Persistence of Natural Disasters on Children’s Health: Evidence from the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923

December 20, 2021 | Blog
Home > Persistence of Natural Disasters on Children’s Health: Evidence from the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923

by Kota Ogasawara, Tokyo Institute of Technology


This blog is based on the author’s paper which has been published in the Economic History Review:


Devastation in Awa county in 1923. Source: Division of Social Affairs, Chiba Prefecture, Taishōdaishinsai [volume.1]
Natural disasters have significant and lasting economic impact.  In Japan, the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, an extremely huge quake with a magnitude of 7.9, was an unprecedented crisis, leaving 156,000 people killed, injured, or missing.  The massive earthquake of 1923 had positive long-term effects on industries in the vicinity of Tokyo through the creative destruction mechanism, which includes the technological upgradation of machinery and the survival of the most efficient firms.1  In contrast, a growing body of literature indicates that fetal exposure to disasters can impede normal human development and thus lead to negative consequences for later-life health and socioeconomic outcomes.2  However, little is known about the long-term developmental effects of Japan’s 1923 earthquake.

To bridge this gap in the literature, the present study investigates the impact of the Great Kantō Earthquake on fetal exposure and children’s health. The evidence suggests that fetal exposure to the earthquake negatively affected children’s growth.  Primary school girls aged between nine and eleven years old who were exposed in utero within areas extremely affected by the earthquake were approximately one centimetre shorter than cohorts living in surrounding areas.  Furthermore, mechanism analysis suggests  that while mental stress was an  important component of adverse health effects, nutritional stress was another pathway that exacerbated children’s health in physically devastated areas.

Previous studies have documented the adverse effects — such as low birth weight — of fetal earthquake exposure on pregnancy outcomes. However, limited evidence is available on the lasting effects of fetal earthquake exposure on later-life. This study advances the debate by examining the adverse effects of fetal earthquake exposure on the development of  juveniles.  Further, by providing evidence of the ameliorating effects of disaster relief on child stunting, this study also contributes to the literature on the optimal timing of child investment.3  My results reveal a clear gender imbalance in the compensating effects of the disaster relief, which may have been driven by the prenatal selection mechanism and postnatal-biased resource allocation regulated by the prevailing institutional context. Finally, this study enriches our understanding of the mechanisms generating adverse health effects following fetal health shocks.  While a growing body of evidence documents the long-term effects of early-life health shocks on human capital, identifying such pathways has proved to be a challenge.  The evidence presented in my paper suggests that maternal mental stress and maternal nutritional stress both played a role in determining health outcomes in physically disrupted areas.


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1 Okazaki, T., Okubo, T., and Strobl, E., ‘Creative destruction of industries: Yokohama city in the Great Kanto Earthquake, 1923.’ Journal of Economic History 79, no.1 (2019), pp. 1–31. See also Pereira, A.S., ‘The opportunity of a disaster: The economic impact of the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake.’ Journal of Economic History 69, no.2 (2009), pp. 466–499 for the positive long-term economic impacts of the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

2 Almond, D. and Currie, J., ‘Killing me softly: The fetal origins hypothesis.’ Journal of Economic Perspective 25, no.3 (2011), pp. 153–172.; Currie, J., and Vogl, T., ‘Early-life health and adult circumstance in developing countries.’ Annual Review of Economics 5 (2013), pp. 1–36; Prinz, D., Michael, C., David, C., and Austin, F. ‘Health and economic activity over the lifecycle: Literature review.’ NBER Working Paper (2018), 24865.

3 For instance, Heckman, J.J. ‘The developmental origins of health.’ Health Economics 21, no.1 (2012), pp. 24–29.