Earthquakes as Drama

Major earthquakes produced drama. The earth itself produced terrifying convulsions of destruction and created extreme conditions for some of the survivors. There was undoubtedly plenty of actual drama in the streets of the stricken cities and towns, but of course what remains for us are written records. Just as moralists and social critics used the occurrence of earthquakes to amplify their messages, writers seized on earthquakes as raw material for entertaining tales. Typically, such stories presented themselves as factual and accurate accounts, and some may have been. However, we have no way to verify the vast majority of earthquake tales. This point deserves highlighting, especially in light of the practice of some modern writers to take unverifiable early modern accounts at face value as evidence of possible coseismic signals.[1] Early modern earthquake tales are rarely useful as evidence of actual occurrences. Their value to scholars is in bringing social values into sharp relief.

Works such as Ansei Record were commercial ventures. Although much of the work clearly appeals to a visceral fascination with disaster and strange tales, the introduction stakes out high moral ground for the work: “Humans possess five states of ki and seven emotions. Amidst joy and anger, sorrow and elation, people's minds are apt to become disordered and they lose their ordinary presence of mind. If we deepen the scope of our contemplation during ordinary times, then even at times of extreme danger or ill fortune, we will be able to act without forgetting our social obligations and righteousness. Thus we present detailed exemplary tales that will inspire even ordinary women and children.”[2]

Exciting drama was the selling point of Ansei Record, but much like Ryōi's Foundation Stone, Ansei Record postured as a beneficial work of moral edification. Elsewhere in the front matter, readers are told that the point of the work is not to inquire into the veracity of the stories it tells but to encourage loyalty, filial piety, and righteousness among our descendants.[3] On this point, Ansei Record contrasts rhetorically with Ansei Chronicle, which claimed to have carefully assessed the accuracy of the tales it reported.

Foundation Stone was the first work of commercial earthquake literature. It consists of three volumes. The first describes scenes of devastation in Kyoto, sometimes in graphic detail. These scenes include the mourning of parents whose children were crushed under a falling stone lantern, the collapse of part of the Gojō stone bridge, the collapse of the stone tower of the Kiyomizu Temple, the collapse of two hundred earthen storehouses around the city, the deafening noise made by the temple bells as they beat against their wooden ringers, and the affixing of sacred verses to gateposts in the midst of aftershocks.

The second volume deals with a variety of reports, tales, and rumors from areas beyond Kyoto. There were deadly landslides in Fushimi, for example, and several of the area's castles and the towns around them suffered serious damage. The Komatsu River in Kaga became obstructed and flooded. Even worse, there were rumors that Tsuruga in Echizen might be underwater owing to inundation from the ocean, and only four or five inns in Ōmi's Imazu remained standing. The landslides made for especially gripping narrative. Over one hundred died in Kutsuki, for example, and Katsuragawa suffered house-burying landslides from a partially collapsed mountain. Survivors above ground could hear the cries of buried victims. There were too few survivors, however, to mount an effective rescue, and after four or five days, the cries stopped. Such tales of death and destruction from the Kanbun earthquake were probably recycled during the 1830 Kyoto earthquake, as we will see. The third volume, discussed in the previous chapter, summarizes explanations of earthquakes derived from Chinese and Buddhist metaphysics, lists major past earthquakes, and ultimately seeks to reassure readers that society will flourish. Foundation Stone functioned as a template for later works that attempted to capture the total experience of major earthquakes.[4]

