind which reached more than 60 miles per hour by 6pm. Added to these conditions were short circuits in the city lighting system.

From NFPA Quarterly v. 28, no. 2 (1934):

“The fire had its origin on the second floor of a two-story wooden building occupied by a Shinto priest in the southeastern part of the city. It is supposed to have been caused by burning embers from an open fireplace, which was exposed when the roof of the house was blown off by the wind. This section of the city is in a low place and the fire was first observed from the fire tower at the fire brigade headquarters more than a mile away, although there were street fire alarm boxes installed in the immediate vicinity. Three engines and three hose trucks were dispatched to the scene of the fire as promptly as possible. Some delay was experienced, however, due to the fact that most of the men and equipment of the brigade were engaged at fires caused by the short circuiting of electric wires in various other parts of the city…

Because of the direction of the wind at the start of the fire many people made their escape to Omori Beach, where they were trapped when the wind suddenly shifted toward the west. About 550 persons were burned, drowned or frozen when the fire overtook them at this point.

The greatest loss of life occurred at Shinkawa when the three bridges which spanned the Shinkawa River burned or broke under the weight of the panic-striken throngs. This cut off all escape to the north and 600 persons burned to death in this areas. Severe loss of life also occurred in the section burned at Takamori-cho, at Sunayama-cho some 400 persons who could not pass the mountain were all burned to death and at Shinkawa Beach 120 were burned, drowned, or frozen to death.”


For more information regarding this and other moments in fire history, please feel free to reach out to the NFPA Research Library & Archives. 

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