Table of Contents:

Patterns of Rebuilding

Rebuilding and recovery began soon after the main shock of the earthquake. The many daimyō with destroyed or heavily damaged mansions were eager to repair them as quickly as possible, in part for pragmatic reasons and for the sake of appearances. Plasterers, carpenters, and others were eager to partake of this rebuilding and reap the high-wage rewards. One small illustration of this phenomenon comes from Miyazaki Narumi, who tells of a carpenter who left his own destroyed house, wife, and child to make money working on the mansion of the Sakai daimyō. The carpenter received 100 ryō and a rice stipend, but Narumi is ambivalent in assessing the carpenter's actions, regarding them as evidence of “lighthearted wisdom.”[1] As we have seen, Sakuma Chōkei explained with the benefit of hindsight that this high-profit environment gradually returned to normal owing to market forces. What about the long-term rebuilding of Edo? When, for example, was the city back to the way it was before the earthquake? Most studies of the earthquake have neglected this matter, in part because it can be assessed only indirectly. In two different studies, Kitahara has attempted to answer these questions using documents indicating the status of rebuilding projects from the City Magistrate and from the Treasury Office (Kanjōbugyō).

The earthquake dislocated the wooden troughs that carried water through the Tamagawa Waterworks and the bamboo pipes that connected them. The worst leakage was at Yotsuya-ōdōri because of a gap between the pipes and the stone trough. Several popular prints depicted the water leakage in this area. On the tenth day of the tenth month, the agency operating the waterworks (Fushinbugyō) dispatched a carpenter crew chief to Hanemura. It is not clear what he or his crew did, but the city paid travel expenses until the end of the eleventh month. In the second month of 1856, the water was stopped for five days, and soon thereafter repair work on Edo's wooden troughs began. Repairs continued through at least the twelfth month of 1859. Because the person in charge of earthquake-related construction, including the waterworks, received an award from the bakufu in the twelfth month of 1856, it is likely that all or most essential construction and repair was completed by then—even if complete reconstruction dragged on for several more years.[2] Reconstruction of administrative buildings and the duty residences of major officials began in the tenth month of 1855 and continued until the twelfth month of 1859. Gates and bridges were repaired at a rate of at least one per month, and the whole process took until the tenth month of 1859. Essential repairs were competed by the fourth month of 1857.[3]

One complicating factor in assessing construction progress was the severe typhoon that tore through Edo ten months after the earthquake. It undoubtedly slowed earthquake reconstruction or caused some work to be redone. Summarizing the larger reconstruction picture, the first three months after the earthquake was a time of emergency measures. Early in 1856, systematic rebuilding began in earnest, and the essential work was mostly finished by the end of that year. During 1857, the pace of rebuilding slowed, and some projects dragged on until the end of 1859.[4]


The Ansei Edo earthquake shook the shogun's capital, which was among the largest cities in the world. The earthquake did not focus its destructive fury on downtrodden commoners, as Markus and Clancey have suggested, nor did it take aim mainly at the bakufu, as Noguchi has suggested. Patterns of destruction were mainly a function of the nature of the soil base, and areas built on unconsolidated fill included commoner neighborhoods, prime bakufu and warrior real estate, the offshore artillery batteries, and a prominent playground of the rich, Shin-Yoshiwara. The earthquake occurred at a time when the bakufu, while still the supreme military authority in Japan, was beginning to weaken in ways that would ultimately lead to its demise. The disaster imposed serious financial strain on the bakufu, especially insofar as it was obligated to provide generous relief to its retainers. Bakufu grants and zero-interest loans mitigated the financial strain on retainers and fudai daimyō. Most tozama daimyō (the “outside lords”) resided in areas of minimal damage. The bakufu also took the unprecedented step of temporarily relaxing daimyō attendance requirements. Therefore, the earthquake had the overall effect of weakening the bakufu vis-à-vis the daimyō. The willingness of some daimyō to launch high-profile relief efforts may also have reflected relative bakufu weakness.

The bakufu, or more specifically the City Magistrate and Machigaisho, performed well in directing the relief effort for townspeople. The earthquake did not cause any serious outbreaks of violence, nor did it become an occasion for popular anti-bakufu sentiment. Dealing with the earthquake was probably the last major challenge that the bakufu handled expeditiously. Nevertheless, a closer examination of the psychological impact of the earthquake reveals that it played a role in undermining bakufu power beyond the obvious drain of financial resources. The next chapter examines several less obvious effects of the earthquake on the political balance of power.

Popular discourse quickly labeled the earthquake an instance of yonaoshi—world renewal or world rectification. Indeed, the Ansei Edo earthquake was the first seismic upheaval characterized in this way. Despite the grandiose implication of the term taken literally, in the majority of instances “world renewal” referred to a short-term transfer of wealth, mainly within the ranks of the townspeople. One important factor was the devastation of fudai daimyō mansions, which pushed up the demand for skilled labor. In this milieu, members of the construction trades, those who sold items or services that supported the construction trades and rebuilding effort, and even unskilled laborers enjoyed windfall profits. These profits were the essence of the typical characterization of the earthquake as world renewal. However, the earthquake did produce another more ominous sense of world renewal to be examined in the next chapter.

  • [1] “Ansei itsubō jishin kibun,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 441–442.
  • [2] Kitahara, “Saigai no shakaizō,” 81–83, 86.
  • [3] For documents detailing post-earthquake repairs, see NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 166–176, and Kitahara, “Saigai no shakaizō,” 84–88. For details on what was repaired when, see zu 2-17 and 2-18 in Chūō bōsō kaigi, 1855 Ansei Edo jishin hōkokusho, 118, 199.
  • [4] Kitahara, “Saigai no shakaizō,” 86, 88–92.
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