One of those works was Record of Chastisement and Shaking (Chōshin hiroku), a product of the Sanjō earthquake. The bulk of the work consists of tales from the earthquake that illustrate moral principles. One section entitled “Greed is Difficult to Stop” starts with a story of a clothing store whose owner is so concerned with salvaging his money boxes that he stays too long in the burning structure, gets his foot caught under a beam, and has to amputate it with an ax. After much suffering, he dies from his wound. The moral of the story is stated baldly at the end: “Even tens of millions of coins” cannot purchase one's life. Following the story of the storeowner is a similar one about a merchant who burns to death after getting both legs caught in a beam. It is illustrated and shows a passerby burdened with an armload of moneyboxes unable to help.[5] The titles of other sections include “Honest to a Fault,” “Things beyond One's Strength,” “Chastity,” “An Impressive Person,” “Power of the Deities,” “Loyalty and Courage,” “A Heartwarming Person,” “Cowardice,” “Circumstances,” and “Discussion.” Record of Chastisement and Shaking contrasts with an anonymous collection of stories from the same earthquake of households that suffered death or injury, interspersed with lists of names of victims. These obituary-like tales report the details of the causes of death (usually falling beams) without drama or moralizing.[6]

After the Ansei Edoearthquake, shogunalbannerman Miyazaki Narumi was a relatively rare example of a warrior who wrote a detailed account of the event. Narumi tells of a guard at the Wadakura Gate whose arm became pinned between falling beams. Fires approached and, there being no choice, his comrades used a sword to amputate his arm. The guard died three days later, and “while his case deserves our pity,” concluded Narumi, “compared with the extreme loyalty the old woman who sacrificed herself for her master displayed in the previous entry, the death of the guard desperate to save his own life seems pathetic.” In the previous passage, Narumi had described an elderly servant who died to save a young daimyō wife.[7]

In another tale, Narumi reports at length on the travails of a man named Hayashida in Koishikawa. His pregnant wife and mother were sleeping on the second floor when the earthquake struck, the main beam pining both down. Hayashida called for a servant to help him, but the position of the two women was such that pulling up on the beam to relieve pressure on the mother increased the pressure on the wife and vice versa. The man decided to rescue his mother first, which crushed his wife to death. Narumi's evaluation of the matter was critical of Hayshida because he was in the prime of his life and should have thought the matter out more clearly. “While seeking single-mindedly to save his mother and casting aside his wife may resemble the filial way, a moment of thought followed by a call to neighbors for help would have permitted lifting both ends of the beam and saving mother, wife, and child.”[8] Hayashida's lack of mental dexterity and the rigid eitheror choice might have prompted critical readers to question the veracity of the tale. Indeed, many such tales from Ansei Edo or previous earthquakes featured moral choices cast in suspiciously stark and unrealistic terms.

Ansei Chronicle presented itself as on-the-spot reporting. Published without the proper authorization, it sold out its first print run in 1856 before being banned by a bakufu determined to reassert a measure of control over the publishing industry.[9] Ostensibly anonymous, as noted in chapter 2 the main author was almost certainly popular fiction writer Kanagaki Robun. Several different illustrators provided dramatic visual images to accompany Robun's prose. Some of the diverse material in the Ansei Chronicle was original, but much of it came directly or indirectly from other sources. For example, a script of dramatic chants about the earthquake called “Mikawa manzai” appears in Fujiokaya Diary (Fujiokaya

nikki) amidst material relevant to the tenth month of 1855. Mikawa manzai was a form of popular drama with roots in the same geographic location as the Tokugawa house. The identical item later appeared in Ansei Chronicle.[10] Similarly, a tale about a man who thought his wife died in the earthquake and, upon seeing her later, fled thinking that she was a ghost appears first in Miyazaki Narumi's account and later in Ansei Chronicle.[11] The different Ansei Edo earthquake accounts picked up tales that were circulating in the weeks after the main shock, and it is usually impossible to know either the provenance or veracity of any particular story.

