Religious and Intellectual Milieu

Making sense of earthquakes in Tokugawa Japan took place within an intellectual milieu ranging from popular religious practices and beliefs to scientific thought. Both popular and academic discourse in Tokugawa Japan was diverse, and “the Japanese,” or any significant subset of them, held a broad range of views and opinions. The stress of earthquakes tended to highlight some of these views. Subsequent chapters will explore particular areas in detail, and the basic outline here serves as a point of departure.

The religious environment in medieval Japan included many forms of Buddhism, most of which were linked with local Japanese deities, the kami. A common Buddhist worldview in the medieval era saw Japan as a small, remote, peripheral land. A common metaphor was that the Japanese islands were like foam floating in the sea. Not only was Japan geographically remote, but temporally it had entered a degenerate phase of the Buddhist cycle (mappō), which made the attainment of enlightenment difficult or impossible. Therefore, the buddhas took pity on Japan and manifested themselves as kami to guide people toward salvation. For this reason, Japan was a shinkoku. In many, but not all, medieval contexts, shinkoku was a term indicating inferiority in the sense that Japan needed and received special treatment by the buddhas. China, by contrast, was the “sagely country” (seikoku) because the buddhas had manifested themselves there as sages like Confucius and Laozi.[1] In addition to buddhas and kami, the religious world of medieval Japan included Chinese-derived deities such as Enma, one of the judges or “kings” of hades, and other powerful entities such as the stars of the Big Dipper that were neither kami nor buddhas or bodhisattvas. This complex religious mix carried over into early modern Japan, albeit with changes in emphasis, and it became even more diverse. Combinations of Buddhism, kami belief, other deities or powerful entities, and sometimes Confucian-derived ethical codes mixed and merged, especially during the nineteenth century. Noguchi Takehiko likens the religious environment in late Tokugawa Japan to the radio broadcasting spectrum. One needed only slowly to turn the dial to tune in to one religion after another.[2] Moreover, certain deities became brief stars on the cosmic stage. These hayarigami (rapidly popular deities) tended to attract popular attention quickly, only to fade away with equal speed.[3] As the rebuilding began after the Ansei Edo earthquake, even the earthquake catfish assumed its brief place as a deity-of-the-moment.[4]

Serious earthquakes caused concern about the viability of society's foundations. This concern was one reason earthquakes often resulted in literature discussing their causal mechanisms and the history of such events in Japan and beyond. It was not the case, however, that the bakufu or domain governments attempted to suppress reporting on earthquakes or other natural disasters out of fear that these events implied criticism of the political order.[5] For one thing, such suppression would have been impossible. Furthermore, many earthquakes shook territory that encompassed several different political entities, thus weakening the sense of cosmic forces striking a particular territory.

Earthquakes whose damage was limited to places of great political significance such as Kyoto in 1830 or Edo in 1703 and 1855, however, did generate considerable anxiety precisely by virtue of location. The Genroku and Kyoto earthquakes, for example, caused the era name to change.[6] Matsuzaki Kōdō, a Confucian scholar living near Edo, took anxious notice of both the 1830 Kyoto earthquake and the unseasonable blooming of cherry trees. Writing in his diary a day after the Tempō era started, he said,
“Our ruler is virtuous, and our habits upright . . . so there should be no reason for any disasters. . . . All we can do is pray for the Heavenly Protection of yesterday's new era name.”[7] One common manifestation of anxiety about society in the wake of major earthquakes was a reaffirmation of the ruler's virtue, even if it was not always clear whether that ruler was the emperor, shogun, or one or more daimyō. I examine other responses to this anxiety in later chapters. With the Ansei Edo earthquake as a partial exception in the realm of rhetoric, major earthquakes in early modern Japan did not produce calls for a change of government, much less action to that effect.

