1888 eruption of Mount Bandai

Japan is a disaster-prone country. It is hit by typhoons in summer, heavy snowfall in winter, and earthquakes every day, sometimes major earthquakes that devastate entire regions. In the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011, approximately 20,000 people died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. More recently, the Noto Peninsula Earthquake occurred on New Year’s Day, 2024, killing many families in their homes. When you visit Japan, you may be worried that perhaps you too will be caught up in a disaster.

Let us take a look back at the history of disasters in Japan. Do you know what was the first large-scale disaster that Japan experienced in the modern era? It was the eruption of Mt. Bandai(磐梯山) in Fukushima Prefecture on July 15, 1888. In this article, we will look at the Bandai eruption while reading actual historical documents.

The first large-scale disaster in modern Japan

Urabandai, at the northern foot of Mt. Bandai (photo by the author, September 2023)

Bandai in Fukushima Prefecture is a beautiful mountain, also known as Aizu Fuji [note: Aizu is the name of the region where Mt. Bandai is located]. Omotebandai at the southern foot of Mt. Bandai is home to Lake Inawashiro, the fourth largest lake in Japan, and Urabandai at the northern foot is home to beautiful nature with lakes and marshes, including Goshikinuma. It is a popular tourist destination not only for Japanese but also for foreigners.

Bandai from Urabandai looks like it was gouged out, the remains of a collapsed mountain caused by the eruption of Mt. Bandai, the first major disaster in modern Japan, on July 15, 1888. Mt. Bandai suddenly erupted at 7:45 a.m. on that day. At 11:40 a.m. on the 16th, a telegram was sent from Heinai Orita, the governor of Fukushima Prefecture, to Aritomo Yamagata, the Minister of Home Affairs, informing him of the damage. The following is a copy of the telegram.

“Report on the eruption and rupture of Mt. Bandai, Shimoyama-gun, Fukushima Prefecture” (福島県下耶摩郡磐梯山噴火壊裂ノ状ヲ報ス). Holding institution: National Archives of Japan (ID: 類00372100). Images: National Archives of Japan Digital Archive

Last night we reported on the eruption of Mt. Bandai, and we are still investigating. The area that collapsed was about 8 km2 and the area damaged was about 24 km2. the survey revealed that about 400 people were buried, of which 150 were hot spring guests, 36 houses were buried, and only 2 bodies were found. Moreover, the scattered soil is red clay and sand and gravel, and these are blocking the Hihara River. Therefore, Hibara is in danger of becoming a swamp if this soil is not washed away. The villagers are organizing their properties and rescue teams are working hard, but the rumbling has not stopped.

(Japanese: …昨夜不取敢内申候処猶取調フルニ崩壊ノ面積凡ソ二里四方其災害凡ソ六里四方ニ及フナラン人ノ埋没セシハ凡ソ四百人内浴客百五十名戸数ノ埋没セシハ三十六戸死躰ヲ発見セシハ僅カ二名ノミ又其飛散セシ土ハ赤土又ハ砂礫等ニテ其飛散セシ土ハ檜原大川ノ水道ヲ塞キタリ為メニ此土ヲ切リ流サザレハ檜原ハ沼ト為ルノ憂アルヲ以テ目下村民等夫々財産ヲ取片附救助方尽力中鳴動ハ今ニ止マス…)

According to the telegram, when the eruption was investigated after it occurred, the mountain body collapsed on a large scale, burying about 400 people, including residents and hot-spring cure guests, 36 houses, and only two bodies were found. The scattered soil has blocked the Hihara River, and if this situation continues, Hihara could become a swamp. The residents are organizing their property and rescue teams are working hard, but the rumbling has not stopped. This situation was conveyed by Yamagata to Prime Minister Kiyotaka Kuroda on the same day.

The power of the debris avalanche

Seikei Sekiya, a professor of science at Tokyo Imperial University, was the first to go to the site of the Bandai eruption to investigate the situation. This was the first full-scale scientific study of the disaster conducted in Japan. Sekiya and his associate professor, Kikuchi Yasushi, conducted a survey at Mt. Bandai from July 31 to August 8, and their report was submitted to the university. The contents of the report can be found in the “Kanpo” (note: this is the official newspaper of the Japanese government). There, the situation of the eruption and the testimonies of the residents are described in detail.