Comprehensive discussion of earthquake morality tales is beyond the scope of this study, but it is worthwhile to survey a few typical examples from Ansei Chronicle. The servant Kane was an exemplar of loyalty who gave no thought to her own injuries but instead rushed to the aid of the household head, trapped under a beam, and two other injured family members. Bakufu officials formally rewarded her with fifteen pieces of silver for selfless and devoted attention to duty. The next story tells of a selfish, disloyal manservant for explicit contrast with Kane. The obvious conclusion was that the two “are as different as black and white.”[12]

In another tale, the courtesan Mayuzumi, whose childhood name was Kane, sold her combs and hairpins to purchase over twelve hundred cooking pots for the temporary shelters the bakufu had installed. She received an award from the bakufu and became famous. It turned out that her motive in part was to meet the parents she had not seen since age seven.[13]

One tale designed to invoke a sense of pity or compassion was that of the tragic case of Miuraya, a Shin-Yoshiwara brothel whose women all took shelter from the shaking in an underground storehouse but perished in the fires that swept through the district.[14] The psychological impact of the destruction of the elite brothel district was profound, and it was frequently the setting for tragic earthquake tales.

For dramatic impact, there was the story of samurai Yamaguchi Shūhei, whose arm was pinned beneath a beam. As fire approached, he told his son to cut off his arm with a sword, thus resulting in a filial piety–related drama. At first, the son could not bear to do violence to his father, but he finally succeeded. Father and son escaped the flames, and their lord later rewarded the son.[15] Contrast the ending of this tale with Miyazaki Narumi's comments on the Wadakura Gate guard in a similar situation.

As we have seen, a tale found in both Narumi's account and Ansei Chronicle featured a wife (named Yasu in the Ansei Chronicle version) who found herself trapped under a beam. As the fire drew nearer, she implored her husband to save himself for the sake of their three children. He vowed to raise the children and there was a dramatic, emotional farewell before he made his escape. As the flames consumed the beam, however, it became light enough to permit the wife to escape. When she went to rejoin her husband, he saw her approaching, disheveled and covered with soot, and assumed that she was a ghost.[16]

In another tale, firefighters heroically risked their lives to save dozens of women of a prominent household in Ogasawara. The firefighters prospered from generous monetary rewards, and Ansei Chronicle concluded from this tale that one's prosperity or decline is a matter of one's own actions, which are repaid in kind.[17]

The tales mentioned thus far are examples of extraordinary deeds that fall, at least barely, within the realm of what was possible. Although Ansei Chronicle portrayed its accounts of these matters as simply reporting the facts on the ground, it is hard to imagine there was not some degree of editorial work to make the tales fit perceived reader interest and stock emotional and moral points.[18]

Other Ansei Chronicle tales deal with supernatural or uncanny phenomena. For example, there are two tales of supernatural warnings. In one, a fox possessed a man to warn him that there would be an earthquake on the second day of the tenth month. He left town and returned to do business after the shaking had subsided, at which time the fox dropped its spell over him.[19] In another, a woman saw her deceased father in a dream, and he ordered her to flee from the house in which she was serving as an apprentice. The earthquake struck the next day.[20]

Other tales involve the power of the deities or tales of karmic retribution. In one, the wooden statue of Kannon at Sensōji's Thunder Gate (Kaminari Mon) disappeared at the time of the earthquake. The rumor was that it knew the earthquake was about to strike and left the area. The temple denied the veracity of the rumor, saying that a priest had removed the statue for repairs. However, the rumor of Kannon's predictive powers persisted and expanded. A statue of a wooden horse behind the main hall of the temple was found with mud on its feet after the earthquake. The conclusion was that Kannon mounted the horse to escape the shaking.[21] In another tale, a cruel-hearted couple favored their biological daughter and neglected their adopted but very filial daughter. They even tried to sell her, but they perished in the earthquake and she survived. This tale was but a slight variant on a common folk motif, one of the more obviously nonoriginal parts of Ansei Chronicle.[22]

The specific values advanced in early modern earthquake morality tales are the usual fare of sincerity, loyalty, filial piety, courage, generosity, and so forth. More significant is the overall message of individual agency. By remaining calm, thoughtful, and resolute in a crisis, people can do much to extricate themselves and those around them from danger. This attitude is similar to that underlying popular religious devotion. In this realm, too, people can act to enhance their chances of survival or prosperity by forging alliances with deities through devotion. Indeed, especially late in the Tokugawa period, we find some Japanese rejecting the power of deities entirely in favor of the power of human intelligence. By 1856, some writers even imagined technology based on this intelligence that might predict, prevent, or mitigate the harmful effects of earthquakes.

