Earthquakes and Media Sensationalism

The Kyoto earthquake of 1830 was a major event. However, given a death toll of two to three hundred, reports such as the following seem sensationally exaggerated: “At the fourth hour in the afternoon [the day after the main shock] another great earthquake occurred, and Kyoto is turned upside down. Even if the (second) earthquake had not occurred, the whole city would have burned down from the fires that were raging.”[1] Rumors spread rapidly, including reports of landslides and devastation in places far from the city that could not have experienced significant shaking. Indeed, in Wakasa, some eighteen villages were rumored to have sunk into a sea of mud caused by a (nonexistent) tsunami. In his detailed study of the Kyoto earthquake, Miki Haruo speculates that the rumors of sinking villages came directly out of literature published 130–170 years earlier about severe floods and other disasters in that area, including the Kanbun earthquake.[2] Writers in 1830 might even have mined much earlier sources from the region. For example, one account from the 1596 Keichō-Fushimi earthquake described a tsunami nearly wiping out the coastal villages in the Hyōgo area.[3] Miki's conclusion is that the mass media was responsible for rumormongering by exaggerating the destruction in 1830.[4] Sensational exaggeration was evident two years earlier in connection with the Sanjō earthquake, but circumstances such as its relatively remote location minimized the broader psychological impact of that event.[5]

Kitahara Itoko has followed up on Miki's basic conclusion. One factor she mentions was that the mass media network of the day uncritically recirculated material of dubious validity. Takizawa Bakin, for example, collected earthquake reports that included many inaccurate tabloid prints. Works written in jest such as Strange Earthquake Tales of the Capital Manzairaku Dance (Jishin kidan miyako manzairaku) and Strange Winds Letter (Fūkaijō) by “Catfish” were absorbed into other works. The former, for example, became part of Kasshi Night Tales (Kasshi yawa), and the latter became part of State of the Floating World (Ukiyō no arisama). State of the Floating World includes three other tabloid accounts. Reacting to this situation in popular media, five days after the main shock local authorities in Kyoto ineffectively banned the sale of any material promoting rumors.[6]

Kitahara mentions that a small, pamphletlike record of past earthquakes (jishin nenpyō) circulated after the earthquake. At its end, the document's author or authors state the motivation for its creation and publication: “This book was not written to alarm society. A variety of rumors about the Kyoto earthquake are floating around regions far and wide, and we have heard that people with relatives or acquaintances in Kyoto are worried. Therefore, we have written a summary of earthquakes and hope that it will calm the anxieties of people in distant places.”[7] This passage is nearly identical to the final page of Record of Earthquakes in Japan (Honchō jishinki) discussed in the previous chapter.[8] Most likely the work to which Kitahara refers is Record of Earthquakes in Japan in content if not in title. This statement of intent points to the phenomenon of broadside prints circulating widely, spreading exaggerated news of Kyoto's alleged destruction to other parts of Japan. Moreover, it is probable that the lurid accounts of the Kyoto earthquake served in part as models for press coverage of the Ansei Edo earthquake.[9] In any case, from the time of the Kyoto earthquake onward, media coverage extending throughout Japan became a feature of major earthquakes and other calamities.

Other factors combined with the competition to sell broadside newspapers contributed to the exaggerated sense of doom in Kyoto and beyond. Not only was Kyoto the imperial capital, but 1830 was an okage year. During the Tokugawa period, outbreaks of spontaneous mass pilgrimages, called okage-mairi or nuke-mairi, periodically occurred on a multiprovince, regional scale. People would drop what they were doing and make their way to the Ise Shrine, often with a bacchanalian atmosphere prevailing among the group. The pilgrims would march and dance their way toward Ise, living off donations. There were three especially large-scale occurrences in 1705, 1771, and 1830, with as much as a third of the population of some areas participating. State of the Floating World conjoins the 1830 earthquake and the pilgrimages. According to its account, the deities created the earthquake to punish the people of Kyoto for alleged stinginess in assisting the pilgrims. The people of Yamato and Kawachi, on the other hand, were generous in helping Ise Shrine visitors, and the deities rewarded them with a bountiful harvest.[10] Again we see the common rhetorical device of using earthquakes to amplify an author's social message.

The Kyoto earthquake made an impression throughout Japan much greater than its estimated 6.5 magnitude and relatively modest death toll might suggest. It also occurred just before what would turn out to be a poor harvest and the start of the Tenpō Famine. From the vantage point of hindsight, many accounts of Japan's history regard the Bakumatsu era as starting in 1830. Even from the perspective of the 1840s or 1850s, it might reasonably appear that 1830 was the start of a series of major changes and upheavals. I take up this and related matters in chapter 5.

  • [1] Ukiyō no arisama, quoted in Miki, Kyōto daijishin, 74, 105.
  • [2] Miki, Kyōto daijishin, 75–78. See pp. 79–86 for the details of other rumors.
  • [3] “Hyōgo kenshi, bekkan” in NJS, hoi (supplement), 93.
  • [4] Miki, Kyōto daijishin, 87–88.
  • [5] A two-part kawaraban print of the Sanjō Earthquake can be found in Nishimaki Kōzaburō, ed. Kawaraban shinbun: Edo, Meiji sanbyaku jiken, vol. 1 (Heibonsha, 1978), 61. It claims a wildly exaggerated death toll of 30,000.
  • [6] Kitahara Itoko, Jishin no shakaishi: Ansei daijishin to minshū (Kōdansha, 2000), 92–93. For a good example of exaggerated damage reports, see the first sentences of “Jishin kidan miyako manzairaku” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 558.
  • [7] Quoted in Kitahara, Jishin no shakaishi, 93.
  • [8] Toyo Tokinari, Honchō jishinki. Edo josei bunko, vol. 49 (Ōzorasha, 1994), no pagination.
  • [9] Kitahara, Jishin no shakaishi, 93.
  • [10] Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 214–216.
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