Seikei Sekiya and Yasushi Kikuchi, “Bandaisan Rupture Situation Report” (磐梯山破裂実況取調報告). Kanpo, No. 1575, September 27, 1888. Holding institution: National Diet Library. Image: National Diet Library Digital Collections.

Because Mt. Kobandai slopes toward the north and was completely unobstructed, many earth and rocks fell toward Nagase Valley during the explosion and went straight north up the Hinohara region, burying the villages of Akimotohara, Hosono, and Oshizawa. Some of them also flowed further and buried the Kawakami Hot Springs, reaching Hinoguchi, a sericultural village 3 km south of there, and stopped. In other words, the earth and stones that collapsed to the north were the largest in volume, and thus we name this the main stream.

(Japanese: 小磐梯山ノ地勢タルヤ北ニ向ヒテ傾斜シ一ノ遮塀スルモノナキカ故ニ爆発ノ際土石ハ多ク長瀬渓谷ニ向ヒテ陥リ直ニ北ヲ指シテ檜原地方ニ遡リ秋元原、細野、雄子沢ノ部落ヲ埋没シ又其一部ハ流下シテ川上温泉ヲ埋メ夫ヨリ南ノ方二十八町ノ下ニ在ル蚕養村ノ内字樋ノ口ニ至リテ止リタリ乃チ北方ニ崩壊セラレシ土石ハ其量最モ多キヲ以テ之ヲ本流トモ名クヘク)

What this report reveals is the power of the “debris avalanche” caused by the phreatic explosion. Kobandai (小磐梯), one of the peaks comprising Mt. Bandai, collapsed on its northern side, and the earth and rocks from the collapse flowed down the slope at once, burying a number of villages and hot springs located at the northern foot of the mountain and killing many people. There are various theories about the number of deaths, but it is said that as many as 500 people were killed.

Today, Kobandai has disappeared and the northern side of Bandai has been gouged out, leaving rough traces. Hibara, which was informed in a telegram from Fukushima Governor Orita that the Hibara River had been choked by soil and was in danger of becoming a swamp, is now the vast Lake Hibara. Beneath it, the village remains submerged to this day.

The debris avalanche choked the rivers and formed Lake Hibara (photo by the author, September 2023)

First rescue and relief activities after the Bandai eruption

The Mt. Bandai eruption has caused Japanese society to reconsider catastrophes and how to respond when they occur. Newspapers, which had previously focused on political coverage, eagerly reported on the unprecedented catastrophe of the Mt. Bandai eruption and its aftermath, and made a concerted effort to provide relief by collecting donations from all over Japan. The Red Cross Society, backed by the Imperial Family, dispatched doctors to the disaster area to work with local doctors in relief efforts. Such rescue and relief activities on a nationwide scale are said to have begun in earnest with the Bandai eruption, and have continued to the present day.

In addition, the Meiji Era was a time when advanced technology was introduced from Western countries. In the case of the Bandai eruption, photographic prints were utilized in newspaper reports to convey the realistic situation to readers. Please refer to the research books listed in the bibliography for more details on the various effects of the Bandai eruption on Japanese society in previous studies.

Learning from the history of disasters

Goshikinuma (photo by the author, September 2023)

The above is an overview of the Bandai eruption based on historical documents. In my experience, Japan does not know when and where disasters will strike, but there is no need to fear them more than necessary.

In Japan, as we have seen in this column, scientific research on disasters has been conducted for 130 years, and both the government and the people are routinely prepared to withstand disasters that come suddenly. Of course, nothing is perfect. However, Japan has a beautiful and inspiring culture and nature that outweighs the fear of disasters. I hope you enjoy your trip to Japan.

Yonechi Fumio. Bandaisan Explosion. Kokonshoin, 2006.
Bandaisan Geopark Council / Bandaisan Geopark (last viewed 3/27/2024)


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