Letter: The Destruction of Kobe, Japan in 1938

Written on Thursday, July 7, 1938

Holy cats! Would you like some dramatic historical events in this blog, rather than just incredibly personal uneventful correspondence? Then you have come to the right entry!

The Kobe flood in 1938 makes Wikipedia’s list of deadliest floods, and had a reported death toll of 933. Here’s a Chicago Tribune article from 1938 about the flood which lists a preliminary dead/injured/missing toll of 861.

Just a few comments on things that jumped out at me:

  • Terrific really used to mean something different than it does today. Nothing that happens in this story is terrific in the modern sense, but the word is used a lot in the letter for things that inspire terror or are incredibly powerful. Much like the evolution of awesome, I would guess.
  • This is a very personal narrative. It’s her specific story of living through this disaster and she only occasionally comments on its effects on others. It’s hard to know if she is just reserved about the devastation and death as experienced by others, or if it indeed doesn’t quite feel real to her. She definitely comments more on what “foreigners” (by which she means “foreigners to Japan”) are experiencing and their losses than she does about the experience of the Japanese people she is undoubtedly surrounded by. Sometimes she seems downright callous about that suffering to my modern ear.
  • She says she did not look to see if the gentlemen not wearing pants were wearing undies. I kind of think she did, but that’s not actually my point, which is that she uses “pants” for trousers and “undies” for underwear, despite being British. Is the use of “pants” for underwear in England a modern thing?
  • I admit to some confusion as to the cause of the disaster. At one early point in the letter she says there was a rumour it was the reservoir giving way, then indicates that this was somehow good because it meant she was okay, then says that it wasn’t the reservoir, then later in the letter talks about other reservoirs that might still give way. Was it the/a reservoir? I have no idea from a first reading of this letter. But this Time Magazine article from 1938 says that it was the reservoir.

This letter is typewritten on five pages. Floss says she’s making several copies at once to send to all the people she needs to put in the know, so when she has a specific message to Gwyneth and Will she adds it in handwriting. I have noted these handwritten sections with italics in my transcription.

c/o F. Owston & Co. Ltd.,
Rooms 304 & 305,
Crescent Building,
72 Kyo-nachi,
Kobe – Japan.
Thursday – 7th July, 1938.

Dear Everybody:

My dear G: Many thanks for letter just received. Will reply later. Love to all. Floss. Pleased to hear that Will was able to make use of the shirts.

First of all, I am trying to make seven copies of this letter so that I can send one each to Nell, Auntie Beat & Bella, in addition the three regular copies and Canada, for I know you will all want to hear how I’ve come through this awful catastrophe in Kobe. But first let me explain to Mum that it has been utterly impossible to get the draft off – I’ll see what I can do tomorrow and send it right away – do so hope you’re not waiting for the cash.

Well, to begin with:

It started to rain here on Sunday night – Monday was terrible, as also was Monday night. When I got home on Monday evening I noticed a crack running the length of my house (or garden) and called Hill in to see it – he assured me it was O.K. (Hill, for the information of those of you who don’t know is the Manager of this Company and lives next door). It did not seem any worse at 4 o’clock on Tuesday morning – needless to say I had had a wakeful night for my garden overlooks a garden belonging to a doctor, in the centre of which there is a tremendous pond – which is about twenty feet below my place. At 6.30 a.m. I was lying in bed with a tea tray beside me when I imagined I heard a “thud” – I waited a second or two and then “crash” and my place fairly shook. I rushed out of my bedroom to the verandah (and I must admit I screamed) to find my garden sliding into the pond below – in one place there is only a foot of earth between the edge and the house. I had a quick bath and got dressed quickly for I was terrified that the house would go as the rain was still pouring down and the earth gradually moving down the pond. At that time I felt I was, perhaps, more unfortunate than many others. The wall holding up my garden was built of stones and, like most of the walls here, they have no – or little – outlet for water to drain after heavy rains – hence the water just forces the wall out. That’s what happened in my case.

