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An account of the Genroku earthquake described it as a “deadly disaster unprecedented since the creation of Japan.”[1] Similarly, Night Tales of Kasshi contains a brief essay on the Sanjō earthquake, which argues that 1828 was an unlucky year in general because of flood damage in several areas of Honshu and typhoons in Kyushu so powerful that Dutch sailors reported they had never experienced such storms. Indeed, the overall situation was “unprecedented since ancient times.”[2] It was the nature of severe earthquakes to stimulate large-scale thought with respect to time, place, and intensity. Those who lived through early modern earthquakes and wrote about them repeatedly described the events as “unprecedented” (zendai-mimon or mizō). One reason was the timing. Major earthquakes were frequent, but not so frequent as to be in the living memory of most Japanese at any given time. Someone who experienced a severe earthquake was usually doing so for the first time in his or her life. Therefore, the event would have seemed unprecedented. Moreover, when writers qualified their use of “unprecedented,” for greater impact they often employed reference points extending far into the past and widely across a geographic zone that included all of Japan.

Characterizing an earthquake as unprecedented also raised the possibility that something had gone terribly wrong with the world. Indeed, one possibility for interpreting major earthquakes was to regard them as vectors of cosmically ordained change, typically marking the end of an era. In traditional Inca society, for example, major natural disasters periodically occurred regardless of human merit, turned the world upside down, and announced an apocalypse that began a new era. Similar views of disasters can be found among Aztecs, Hopi, and Ute tribes in North America.[3] Classical Chinese notions of the mandate of heaven adhered to a similar logic. Despite the practice of changing era names after some large earthquakes or other disasters, the approach to earthquakes in Japan tended to be quite the opposite: an affirmation of the unchanging, unshakable foundations of society, often embodied in the imperial court. As we will see in chapter 5, however, one line of interpretation of the Ansei Edo earthquake did come close to suggesting that the event was a harbinger of momentous change. In this sense, the Ansei Edo earthquake was a partial exception to the propensity of Japanese commentators to normalize earthquakes.

In response to initial characterizations of an earthquake as unprecedented, a second wave of commentators typically pointed out that the recent earthquake was not an event without precedent. A typical example is Account of Chastisement and Shaking (Chōshin hiroku) from the Sanjō earthquake, the final section of which begins with a discussion of past earthquakes, starting from the time of Emperor Tenmu. It explains that although earthquakes seem to be unprecedented, looking into the past reveals that they occur regularly.[4] This historicizing approach was part of a rhetoric of reassurance. At the core of this rhetoric was a claim that Japan is resilient to seismic upheavals, not to mention lesser calamities. Earthquakes also served as opportunities to discuss and characterize Japan in other ways.

Rhetoric of Reassurance

The obvious aspect of the rhetoric of reassurance was its historicizing approach, which transformed earthquakes from anomalies to at least semiregular, seminormal events. One facet of this approach was a tendency for some earthquakes to prompt a discovery of specific past earthquakes as being especially relevant or significant in hindsight. Sometimes the reason was simply to remind readers that a massive seismic event had taken place in the same area far in the past. The 1707 Hōei earthquake, for example, promoted discussion of the Hakuhō earthquake of 684. Kokuryōki, an account of Tosa after the Hōei earthquake, contains a description of the Hakuhō earthquake, the earliest recorded massively destructive earthquake in Japan. Hakuhō submerged approximately twelve square kilometers of farmland in Tosa. “From Hakuhō to Hōei 4,” the discussion concludes, “is a period of 1,022 years”[5]—long but not unprecedented. Indeed, the term “1,000-year earthquake” is now common in Japan as a result of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Sometimes the previous major earthquake to shake the same area served as a beginning point in discussing a particularly significant sequence of earthquakes from the perspective of the present event. Materials from the Ansei Edo earthquake, for example, frequently regarded the Kyoto earthquake and especially the Zenkōji earthquake as significant recently past earthquakes. In a typical example, the catfish print Earthquake Taiheiki (Jishin Taiheiki) features a large group of catfish clad in robes bowing down to the Kashima deity, who hovers above them. The catfish represent past earthquakes, and the lengthy text features each of them apologizing for their disruptive deeds. The series of earthquakes begins with the 1703 Genroku earthquake, the previous major earthquake to shake Edo, and includes the Hōei earthquake, the 1804 Dewa earthquake, the Sanjō earthquake, the Kyoto earthquake, the Zenkōji earthquake, and the Odawara earthquake.[6] It may be significant that very few works from Ansei Edo included the recent Ansei Tōkai and Nankai earthquakes in their configurations of important earthquakes from the past. Perhaps these large, destructive earthquakes occurring within the same era were too close for comfort. In modern times, this historicizing approach has transformed into the idea of a natural, cyclical occurrence of catastrophes. In Japan and elsewhere, the idea of periodically occurring “characteristic earthquakes” (koyū jishin) is deeply entrenched in both general and scientific thinking, despite recent criticism from prominent seismologists.[7] More generally, there is a tendency to speak of major fires, floods, storms, and other catastrophes as “ year” events, revealing an assumption of at least semiregular occurrence. As anthropologist Susanna M. Hoffman explains, discussing contemporary U.S. society, “Earthquakes and avalanches are not only due, but should they miss their deadline, 'overdue.' The informal cyclical thinking is perpetuated by scientists and their ominous yet vague forecasts.” Moreover, through this informal notion of cyclical occurrence, “Americans, like other peoples, culturally manipulate catastrophes so that they appear, both in prediction and certainly in aftermath, to be anticipated and normal.”[8] The historicizing of earthquakes in early modern Japanese rhetoric was an early form of this normalizing strategy.