The classic Chinese idea of the Mandate of Heaven regarded phenomena such as epidemics, crop failures, and natural disasters as warnings that human society and heavenly principles were out of alignment. Typically, the fault for this situation lay with the ruler, whose identity was usually obvious in China but not necessarily so in early modern Japan. This Chinese idea was well known and broadly accepted in Japan. When Edo shook in 1855, for example, prominent bakufu official Matsudaira Shungaku reacted in part by writing a memo to Abe Masahiro, the de facto head of the shogunate. Shungaku listed recent earthquakes, other natural disasters, and the unwelcome visits of American, Russian, and British naval vessels. Together with the present disaster in Edo, these events “definitely constitute a heavenly warning,” he concluded.[8] Compared with Japan's medieval era, however, the notion of cosmic retribution was not a conspicuous component of early modern political thought. Moreover, some prominent intellectuals such as Yamaga Sokō (1622–1685), Miura Baien (1723–1789), and Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) explicitly rejected the idea of the Mandate of Heaven or argued that it did not apply to Japan.[9] In short, there was a range of views among elite Japanese regarding possible links between human society and cosmic forces.

At the level of popular discourse, a rich rhetorical palate of symbols characterizing misalignments between human society and cosmic forces had developed by the nineteenth century. In the context of discussing popular broadsides (kawaraban) at this time, Gerald Groemer has this to say:

Kawaraban hermeneutics could rely on a complex system of signs, symbols, analogies, correspondences, and metaphors that existed in the context of everyday life and effortlessly crossed the fluid borders of science, magic, astrology, folk belief, political/moral ideology, literature, poetry, and religion. This context of interpretation allowed
explicators with sufficient insight and imagination to apprehend cryptic messages of Heaven, and to endow the seemingly accidental with a meaning and causal necessity that spoke directly to the concerns of reader or listener. Conveniently enough, Heaven often communicated through newsworthy events. Sudden and disastrous natural phenomena could signal blunders of an inept government that had set nature out of balance with society. Similarly, large-scale social phenomena such as fads, crazes, and rumors might also be interpreted as a portentous sign.[10]

The potential for earthquakes to be interpreted as meaningful cosmic events undoubtedly added to survivor anxiety soon after the main shock, particularly amidst aftershocks. One could not be sure what causal forces were at work and whether the worst of the shaking, or other dangers, had passed. After the earth calmed, however, the tendency to connect natural disasters and social problems lacked sufficient focus and sustenance to undermine political legitimacy. We will see, however, that one line of interpretation after the Ansei Edo earthquake did anticipate major changes in society similar to those that actually occurred twelve years later.

Nearly all early modern Japanese understood the mechanical functioning of the world and the cosmos in terms of balances and interactions between yin and yang. The popular press, for example, typically characterized earthquakes as the result of imbalances in yin and yang. One explanation of earthquakes in a two-sheet print describing the Ansei Tōkai/Nankai earthquake of 1854 begins, “When cold and hot, warm and cool circulate normally, all is well and there are no abnormalities such as earthquakes and thunder.” However, “When yin wells up, pressing against yang, earthquakes of varying intensities occur as a function of the strength of that pressure.” The passage then goes on to explain specific effects of earthquakes such as the upwelling of new springs or “fire energy” issuing from fissures in the ground.[11] Early modern Japanese not only explained earthquakes and thunder (often regarded as the same basic phenomenon) in terms of yin and yang, but most other aspects of the natural world were similarly accounted for. Even intellectuals who found classical or recent European ideas intriguing often transposed them into a framework based on yin and yang.

Yin-yang was a useful theoretical construct, in part because it could encompass a wide range of phenomena. It served as the starting point for complex systems of correlative cosmology and thus possessed great explanatory power. Most scientists in the Meiji era quickly abandoned yinyang, relegating it to a quasi-religious realm that many modern people came to regard as superstitious. Nevertheless, it served for centuries as the dominant academic paradigm for apprehending the natural world. With respect to earthquakes, yin-yang coexisted with, and by the eighteenth century overshadowed, Buddhist cosmology. Compared with Buddhist cosmology, yin-yang could more elegantly explain main shocks, aftershocks, liquefaction, sand blows, uplift, and other observable phenomena associated with earthquakes. As we will see, however, the Ansei Edo earthquake should never have occurred according to the prevailing yin-yang–based theory of earthquakes. The academic community, therefore, became open to new theories about earthquakes after 1855. Nevertheless, remnants of yin-yang thinking about earthquakes persisted well into the modern era in both the popular imagination and in academic circles. Indeed, many of the alleged precursors of earthquakes advanced by contemporary scientists advocating the possibility of earthquake prediction are remarkably similar to early modern theories of heat or other forms of yang energy moving the earth.[12]