At the top of my road – about sixty yards away – there is a very wide river bed, and when I left for the office – after I had instructed the servants to stand by – I found this almost to the top and rushing down to the sea at about thirty miles an hour – if that overflowed I knew I’d not see my home again as mine is the bottom house and the road is down hill. But on my way into town I began to realize how small were my worries compared with some poor devils. Dozens of small houses were already submerged – all the roads leading towards the sea from the hills were like rivers. I arrived in town about 9.15 a.m. and tried to settle down to work. About 10 o’clock one of our Japanese came running into me and told me to look out of my window – what I saw was like a bank of water just about to enter Kyo-machi. Kyomachi is the widest street in Kobe, about 70 ft. wide. In about fifteen minutes the road was three feet under water and was rushing past at about twenty miles an hour – in less than half an hour lumps of wood came floating down and we couldn’t imagine what had happened. Well, I sat at the window all day – as did other people, but perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself by telling you this already. Soon along came futons and tatamis (for you who don’t understand Japanese this means the mats which cover Japanese floors and big thick covers they use on their beds)- that told a story! It was terrific! Furniture of all description came rushing past – high trees, and I even saw (and it still is outside the office the water not being strong enough now to carry it away) the whole roof of a fair sized Japanese house. Then we heard that one of the reservoirs had burst its banks, and so I felt that my place would be O.K. It was later confirmed that it was not the reservoir! Well, here we all were – couldn’t get out for something to eat and it looked as though we’d have to spend the night in the office. However, the rain stopped about noon and at 5 o’clock we decided we’d have to make an attempt. I borrowed a pair of tennis shoes from a lad in the office, took off my stockings and tucked up my skirts. It was rather humerous, although so serious, for there were very sedate foreign gentlemen wading through the water minus their pants – I saw several in just their shirts – maybe they had undies on – I didn’t try to find out! With the aid of Hill I got as far as Ikuta-mae corner and there the water was just a whirlpool – we made it, and got as far as Daimaru’s corner, which was just as bad (every street down town was a deep river). We thought we might get up the Tor road, but no, that was bad and so we made our way to Dick Brun’s road. Worked our way to Motomachi Govt. R’ly, but found that trains were running only as far as Sannomiya, and as there were thousands of people there we decided to join in the walk along the tracks. (all overhead). Couldn’t get any further – no Hankyu or Hanshin running and so the only thing to do was to try and get up to a boarding house in town. We started off for Yamamoto dori thinking it would be o.k., but lo and behold it was bad on the hill – worse than down town in some places. It took us a heck of a time to get up to Nakayamate-dori, and when there it looked impossible to cross. Well, I waded into the water up to my waist, and with the aid of Hill and three Japs – also there was a big rope across to aid people – I managed to cling to the rope and get across, although at times my feet were taken from under me with the force of hte water. There were trams and motor cars along this road almost buried in sand – one car had been lifted completely from the tracks and run alongside a house. When we got up topside it was terrible – houses washed away and debris everywhere. The house that Dorothy and Blue had just vacated was half washed away. I had an awful job getting to Mrs. Kovalsky’s. She had a marvelous escape, for the German Club at the corner saved her place. Walking down from her place later, to the office, we were walking on the level with roof tops – the sand had just piled up. The only damage Mrs. K. had was her garden wall had crashed – like my own. I had been wading through water for hours it seemed, and when I got there I had nothing to change into and so had to borrow a kimono and sit in that all evening. Quite a refugee!

Next morning Hill managed to get down to my house after a lot of trouble. When he got to Sumiyoshi he found that there were upteen houses down just before getting to our place, and so expected to find our houses washed away also. However, a miracel (sic) had happened and the river bed at the top of our road, instead of being a raging torrent, was quite dry!! What must have happened was a land slide further up the hill which blocked the river and divided it into two streams – rivers I should say – one going to our right (Sumiyoshi) and the other to our left (Ogi) for both places are practically wiped out. Our houses were just as we had left them in the morning.