Another approach was to extend the geographic scope of the discussion to include China and possibly other countries. After the Kanbun earthquake, for example, True Record of Gen'en (Gen'en jitsuroku) reflected on past earthquakes. It begins with a question posed to shogunal scholar Hayashi Shunsai (Gahō). After a summary of the death and destruction caused by the current earthquake, Shunsai is asked whether such events have taken place in the past. He responds, “Such things have occurred in both Japan and China.” His first example is a 1293 earthquake during the reign of Emperor Fushimi that caused death and destruction in Kamakura, which he pairs with a Chinese earthquake “also at about that time” (1290, according to the sexagenary cycle date) that killed seven thousand. Next is a Japanese earthquake from 1290, followed by a Chinese earthquake that killed 22,300. The passage ends by stating that there were many more earthquakes besides these.[9] We have seen other examples such as Foundation

Stone that discussed Chinese earthquakes, often stressing the occurrence of such events during the reigns of sagely kings and emperors. One obvious effect of such discussion was to point out that earthquakes have occurred during well-governed reigns and on a worldwide scope. More subtly, at least vis-à-vis earthquakes, Japan and China were roughly on a par: two lands of great antiquity, well governed, occasionally tested by shaking, and resilient. Indeed, we will see in chapter 5 that it was common in both medieval and early modern rhetoric to declare Japan to be “small” or otherwise seemingly insignificant on the world stage as a setup for asserting its strength and greatness.

Comparisons with China helped situate Japan in a broader world. Similarly, early modern earthquakes had the effect of broadening perspectives beyond the local level. At a time when the primary geographic identification of most Japanese was with their kuni (province or daimyō domain) or even a smaller community, powerful seismic waves served as reminders of the broader realm of Japan. Because most large earthquakes were indeed felt over a wide area, it was relatively easy to imagine them shaking a place called Japan. One account of the Hōei earthquake in Tosa claims that “no parts of Japan were spared from this earthquake, though Kyoto suffered only a little. In general, the area along the Tōkaidō suffered the most destruction. The routes in Kyushu encountered some damage and Shikoku was especially hard hit. Within Shikoku, Tosa suffered great damage.”[10] Although ultimately focused on Tosa, the shaking of the earthquake brought forth an image of Japan and some of its major regions. The writer, describing the degrees of damage here and there, does not even mention vast areas of Japan, yet he imagines the earthquake to have shaken the whole country.

Following an earthquake of a similar scope and intensity, the Ansei Nankai earthquake, a writer in Osaka, after describing some of the far-flung areas affected, concluded, “Truly, this earthquake seems to be an event for the entire country of Japan.”[11] Earthquakes often perceptually refreshed the geographic links between one's local region and the larger entity of Japan. One commentator on the Zenkōji earthquake, for example, wrote, “As if attached to a flying horse, Shinano [Nagano] is the high ground of the imperial country [kōkoku]. Therefore, it is the source of many rivers of various provinces [shokoku].”[12] The focus in most pieces of earthquake literature tended to be local, but the seismic event often situated one's home province in the larger entity of Japan.

  • [1] “Kiki kōki,” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 284.
  • [2] “Kasshi yawa,” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 523.
  • [3] 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), 131.
  • [4] “Chōshin hiroku, gekan,” in NRJSS, vol. 3, 237–241.
  • [5] Okumiya Masaaki, Kokuryōki (no date or publisher), nineteenth page face, or “Kokuryōki,” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 321. Regarding the Hakuhō Earthquake, see Itō, Jishin to funka no Nihonshi, 8–10. A second entry in Kokuryōki also describes the Hakuhō earthquake and the massive inundation of fields, which “since then have been the ocean.” The passage explains that knowledge of the Hakuhō earthquake has been passed down in Tosa as local legend but without definite proof. In any case, the present earthquake is “unprecedented since ancient times.” “Kokuryōki” (the second “Kokuryōki” entry), in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 330. For a diagram showing land loss in Tosa before and after the Hakuhō earthquake, see NJS, hoi (supplement), 2–3.
  • [6] Print #73, in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 288–291.
  • [7] See Yan Y. Kagan, David G. Jackson, and Robert J. Geller, “Characteristic Earthquake Model, 1884–2011, R.I.P.,” Seismological Research Letters 83 (November/December 2012): 951–953, and Robert Geller (Robaato Geraa), Nihonjin wa shiranai “jishin yochi” no shōtai (Futabasha, 2012), 160–161.
  • [8] Hoffman, “The Monster and the Mother,” 133.
  • [9] “Gen’en jitsuroku,” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 250–251. The reign name date for the first Chinese earthquake, “Xiangxing 27,” is impossible because this reign lasted only one year, from 1278 to 1279. Asai Ryōi also mentions the same Chinese earthquake that killed seven thousand. See Asai, Kaname’ishi, 69.
  • [10] “Kōretsu hikki” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 329.
  • [11] “Zoku jishin zassan,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 428.
  • [12] “Koizumi Sōken nichiroku,” in NRJSS, vol. 2, 233.
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