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In the late 80s, Michael Lewis traveled to Japan on assignment for an article that would appear in a 1989 issue of the now defunct Manhattan, Inc. magazine. His piece was part fact, part fiction: What would the economic fallout be if a 7.9-magnitude earthquake struck Tokyo? Lewis discussed whether Japan’s infrastructure was capable of withstanding such a high-magnitude disaster—as well as how the quake might affect Wall Street. This week, the 22-year-old article resurfaced online—here, in full text, is the original piece.

Industy libraries you can still find the odd copy of a fat black book published by the Japan Bureau of Social Affairs in 1926, a memento of the earthquake that leveled Tokyo at 11:58 a.m. on September 1, 1923, known as the Great Kanto Earthquake. Crackling descriptions of the physical trauma are punctuated by black-and-white photos of total destruction. The initial shock of roughly 7.9 on the Richter scale demolished every seismograph but one. It buckled railroad tracks into roller coasters and fissured the earth like a lady’s nylon. The first, main shock was followed by two more shocks, then a quiver of 171 aftershocks. Within a few seconds, the tide raced out of Tokyo Bay and tidal waves raced back in, destroying the entire coastline. Within minutes, Tokyo itself was a chaos of bursting power lines, gas pipes, sewage channels, and water mains. Within hours, acres of buildings in the heart of the city had burned to ash. All roads and communications were severed. Four hundred of the emperor’s carrier pigeons “gallant feathered messengers,” the report calls them–were pressed into service (the emperor himself stayed out of town, discreetly insane). In the end, no one was safe, not even bankers. The stock market crashed, hundreds of banks failed, and the insurance industry was saved only by government intervention. And so it was that an act of God marked the end of Japan’s first Economic Miracle (1867–1923), though they didn’t call the era that back then and didn’t realize it until later. What is absent from the government’s report is any remotely plausible sign of humanity. It tells of sixty thousand people who sought safety in the open ground of Hongo Park and were burned alive by a cyclone of fire that swept over them, of a city in ruins, of a population maimed, of treasures lost. Yet through it all the Japanese people stand silently stoic, like mannequins. Prince Regent Hirohito enters and exits the wreckage astride a horse, while straight-backed soldiers in clean uniforms salute crisply. There is something vaguely unreal about the stiff upper lip of the Japanese people as scripted by the government’s Department of Drama.

I learned the extent of the fiction when I met in Tokyo an eighty-two-year-old man who had lived through the event. His mother was British and his father Japanese (a count, no less). In 1923 this man, then a sixteen-year-old boy, lived beside Tokyo Bay. “You have no idea,” he says. “When it hit, all you could do was crawl for safety, like an animal, a dog. Our house collapsed; then the tidal wave swept away the pieces. I watched this from my knees. The first thing you felt was anger, humiliation. Why does this happen to me” The Japanese felt it, I think, more than I. That’s why they needed a scapegoat for the disaster. Thousands of Koreans were accused of arson and lynched. Westerners were let alone, but the word spread that the earthquake was no natural disaster, that a Western power had built an earthquake machine and aimed it at Tokyo. When the next one comes, I won’t survive.” Neither may we. And that’s what’s harrowing about the thought of another great quake rocking Tokyo. The disaster of 1923 meant little outside Japan. Tokyo then occupied a tiny niche in the world economy. Tokyo now, were it a nation unto itself, would have a GNP of $730 billion, greater than Great Britain’s. The entire labyrinthine Japanese government is in Tokyo. Twelve million people live in Tokyo narrowly defined. Thirty million Japanese live in the larger area that is the earthquake zone; 25 percent of the nation’s population is vacuum-packed into the most treacherous 3.6 percent of the nation’s land. Two-thirds of Japan’s businesses worth more than 5 billion yen ($40 million) are headquartered in Tokyo. One-third of everything sold in Japan is sold in Tokyo. The ports of Tokyo and neighboring Yokohama together export much of the chopsticks, computers, electrical appliances, machine tools, cameras, cars, and assorted gadgets that have created Japan’s $100 billion annual trade surplus. The mathematical consequence of the trade surplus over the past decade are the hundreds of billions of dollars, pounds, francs, and marks now controlled by Japan’s banks, insurance companies, and trust funds. These are all headquartered in Tokyo. The branches of the world’s eight largest banks, which feed funds to the world, are completely dependent, in an almost feudal way, on their head offices in Tokyo. Their cash affects us all. In other words, the fate of the average foreigner is intertwined with Tokyo’s more than ever before, and more and more every day. And, as we shall see, no foreigners are more exposed than Americans. Whether or not the Japanese fully appreciate the degree to which the rest of the world is implicated, they aren’t oblivious of the risks they run. The city’s gas mains and bullet trains are neatly programmed to cut off at the first whisper of seismic activity. Each year the four prefectures in the earthquake zone–Tokyo, Chiba, Saitama, and Kanagawa–hold mock-serious earthquake drills that make everyone involved giggle. But it’s hard to tell to what extent the extra precautions taken by the Japanese government have offset the incredible folly of situating the city most critical to the world economy (name another if you disagree) atop a ticking bomb.

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