Kano-cho got it worse than anywhere, apparently. All the houses along the sides are burried (sic) up past the second floor – that is, the houses that haven’t been swept away. It looks just like a river-bed – the stones, large and small, all piled up on teh sides with the water rushing – practically as bad as ever although the catastrophe occurred three days ago.- It makes ones heart ache to see all these poor people trying to dig away the sand and much from their houses. They are marvelous – born to calamity I suppose. This morning, before breakfast, I went to the corner where the trams turned round for Nunobiki – it was just like a desert – people camping everywhere – everything flat. That triangle where Honda the Dry-cleaner was is all washed away, with boulders weighing two and three tons – one, they say, weigh ten tons – all over the place. You’ll understand what it must be like when I tell you that the silt is as high as the overhead tram wires – in fact, I was walking with them about around my legs. When the water first broke it came down Kano-cho at the height of twenty feet, and at Sannomiya crossing (that was) – now the Hankyu and Hanshin tram entrances it was nine feet deep. I had arrived at the Hanshin only thirty minutes before this trouble came – had I been coming out then my number would have been up, because they say the water rushed down the Hanshin underground and took everything with it. The Hanshin entrance (or one of them) faces in the direction the water came and has a very wide entrance. I watched Taki-nichi crossing from this building – it was like one collossal whirlpool. There must be thousands of people burried. On Tuesday bodies were floating down with the debris. And yet they say the other side of Kobe (Minasogawa) is worse – I can’t see how it is possible. Up the road that leads to Mrs. K’s. we walk on a level with the roof tops – various shops that had just one storey are completely burried. Quite a number of foreigners have been killed. I believe the boarding house that Hilda and Freddie Vears were in was badly smashed, and while we were at dinner last night Mrs. Kovalsky receive da message saying that they are just arrived at her other boarding house to see if they could get a room – poor little devils! I guess they lost everything. The house behind them collapsed killing a number of people and smashing in to the boarding house – they are lucky to be alive!

The water is sitll rushing down – and last night it began to rain and we all got wind up for we heard that there is still another reservoir that might go behind the Kobe Station – Arima-machi way. They reckon it would be worse than the Nunobiki one. But it wouldn’t affect us much, thank goodness. Anyhow, the sun is shining again and everything is O.K. so far.

There is, of course, a shortage of water – cannot get a bath of any description, and it is hard to get sufficient drinking water, although so far we are managing fairly well. Food, too, is getting short, and the shops are beginning to charge more – who can blame the poor devils anyway. The water problem is serious, of course. And what makes it worse is that it has gotten terribly hot – there is not a spot of water in the office.

Two weeks since I wrote this + still no water! Smells terrible heat terrific!

Rokko – where Mum used to live – has got it very badly – the water came down there with terrifice force and took everything with it. A number of foreigners lost their lives there. The Oishi river (another place where Mum used to live) is the worst of all and is doing terrific damage – that is my biggest obstacle in getting to my house. It is not much good trying to explain – you could NEVER imagine what this is like. To me it is worse than the Yokohama earthquake, but has not affected so many homes, of course. Some foreigner must have lost a nice home, for I saw furniture and a lovely Tientsin rug floating down when I went up the hill the first night.

I’m wondering what sort of report you got at home – I was hoping that you’d think the same as before – that these things are always exagerated – that’s the best thing for you to think until you get this letter – but this couldn’t possibly be exagerated. I was going to send you a telegram, but thought that you’d understand no news is good news. In fact, I couldn’t possible get down town to send a telegram off until today.

The Tor Hotel is badly smashed – trees just smashed into the back of it and the hotel’s first floor was completely under water and everybody had to get out.

When I say that the whole of Kobe is – or was – under water with the exception of a few roads up the hill you’ll know what it was like. I will cut some pictures out of the paper – when we get one – and send to Mum.

I won’t stop for more now as my brain is all muddled – will finish this after I’ve tried to get to my house this evening.

Friday Morning/

Well, here I am again folks, but I haven’t much more to tell you.

I managed to get to my house last evening after walking through water, taxi-ing, bussing, training and walking again. I found everything Ok.K. – Amah returned with her kiddie well and safe – and the first thing I did was to have a nice hot bath which had just been made. The earth had fallen away just a little more, but the house appears to be safe unless we have more torrential rains.

Oishi-gawa is terrible – I could never have imagined it. The river now, instead of rushing under the Kokudo bridge goes over the top at terrific speed – a temporary bridge has been made. I must certainly hand it out to the Japanese – they are wonderful in the case of a catastrophe. My amah tells me that when she crossed it on Tuesday afternoon she saw no less than five bodies pulled out one after another. The Kokudo (Kobe-Osaka Highway) is in a terrible mess. At Sumiyoshi one part is just “flat” as a result of the river that runs by my place having left its bed and spread in the two directions. There was a just a low wall on one side of my house that stopped it from coming into my place – but, of course, I am higher up. The houses down below me were flooded to the top storey. It seems that this river – even parted in two – was strong enough to lay everything flat on both sides of my place, for Ogi is well under water and houses all washed away. My Amah tells me that at 11 o’clock A.M. the river was almost over its banks and she felt everything was up – at 11.50 it was dry and houss on either side being washed away. I am enclosing a picture of the Kokudo at Sumiyoshi, which is straight up from my house on the river bridge – you’ll get some idea how the water must have rushed over the top of the bridge.