  • [1] See Satō, Shinkoku Nihon, and Kitai, Shinkokuron for thorough discussions of this topic.
  • [2] Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 195–196.
  • [3] The major study of this phenomenon is Miyata Noboru, Kinsei no hayarigami (Hyōronsha, 1972).
  • [4] As examples, see the prints Manzairaku mi no yōjin (Joyous self-precaution), #69 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 285–286 (to view this print, see http://; Namazu kakejiku (Catfish hanging scroll), #129 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 222, 320 (to view this print, see; and Jishin myōsaku kudokusan (The wondrous efficacy of the earthquake’s blessing), #196 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 357 (to view this print, see http://gazo–039/00001.jpg).
  • [5] Sarah E. Thompson, for example, states, “There was also the possibility for implied criticism of the government in the reporting of current events, especially given the ancient notion, imported from China, that a truly virtuous regime would be so completely uneventful that even natural disasters would not occur. The suppression of news reporting may have been due in part to a desire to suggest this ideal condition.” “The Politics of Japanese Prints,” in Sarah E. Thompson and H. D. Harootunian, Undercurrents of the Floating World: Censorship and Japanese Prints (New York: Asia Society Galleries, 1991), 34.
  • [6] Earthquake-induced era name changes were Tengyō (938), Ten’en (973), Jōgen (976), Eichō (1096), Bunji (1185), Keichō (1596), Tenpō (1830), and Ansei (1854). See Yamamoto Takeo, “Shiryō ginmi no hitsuyōsei,” in Hagiwara Takahiro et al., Kojishin: rekishi shiryō to katsu-dansō kara saguru (Tōkyō daigaku shuppankai, 1982), 46. To Yamamoto’s list we could add Hōei (1704), owing to the December 31, 1703, Genroku earthquake.
  • [7] Quoted in Harold Bolitho, “The Tempō Crisis,” in Marius B. Jansen, ed., The Cambridge History of Japan, vol. 5, The Nineteenth Century (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 117.
  • [8] Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 39.
  • [9] See Tahara Tsugio, ed., Yamaga Sokō, Nihon no meicho 12 (Chūō kōronsha, 1983), 139; Miura Baien, Zeigo, in Yamada Keiji, ed., trans. Miura Baien, Nihon no meicho 20 (Chūō kōronsha, 1984), 482–483; and (regarding Motoori Norinaga) Tahara Tsugio and Morimoto Jun’ichirō, eds., Yamaga Sokō, Nihon shisō taikei 32 (Iwanami shoten, 1970), 334, 542–543.
  • [10] Groemer, “Singing the News,” 245.
  • [11] “Jishin no ben” in the print Shokoku daijishin, figure 19 in Kitahara, “Saigai to Kawaraban,” 31. For the web version, see publish_db/1999news/02/20203.html (accessed January 20, 2012).
  • [12] Most mainstream seismologists regard earthquake prediction in the narrow sense of specifying location, specific time, and magnitude as impossible. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of publications claiming, in retrospect, that some past major earthquake could have been predicted if we had only been better attuned to nature’s signals. Of the seven chapters in a book inspired by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, one argues that statistical analysis proves there are nonrandom components to the spatial and temporal distribution of earthquakes. The other six chapters posit specific precursors: the gravitational pull of the sun at certain times of the year; earthquake vapor and clouds; sunspot cycles; abnormally high temperatures combined with astro-tidal triggering; star storms; and sunspots. Although wrapped in a veneer of modern science, the basic explanation for all of these alleged precursors would have made sense to educated early modern Japanese. See Saumitra Mukherjee, ed., Earthquake Prediction (Leiden: Brill, 2006).
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