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Earthquakes in the Early Modern Era

Early in 2010, reports of strange fish came to the attention of Japan's news media. Large numbers of slender oarfish (Regalecus glesne or Regalecus russelii), commonly known in Japan as “messengers from the undersea dragon palace,” had been showing up in shallow-water nets or washing ashore along the Sea of Japan coast. This denizen of deep water might be a harbinger of a big earthquake, wrote the Kyodo News. Basing this speculation on “an old saying,” the report quoted “a specialist in ecological seismology” to the effect that deep-sea fish are especially sensitive to the movements of faults.[1] In the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, alleged connections between aquatic animals and earthquakes appeared in a variety of sources. One newspaper article pointed out that unusually large squid catches preceded several major earthquakes between 1946 and 2011 and speculated that squid might somehow function as precursors of earthquakes.[2] A pamphlet produced by the Kashima Shrine in an attempt to put the best possible face on the 3/11 disaster claimed that deities sent warning of the impending earthquake a week in advance by causing a pod of whales to appear off the coast near the shrine.[3] More recently, a newspaper article speculated that the frequent appearance of deep-sea oarfish along the coast of Shizuoka Prefecture has prompted concern that this “messenger from the undersea dragon palace” might signal an impending earthquake.[3] Claims of unusually large fish catches have been a regular feature following major earthquakes. Residents along the Sanriku (northeast) coast, for example, reported this phenomenon prior to the great tsunamis of 1896 and 1933, which some writers regarded in retrospect as precursors to these seismic events.[5] Recently, the City of Susaki in Kōchi Prefecture (Shikoku) announced plans to monitor animal behavior and well water levels and broadcast earthquake and tsunami evacuation recommendations should any anomalies be detected.[6] These recurring fish and animal tales are part of a continuing legacy of the 1855 Ansei Edo earthquake.

The Ansei Edo earthquake not only cast a long shadow into the modern era, it was also the product of a long history of early modern earthquakes. At first glance, it may seem odd to speak of an earthquake as a product of history. Here I refer to human history, not to the well-entrenched but increasingly controversial notion in seismology of recurring “characteristic earthquakes.”[7] As a social phenomenon, earthquakes in Japan were meaningful events that demanded interpretation. By the middle of the nineteenth century, a rich tradition of reading earthquakes was in place. This process of interpretation, its rhetoric, and its history reveal much about cultural values and tensions and prevailing or competing worldviews. Similarly, the details of reactions to specific earthquakes can serve as unique windows on society, providing insights into issues of the day and relations between social groups. When a major earthquake shook Edo on the night of November 11, 1855, writers and commentators immediately began assessing its meaning and significance. In many respects, this process followed past examples. One manifestation was a focus on Japan's geographic and cultural contours. Seismic activity long before, for example, supposedly rent the earth one night to create Lake Biwa in Ōmi Province and Mt. Fuji in Suruga Province. Such was the claim of Ways of Earthquakes in Japan (Honchō jishin no shidai, 1855 or 1856). Not only did earthquakes create iconographic geography, the text explains, they have periodically shaken the Japanese islands since the time of the earliest human emperors.[8] Earthquakes also shaped Japan's literary culture. Land and Sea Earthquake Record (Kainai jishinroku, 1855 or 1856), for example, includes a set of earthquake-related verses attributed to the “thirty-six superlative poets,” including such cultural luminaries as Manyōshū poet Kakinomoto Hitomaro, early Heian poet Ono no Komachi, and mid-Heian poet Izumi Shikibu. Many of the verses in the set indeed deal with earthquakes, although the connection in some of the poems is remote.[9] On the ground, the shaking in 1855 brought older, pre-Tokugawa geographic contours of Edo into relief. Most dramatic was a partial reemergence of Hibiya Cove, filled in during the first decade of Tokugawa rule to create real estate for daimyō residences and government buildings. Mansions and bakufu offices located on land that had once been shallow ocean collapsed and burned so dramatically relative to surrounding areas that several observers made the connection between the former
cove and the current destruction. Major earthquakes possessed the power to reveal and revive past geography, both real and imagined.

Earthquakes also had the power to reveal alternative political geographies. Throughout the early modern era, the experience of major earthquakes reinforced the idea of Japan as a temporal and spatial entity. Most earthquakes highlighted a political geography based on the classic sixty-six provinces, a temporal order measured in imperial reigns, and a land that was home to myriad deities led by Amaterasu of Ise. Just as the 1855 earthquake highlighted an older version of Edo's geography, most early modern seismic upheavals temporarily highlighted an older Japan organized in terms of imperial provinces, imperial time, and imperial deities. Only when the city of Edo shook violently in 1703, and especially in 1855, did a state consisting of a bakufu (shogunate) and domains—what modern historians often call the bakuhan state—figure prominently in the post-earthquake discourse. Otherwise, the Japan that shook was usually a land consisting of an imperial court and provinces.

In addition to foregrounding visions of Japan in which the bakuhan state was largely irrelevant, the destructive and terrifying aspects of major early modern earthquakes stimulated attempts to explain and understand the mechanical processes behind these events. Owing to empirical observation, academic knowledge of earthquakes accumulated throughout the Tokugawa period. By the early nineteenth century, discussions of epicenters, aftershocks, uplift, subsidence, liquefaction, severity of ground motion as a function of soil base, and other basic geophysical concepts and phenomena could be found in both academic and semipopular books. Diverse earthquake-related folklore also accumulated along with these advances in scientific knowledge. From the mid-seventeenth century, for example, earthquakes became associated with flashes of light, either in the sky or emanating from the ground. Observers and writers also commonly linked earthquakes with certain types of atmospheric phenomena and weather conditions. In 1855 the idea that catfish could help predict earthquakes emerged in a collection of unverified popular tales. Since then, this idea has taken such strong root that between 1977 and 1993, 120 million yen of taxpayer money went to fund catfish in government aquariums as an “advance guard of earthquake prediction,” always on duty.[10] Both early modern scientific knowledge and the broader accumulated body of earthquake lore helped shape the development of seismology during the Meiji period and in some respects to the present day. The sudden destructive power of violent ground movement exacted a psychological toll on those who survived. Severe earthquakes and their aftershock sequences produced anxieties about the viability of society itself. One reaction to these anxieties was a rhetoric of reassurance in the written materials that inevitably appeared soon after major earthquakes. These texts sometimes sought to explain the mechanics of earthquakes, usually in terms of yang energy trapped within the earth seeking to escape upward. Moreover, they often pointed out Japan's long history of earthquakes, upheavals that occurred even during the reigns of sagacious rulers. The ultimate point was resiliency. Past earthquakes did not destroy society and neither would the current calamity. Furthermore, this literature typically portrayed earthquakes as worldwide phenomena. While the main point was to make earthquakes appear normal, this approach also had the effect of situating Japan within a world of other countries. In this context, China was the main point of comparison during the early modern era, and Italy began to serve a similar function during the Meiji period.

By the early modern era, one common component of popular notions of Japan's distinctive qualities was that Japan was blessed with divine favor. The proof was the thousands of kami and buddhas throughout the Japanese islands. Bountiful harvests were a classic manifestation of the benevolence and blessing of these supernatural entities. Within Japan, the effects of earthquakes often invoked discussion of deities and cosmic forces. In this way, earthquakes amplified a vision of Japan as a land distinguished by its host of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and deities, tapping into a long, complex history of shinkoku (country of deities) discourse.

In this book, I argue that the Ansei Edo earthquake played a pivotal role in a process of shaping conceptions of Japan in the realms of politics, religion, geography, and natural science. Moreover, this earthquake produced new ideas about human agency vis-à-vis earthquakes that have affected notions of seismicity and society in modern Japan. One reason the Ansei Edo earthquake was so influential was accidental factors of time, place, and circumstance. The shaking of the shogun's capital coincided with the heightened religious fervor of an okage (by the virtue of) year, a year of special religious significance in a twelve lunar year cycle. This earthquake occurred at the beginning of a period of major challenges for the bakufu, and it weakened shogunal power in subtle but significant ways. Furthermore, because its occurrence was theoretically impossible according to prevailing theories of earthquake mechanics, Ansei Edo opened doors to alternative
theories of seismic upheaval in academic circles. Lore that emerged from this event, such as the idea that earthquakes disrupt magnetic fields, continues to inform quests by amateurs and scientists seeking ways to predict earthquakes by studying alleged precursors.[11]

  • [1] Daiki Yamamoto, “Sea Serpents’ Arrival Puzzling, or Portentous?” Japan Times, March 6, 2010.
  • [2] “Ika no toresugi wa daijishin no zenchō? Tokushima de 4-bai mo,” Yomiuri Online, May 1, 2011.
  • [3] Kashima Tarō [pseudonym], Kashima no kami to Suwa no kami: Higashi Nihon dai shinsai no fukkō ni mukete (Kashima-shi, Japan: Kashima jingū shamusho), 2011.
  • [4] Kashima Tarō [pseudonym], Kashima no kami to Suwa no kami: Higashi Nihon dai shinsai no fukkō ni mukete (Kashima-shi, Japan: Kashima jingū shamusho), 2011.
  • [5] Yoshimura Akira, Sanriku kaigan ōtsunami (Bungei shunjū, 2004), 16–20, 81–82.
  • [6] “City Looks to Base Tsunami Warnings on Animal Behavior,” Japan Times, June 3, 2012; “Japanese City to Watch Animal Behaviour for Disaster Signs,” Tokyo Times, 2012.
  • [7] For a critique of the idea of characteristic earthquakes (koyū jishin), see Robert Geller (Robaato Geraa), Nihonjin wa shiranai “Jishin yochi” no shōtai (Fatabasha, 2011), 159–165, and Yan. Y. Kagan, David D. Jackson, and Robert J. Geller, “Characteristic Earthquake Model, 1884–2011, R.I.P.,” in Seismological Research Letters 83 (November/December 2012), 951–953.
  • [8] Shinsai yobō chōsakai, eds., Dai-Nihon jishin shiryō (hereafter DNJS), vol. 2 (otsu), esp. 564–585, and Suzuki Tōzō and Koike Shōtarō, eds., Fujiokaya nikki (hereafter FN), esp. 513. These versions of Honchō jishin no shidai are slightly different, but both claim seismic activity as the creative force for Lake Biwa and Mt. Fuji.
  • [9] “Kainai jishinroku,” in Tōkyō daigaku jishin kenkyūjo, ed., Shinshū Nihon jishin shiryō (hereafter NJS), vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 503–506.
  • [10] 120 million yen would be about 1.5 million U.S. dollars in July 2012. The catfish project produced no useful results. For more details, see Geller, Jishin yochi, 120–135.
  • [11] For a typical example, see Motoji Ikeya, Earthquakes and Animals: From Folk Legends to Science (River Edge, NJ: World Scientific, 2004). Ikeya’s main argument is that electromagnetic fields are earthquake precursors and that a variety of animals can detect them. One caption in the front matter reads, “Nails about to drop from a magnet on introduction of an electric field, 196 Notes to Pages 5–9 reproducing an event known to have occurred two hours before the Ansei Edo Earthquake in 1855” (vi). As we will see, however, there is no evidence that such an event actually took place.
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