Last night it started to pour down again about 1 o’clock (I should have said this morning) and kept on till nearly 4 o’clock – I could hear men shouting instructions to each other and I can tell you I got not sleep for I was really scared. At 3 o’clock I got up and had a look at the water coming down the road, it was higher. However, it keeps starting and stopping, and all I hope is that it will not come down too hard for I have told the Amah I’ll go home tonight as she doesn’t like being alone. I’m not particularly keen, but she has stood by most of the time – in fact, during the most serious period and so I feel I must return. As I say, unless we get any more heavy rains we are perfectly safe. Should it rain really hard I’ll lock up the house, come into town and tell the girl to go home to her folk. But somehow I think we’re better off in Uozaki for we have at least plenty of well water. Lights are now on, but gas is off. It’ll be quite two or three months before they get thigns anywhere near back to normal is the general opinion.

Tuesday, 12th July, 1938.

Hello Everybody:

Sorry I couldn’t finish this on Friday – neither had I the chance on Saturday or yesterday – or perhaps I’d better say I may have been able to find time but hadn’t the inclination.

I returned to my house on Saturday afternoon. Later I went up the river bed to Sumiyoshigawa (about ten minutes walk from my house) and what I saw was terrible. The Highway was just strewn with boulders – some as large as a room, weighing, so people say, twenty and thirty tons. There are thousands, and thousands, and thousands – honestly, this is not a little big exagerated – how on earth the water could have brought them down from the hills is beyond imagination. Trees, too, with all their branches and bark stripped off, were everywhere – hugh (sic) pine trees you’d think mountains couldn’t possibly move. Everything was just flat – I happen to know this part particularly well, for it is my favourite walk on Saturday afternoons and Sundays – I used to walk right up the river bed to Mikage valley and back through Mikage. Just beyond the Hankyu railway – which is completely washed out in this section, the river bed was deep. There were some lovely modern foreign houses built up here. One in particular used to fascinate me for it has such lovely grounds attached to it. Well, although that place was at least sixty feet above the river bed, it has badly suffered – for the sand and boulders are on a level with the garden – I know, I walked around it. Honestly, it would make your heart ache. Sumiyoshi, I think I can honestly say, is the worst I’ve seen so far. And to think that had the bridges not stopped those boulders I’d have been one of the sufferers. The river now, instead of running past my house, has two outlets, one through the village just to my right and the other just to my left – we happen to be just in the triangle. Ogi, from my place, and which was very thickly populated, looks like a desert.

We are still without water, which makes it very inconvenient, especially at the office. Fortunately at home I have a well, although something has gone wrong with the electric motor and all the water has to be brought along in buckets. On Saturday I tried to get some tinned salmon, but found the few shops I enquired at completely out. However, I guess that soon stocks of both eats and drinks will be replenished.

Cannot understand why I’ve not received any word from Vi, for we’ve received official mail from Tokyo dated 9th – Saturday. I did not get Vi’s last week’s letter. I sent a message through both Tokyo and Yokohama assuring her I was O.K. – however, I did expect to receive some word from her. Maybe, though, her mail has been held up and so I musn’t complain.

Well, guess this is all for now – my fondest love to you all.

Affectionately, Floss

P.S. Had a terrific thunder storm yesterday afternoon and although no place seemed to be in danger the storm washed away a number of bridges, including the one at Oishigawa. The roads were in a heck of a mess and I’m afraid I ruined a pair of shoes trying to pick my way through the water and mud. Got a bus from Sannomiya to Wakinohama, walked to Nishihada and got a hanshin tram from there. They say it will be like digging a new subway at Sannomiya Hanshin station for it is piled high with sand and debris – may take months. It is still raining hard – seems the nyubai doesn’t intend to finish yet!!

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