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The Global context

Although this study concerns itself with Japan, insights from scholars of disasters working in other contexts contribute to the analysis. It is also useful at the start to plot major changes in attitudes concerning earthquakes in other parts of the world to contextualize the Japanese situation. The approximate trajectory of understanding earthquakes in Japan matches that of many parts of Europe and the Islamic world. Until the early seventeenth century in all of these places, earthquakes were primarily religious events in terms of their cause and significance—usually considered divine punishment. During the eighteenth century, the situation became more complex, and mechanical or scientific explanations emerged as alternatives to religious explanations. By the nineteenth century, mechanical theories of earthquakes were well established around the world, but they did not displace or eliminate moral and religious explanations. Indeed, interpreting natural disasters as divine retribution remains common to this day throughout the world.[1]

Examples of earthquakes explained in terms of religion and morality abound in the premodern world. In classical Chinese thought, earthquakes were part of a range of abnormalities such as floods, droughts, and epidemic disease that might indicate moral or ritual deficiency in kings or rulers. The same thinking applied to smaller units within the Chinese Empire. In an 1149 manual on agriculture, for example, Chen Fu explains that “the deities of mountains and rivers” cause or prevent natural disasters. Therefore, one key to prosperity in agricultural villages was to diligently perform rites to these deities in a correct manner.[2] As we will see, Chinese ideas about natural hazards and disasters informed early modern Japanese thinking about earthquakes, albeit with some important differences.

In the Islamic world, earthquakes might serve either as divine punishment or divine warning, depending on the context. One prominent theme was that earthquakes were the wages of sin and immorality. Writing in Cairo in 1576 in the wake of an earthquake, Ibn al-Jazzār emphasized this theme, specifying relevant misdeeds, starting with the recreational consumption
of a drug called bursh and dwelling on coffeehouse culture. He characterized these establishments as dens of vice featuring music, singing, and men ostensibly seeking coffee but really present owing to an “appetite for the beardless cupbearer.” He recommended prayer and fasting as the proper responses to the earthquake.[3] Here we see the same rhetorical technique that some Japanese commentators on earthquakes deployed in both early modern and modern times: using the occurrence of a recent earthquake to amplify a writer's social criticism or agenda.

Interestingly, early Islamic earthquake texts sometimes mention a giant fish as a possible cause of earthquakes. The Egyptian writer Abū 'l-Fadl al-Suyūtī (1445–1505) listed thirty causes of earthquakes, one of which was that “Satan makes the fish on which the earth stands feel proud, so it moves.” Ibn al-Jazzār also mentioned fish as a possible earthquake cause, although his focus was on condemning popular culture.[4] Connections between giant fish and earthquakes can be found in the folklore of many parts of the world. Although in some cases this lore migrated from one place to another (China to Japan, for example), it is likely that the movements and other attributes of aquatic creatures, especially in gigantic, mythical form, independently struck many people around the world as a suitable symbol of the shaking associated with earthquakes or the power to cause such events.

Typical premodern interpretations of earthquakes in areas dominated by Christianity similarly regarded them either as divine punishments or, especially when the level of destruction was low, divine warnings. Following a French earthquake in 1549, for example, the Montélimar town council prohibited dancing in connection with Pentecostal festivities. Another response to later earthquakes in the area was to stage a mass religious procession, while in Paris, public prayers were common until 1709. A French earthquake in 1618 became a sign of God's wrath toward Protestants.[5] Conversely, an English earthquake in 1580 was a warning from God to hold fast to Protestantism and avoid relapsing into Catholicism. Responses to the 1580 event included abandoning Corpus Christi celebrations in Coventry, the imposition of a national Day of Atonement, and the addition of special earthquake liturgies. A 1601 Swiss earthquake caused the Lucerne City government to require the participation of all residences in a forty-hour devotional prayer relay from one church to the next.[6] Similar to classical Chinese notions, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries earthquakes in Europe sometimes became associated with political danger. “Large earthquakes,” said one French commentator, “foretell war, epidemics, or tyranny.” In 1660, however, for the first time a French earthquake received
a positive interpretation, as “an attribute of royal power.”[7] Increasingly, earthquakes became social and historical phenomena. As Gregory Quenet points out, “Earthquakes are never understood in themselves but are seen in the social and cultural context that preserves their memory, in the physical landscape that keeps their traces, in societies' institutional framework, in the communication system that spread the information, or even in the theories which were used to interpret the earthquake.”[8] This book explores all of these dimensions of earthquakes in the context of early modern Japan.

In Europe during the eighteenth century, earthquakes became objects of formal study, which corresponded with the emergence of secular approaches to nature. Of particular importance was the massively destructive Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1755, felt throughout large areas of Europe. Although talk of divine wrath remained common, much of the discourse following the earthquake revealed a “hiatus between God and nature.”[9] Explanations independent of Providence emerged, such as Immanuel Kant's theory that winds passing through large subterranean caverns of hot gas caused the disaster.[10] Not only did Lisbon accelerate the emergence of scientific explanations of earthquakes, it also sparked hope that the human capacities for knowledge acquisition might enable future generations to anticipate or otherwise deal with earthquakes. As one French essay competition entrant wrote, “It would, perhaps, not be impossible to discover some sort of sign, which would indicate the coming of an earthquake, but it is not in this century that we will be able to enjoy this discovery.” Significantly, this writer laid out a detailed plan for the observation and cataloguing of these signs, an approach that continues even in the present day, at least among many who regard earthquake prediction as possible:

For this reason we must make sure, to achieve more certainty, that in each country people spend their time, day and night, examining with continuous, serious mediated and reflected attention, the differences right down to the little changes that happen to all the elements, following step by step, so to speak, their different variations, of which they will take and keep exact notes; that these observers will be replaced after their death by others, who will have worked on the same observations; and thus successively until we have experienced several earthquakes; and then bringing together all these observations, we will see whether the circumstances proceeding each quake are the same, and then we will be able to discover signs that could signal the approach of an earthquake.[11] Precisely the same dream of future prediction, conducted in the same manner, arose in Japan during the nineteenth century, especially after 1855. Indeed, in this and other respects, the impact of the Ansei Edo earthquake on Japan was similar to that of the Lisbon earthquake on Western Europe.

  • [1] Regarding the Oakland firestorm of 1991, which wiped out thousands of affluent homes, some flatlanders expressed the view that excessive consumption invited divine retribution. “Those people in the hills deserved to be wiped out. It was God acting,” said one interviewee. Susanna M. Hoffman, “The Monster and the Mother: The Symbolism of Disaster,” in Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith, eds., Catastrophe and Culture: The Anthropology of Disaster (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press, 2002), 132.
  • [2] Chen Fu, Nongshu (Taibei: Taiwan shangwu yinshuguan, 1956), vol. 1, 10–12.
  • [3] Anna A. Akasoy, “Interpreting Earthquakes in Medieval Islamic Texts,” in Christof Mauch and Christian Pfister, eds., Natural Disasters, Cultural Responses: Case Studies toward a Global Environmental History (New York: Lexington Books, 2009), 190–192.
  • [4] Akasoy, “Medieval Islamic Texts,” 189–190.
  • [5] Gregory Quenet, “Earthquakes in Early Modern France: From the Old Regime to the Birth of New Risk,” in Andrea Janku, Gerrit Schenk, and Franz Mauelshagen, eds., Historical Disasters in Context: Science, Religion, and Politics (New York: Routledge, 2012), 100–103.
  • [6] Elaine Fulton, “Acts of God: The Confessionalization of Disaster in Reformation Europe,” in Andrea Janku, Gerrit Schenk, and Franz Mauelshagen, eds., Historical Disasters in Context: Science, Religion, and Politics (New York: Routledge, 2012), 62, 66.
  • [7] Quenet, “Early Modern France,” 103–105.
  • [8] Ibid., 98.
  • [9] Ibid., 109.
  • [10] Quenet, “Early Modern France,” 107–109, and Benjamin Reilly, Disaster and Human History: Case Studies in Nature, Society, and Catastrophe (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2009), 78–79.
  • [11] Quoted in Quenet, “Early Modern France,” 109–110.
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