  • [1] Ikeya, for example, claims that the loss of magnetism in the stone at the glasses shop discussed in the previous chapter was “an event known to have occurred two hours before the Ansei Edo Earthquake.” See Ikeya Motoji, Earthquakes and Animals: From Folk Legends to Science (River Edge, NJ: World Scientific, 2004), vi; see also 5, 12, 13, 15, and 88 for other examples of taking early modern journalistic accounts at face value. Ikeya is hardly alone in this tendency, which I discuss more fully in chapter 6. A true coseismic signal, if such a thing exists, would be a measurable phenomenon that varies in a regular, predictable manner in relation to seismic activity.
  • [2] AKR, vol. 1, 1–2 (jo no ichi, jo no ni). See also Arakawa, Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 18.
  • [3] AKR, vol. 1, 2 (jo no san). See also Arakawa, Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 22.
  • [4] Kitahara, “Saigai to jōhō,” 239.
  • [5] “Chōshin hiroku, jōkan/gekan,” in NRJSS, vol. 3, 220–222.
  • [6] “Jishin henji go-kyūtōsho,” in NRJSS, vol. 3, 241–255.
  • [7] “Ansei itsubō jishin kibun,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 440.
  • [8] “Ansei itsubō jishin kibun,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 436.
  • [9] For an extensive analysis of the possible reasons for the ban, see Kitahara, Jishin no shakaishi, 156–182. Kitahra concludes that Ansei Chronicle was not banned because it contained anti-bakufu sentiment, nor because it included some prints that had previously been banned. The main reason was that it was published without approval soon after city authorities had issued repeated prohibitions against such items. In short, its appearance in print at that time (early 1856), not its content, was a de facto provocation.
  • [10] FN, 517–518, and AKS, vol. 2, 7–9. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 140–142.
  • [11] “Ansei itsubō jishin kibun,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 437 and AKS, vol. 1, vicinity of p. 15 or 16, near the large illustration of the banks of the Tenjin River in Honjo in flames. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 121–122, 124 and Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 16–17.
  • [12] AKS, vol. 3, 16. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 187–188.
  • [13] AKS, vol. 2, 6. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 138–139.
  • [14] AKS, vol. 3, 21–22 with brief mention in vol. 2, in the text of the illustration of Shin-Yoshiwara located between pp. 2 & 4. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 148–149, 196–197.
  • [15] AKS, vol. 3, tale with illustration inserted after p.12 See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 182–183.
  • [16] “Ansei itsubō jishin kibun,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 437 and AKS, vol. 1, vicinity of p. 15 or 16, near the large illustration of the banks of the Tenjin River in Honjo in flames. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 121–122, 124 and Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 16–17.
  • [17] AKS, vol. 1, 16. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 124–125.
  • [18] Kitahara, Jishin no shakaishi, 167. For a summary of many of these tales, see pp. 164–167, 206–207.
  • [19] AKS, vol. 2, 16. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 143–144.
  • [20] AKS, vol. 3, 17. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 189.
  • [21] AKS, vol. 3, 17. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 190.
  • [22] AKS, vol. 2, 16. See also Arakawa Jitsuroku, Ō-Edo kaimetsu no hi, 161–162. See Kitahara, Jishin no shakaishi, 167–169 for summaries and a brief discussion of the supernatural tales. Regarding the overall literary nature of the Kenmonshi, see Stephan Köhn, “Between Fiction and Non-Fiction: Documentary Literature in the Late Edo Period,” in Susanne Formanek and Sepp Linhart, Written Texts—Visual Texts: Woodblock-Printed Media in Early Modern Japan (Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005), 283–310.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >