The Ansei Edo Earthquake in Modern Memory

One point to stress at the outset is that the carnivalesque aspects of the Ansei Edo earthquake, so prominent in 1855 and 1856, quickly faded. Even before the end of the Tokugawa period, the earthquake had become solely a terrifying and tragic event. In the back of the minds of many of Tokyo's residents was a fear that an event like Ansei Edo would recur. Smaller earthquakes served to kindle this anxiety. The population looked to the scientific community for reassurance and appropriate warnings in the hope of mitigating future large earthquakes. Anthropologist Susanna M. Hoffman provides a useful framework by characterizing modern catastrophes into two categories: “technological” versus “natural” disasters. Technological disasters are failures of human society, such as the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown. These disasters “never pass from history to myth,” nor do they have any redemptive qualities beyond serving as examples of errors to avoid in the future. Natural disasters, on the other hand, though often horrific at the time of occurrence, are often interpreted as having a good or redemptive side.[1] Hoffman's insights help explain the modern view of Ansei Edo as ominous, despite its earlier interpretation as a redemptive event.

In keeping with its complex, transitional character, the Ansei Edo earthquake was a “natural” disaster at the time of its occurrence and during its immediate aftermath. As we have seen at great length, it was an instance of world renewal to many of Edo's townspeople. Indeed, the major iterations of the earthquake catfish nicely illustrate Hoffman's point that disaster symbolism typically exhibits dualism in the form of creative and benevolent forces (often metaphorically marked as “mother”) in tension with destructive and fearsome forces (often marked as “monster”).[2] In 1855 or 1856, both aspects were present, but creative themes of renewal were dominant. We have seen, however, that in the intellectual realm the Ansei Edo earthquake prompted a rethinking of the causes of earthquakes and encouraged the view that human agency could predict and mitigate the destructive effects of earthquakes. It is most likely for this reason that early in the Meiji era, Ansei Edo shifted from a natural disaster to a technological disaster. Its destructive power was, at least in part, the result of failure to read the warning signs. It was an error that, hopefully, modern seismologists would help avoid in the future. People perhaps feared that the expectation that seismologists can predict earthquakes was too high a bar, and the Ansei Edo earthquake lurked in the background of modern Tokyo as an ominous possibility, a monster lurking within the earth, not entirely banished or brought under control. One manifestation of this fear was a tendency to exaggerate the 1855 fatality count.

To sketch the legacy of the Ansei Edo earthquake in modern times, I rely mainly on articles appearing in the Yomiuri shinbun, a major daily newspaper from the beginning of the Meiji era to the present. One force sustaining public memory of the earthquake was memorial services. The Yomiuri announced a Buddhist memorial service in 1877, for example, at Kaikōin in Ryōgoku, to be held the first three days of October. The announcement claimed that the number of earthquake dead amounted to “several tens of thousands” (nan man).[3] Other announcements of memorial services appeared from time to time, and some made claims about the nature of the earthquake. One 1887 announcement of services for the thirty-third anniversary of the earthquake stated that approximately ten thousand unidentified victims were buried in a mound at Jōkanji. Because most of these victims were likely to have come from Yoshiwara, the mound is called “Yoshiwara-zuka.”[4] In these announcements, the death toll is inflated, albeit moderately. An announcement for the forty-first anniversary services in 1894 stated that “several tens of thousands” (sūman nin) died.[5] A 1903 announcement of a forty-ninth anniversary memorial service stated that it would be held in the flower garden of the Yoshiwara brothel district and that the service would feature a procession of children reading sutras.[6] In the context of these memorial services, of course, the sense of world renewal present in the original event was completely absent.

The Ansei Edo earthquake also served as a challenge for the emerging discipline of seismology. It became a baseline against which to measure improvement. The goal for modern science was to provide the knowledge that would lead to better prediction of earthquakes, better recommendations about how to react to earthquakes, and earthquake-resistant construction methods. An announcement for an 1888 meeting of the Earthquake Study Society (Jishin Gakkai), for example, explained that Sekiya Seikei (1855–1896) would lecture on the Ansei Edo earthquake and that there would be a lecture in English on seismometers and related topics.[7] The Ansei Edo earthquake quickly became an integral part of modern Japanese seismological knowledge.

For this reason, the Ansei Edo earthquake often served as a point of comparison in articles about different aspects of earthquakes. An 1885 article speculating on links between earthquakes and storms featured a dramatic graphic image of the bent spire of Sensōji and implied a link between the earthquake and the typhoon that struck ten months later.[8] Another article that year by Tomisawa Isao on the topic of earthquakes and petroleum speculated that should another earthquake on the scale of Ansei Edo occur, it would destroy all of Tokyo because of widespread petroleum use.[9] With the firestorms of 1923 in mind, Tomisawa's analysis seems prescient.

Most likely owing to aftershocks connected with the October 28, 1891, Nōbi earthquake, some residents of Tokyo reported slight shaking at almost the precise thirty-seventh anniversary of the Ansei Edo earthquake. A November 4 article explained that although the weather was nice, many residents of the capital were on edge, because they thought the air was too warm. The article reported that some nervous residents spent the night in prayer, asking that it pass calmly.[10] The concern with unseasonably warm weather was a legacy of the idea that earthquake shaking was the result of yang energy seeking to escape upward. The warmth came from some of this energy seeping out, and unseasonably warm weather was a commonly cited early modern precursor.[11] Alleged links between weather and earthquakes remains a prominent theme in much of the literature on earthquake prediction.[12]

One result of the powerful Nōbi earthquake was a strong turn toward science, particularly the new science of seismology. In the wake of this earthquake, the Meiji state established its first interdisciplinary scientific body, the Imperial Earthquake Investigation Committee (Shinsai Yobō Chōsakai), the same organization that issued the report on the 1896 tsunami discussed above. One of the hopes of this scientific turn was earthquake prediction, a goal that remains elusive to this day.[13] Articles in the press from this point onward usually took on a scientific tone. Those not authored by seismologists typically referred to the reports and findings of seismologists. Part of the responsibility of the press was to cast off old superstitions and educate the public in the science of earthquakes. In this post-Nōbi context, Ansei Edo remained a common point of comparison. An 1894 article reported on a “big” earthquake that shook Tokyo, the first real shaking since the Ansei era, though not enough to cause serious damage. The article included data about the epicenter, duration of shaking, direction of shaking, and maximum movement in both vertical and horizontal directions.[14] As the Year of the Rabbit in the old sexagenary cycle loomed in 1915, talk of the Ansei Edo earthquake increased. An article entitled “Earthquake Warning” (Jishin chūi) explained that an old man was overheard on New Year's Day to say that during this year a major earthquake would occur in Tokyo because of what happened sixty years ago. Because a major earthquake had indeed occurred in Italy, the reporter hastened to investigate the matter and discovered the Ansei Edo earthquake. Saying that there may be more in play than simply an old man's superstition, the reporter sought out the esteemed Dr. Ōmori Fusakichi (1868–1923) to ask what people should do in the event of an earthquake. Ostensibly based on Ōmori's advice, because everything tends to collapse in the same direction in an earthquake, one should stay calm, ascertain the direction in which a structure is moving or leaning, and flee in the opposite direction. The safest place to which one could flee is an open area, and standing beside a large tree in an open area offers the highest degree of safety.[15]

A few days after the anniversary of the Ansei Edo earthquake that year, an article claiming statistical backing for the idea of sixty-year earthquake cycles appeared. It went on to explain that major earthquakes are caused by the rupture of faults (dansō), whose point of origin is deep under the ground. It explained that there are two types of ground motion: vertical motion predominates near the epicenter, and horizontal motion predominates at points farther removed. The reason damage in the Nōbi earthquake and an earthquake in Ōmi was especially severe at points removed from the epicenter is because horizontal shaking is more destructive than vertical. The final topic in the article was earthquake-resistant construction, and the main argument was that general quality of construction and the quality of the foundation under a structure are the key factors, not whether a building or house is Western or Japanese in style. The piece ended with a comparison of Japanese and Italian houses, the design of each allegedly being “well matched” to conditions in earthquake countries.[16]

An article in 1917 explaining a presentation by Ōmori conveyed reassurance to Tokyo's residents. Entitled “Tokyo and Earthquakes: No Need to Worry” (Tōkyō to jishin: Shinpai no oyobazu), it sought to calm jittery nerves caused by many recent small earthquakes felt in the capital. Ōmori explained that the origins of these small earthquakes were in the Tsukuba Mountains to the northeast of Tokyo. Moreover, he explained that these earthquakes were entirely different from Ansei Edo, which occurred directly under the city. Therefore, Tokyo's residents need not fear a major earthquake.[17] In view of what would happen less than six years later, such words of reassurance may seem especially ironic or tragic. In the narrow context of the small earthquakes of late 1917, Ōmori's explanation might have been accurate. However, Ōmori frequently encouraged calm with respect to the possibility of a major earthquake in Tokyo, in contrast to his academic rival Imamura Akitsune (1870–1948), who had warned of impending seismic disaster as early as 1905. The 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake marked a shift in seismology away from the meteorology, gathering of statistics, and cartography that Ōmori emphasized toward a greater reliance on mathematics and geophysics. As Clancey points out, the term “Ōmori seismology” became a shorthand for the dark days of a discipline that appeared so dramatically to have failed amidst the ruins of Tokyo in 1923.[18]

Owing to this geophysical turn in Japanese seismology, the Ansei Edo earthquake was no longer as prominent a topic of interest among seismologists after 1923. However, it continued to make appearances in other contexts. For example, soon after the Great Kantō Earthquake a serialized literary drama, The Great Ansei Earthquake: Revenge of the Daughter (Ansei daijishin: Musume no adauchi), appeared in the Yomiuri shinbun.

The first installment ran on September 22, and the series continued well into 1924. A November 18, 1923, natural disasters exhibition included the Ansei Edo earthquake. The exhibition mentioned that following that earthquake, grilled catfish had become a popular food item in Edo's restaurants as a symbolic expression of revenge on the forces that caused the earthquake.[19] Indeed, there is some evidence for the eating of grilled catfish at that time.[20]

In Meiji-era newspaper reports, claims of several tens of thousands of deaths in the Ansei Edo earthquake were common. In 1953, the Yomiuri shinbun reported on the discovery of a diary written by neighborhood head Utagawa Hoshō. The diary claimed over 110,980 deaths, which the paper reported as fact.[21] The notion that one hundred thousand or more died as a result of Ansei Edo occasionally appears in popular or academic discussion, possibly owing to what we know of the Great Kantō Earthquake, confusion about the various “Ansei” earthquakes owing to loose naming conventions, as well as the exaggerated claims made in 1855. The January 17, 1995, Awaji-Hanshin earthquake (also known as the Rokkō-Awaji earthquake, the Hyōgo-ken Nanbu earthquake, or in English the Kobe earthquake) killed 6,434 people and came as a surprise to a country whose experts did not expect so powerful (M7.3) an earthquake in that location. In the aftermath of that earthquake, the local and central governments came under criticism for a slow relief response. In academic circles, this criticism had the effect of focusing attention on the Ansei Edo earthquake, which as we have seen was characterized by a fast and relatively effective government relief effort. In other words, the earthquake in Kobe touched off a new wave of academic interest in the Ansei Edo earthquake. One result was the publication of several major works about the social and cultural history of the earthquake that have informed this study. The process whereby earthquakes at one point in time stimulate reflection on those of the past continues.

  • [1] 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), 137–139.
  • [2] Ibid., 114. Hoffman points out that one message tied around a tree in the wake of the Oakland firestorm of 1991 read, “May We All Be Restored and Renewed” (116).
  • [3] Yomiuri shinbun, September 6, 1877, morning edition, 4.
  • [4] “Ōsegaki,” Yomiuri shinbun, November 26, 1887, morning edition, 2.
  • [5] “Daishinsai no yonjūichi shūki,” Yomiuri shinbun, October 31, 1894, morning edition, 5.
  • [6] “Ansei daijishin no daikuyō,” Yomiuri shinbun, March 27, 1903, morning edition, 4.
  • [7] “Jishin gakkai,” Yomiuri shinbun, May 31, 1888, morning edition, 2.
  • [8] “Jishin to arashi,” Yomiuri shinbun, January 4, 1885, special edition, 3. Lyell also commented on earthquakes and weather: “That there is an intimate connexion between subterranean convulsions and particular states of the weather is unquestionable; but, as Michell truly remarked, ‘it is more probably that the air should be affected by the causes of earthquakes, than that the earth should be affected in so extraordinary a manner, and to so great a depth, by a cause residing in the air.’” Lyell, Principles of Geology, vol. 1, 534. The focus of Japanese interest in atmospheric phenomena tended not to be concerned with the possibility that certain types of weather might cause earthquakes or vice versa but with the possibility that certain types of weather might indicate an earthquake will soon strike.
  • [9] Tomiharu Isao, “Sekiyū to jishin to no kankei,” Yomiuri shinbun, February 24, 1885, morning edition, 1.
  • [10] “Jishin o kizukau mono ari,” Yomiuru shinbun, November 4, 1891, special edition, 2.
  • [11] Although Musha Kinkichi disagreed with the notion that unseasonably warm weather was a sign of an impending earthquake, he related a tale from the Ansei Edo earthquake of a bannerman on guard duty who announced that an earthquake would soon occur, and emergency preparations were made in time. When later asked the reason for his insight, he said that survivors of the Sanjō earthquake reported that the sky appeared closer, the stars shone much more brightly than usual, and it was warm in the winter. Moreover, in connection with the Genroku earthquake, an old man named Amano Yagozaemon said that when the stars appear low in the sky and the weather is warm in the winter, an earthquake is on the way. He reinforced his house before the shaking started. Musha Kinkichi, Jishin namazu (Meiseki shoten, 1995, originally 1957), 133.
  • [12] To cite but a few of the almost endless examples, Ikeya Motoji frequently quotes “old sayings” or “proverbs” such as “a yellow morning sun, a red moon, and twinkling stars are precursors” or “when wind blows up from the ground there will be an earthquake.” Significantly, Motoji never mentions the historical context of these sayings, namely the Tokugawa-era notions about trapped yang energy within the earth. See Earthquakes and Animals: From Folk Legends to Science (River Edge, NJ: World Scientific, 2004), 7, 8. Benjamin Reilly revives the theory of meteorologist C. F. Brooks that “cyclonic weather” was a significant causal factor in the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake. See Disaster and Human History: Case Studies in Nature, Society, and Catastrophe (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2009), 82. As discussed in the introduction, many of the articles in Saumitra Mukherjee, ed., Earthquake Prediction (Leiden: Brill, 2006) posit atmospheric earthquake causes or precursors.
  • [13] For a discussion of this post-Nōbi turn toward science, see Clancey, Earthquake Nation, 151–179.
  • [14] “Kinō no daijishin,” Yomiuri shinbun, June 21, 1894, morning edition, 2.
  • [15] “Jishin no chūi,” Yomiuri shinbun, January 16, 1915, morning edition, 5.
  • [16] “Tsūzoku jishin monogatari (jō),” Yomiuri shinbun, November 19, 1915, morning edition, 5.
  • [17] “Tōkyō to jishin: shinpai no oyobazu,” Yomiuri shinbun, October 18, 1917, morning edition, 5.
  • [18] Clancey, Earthquake Nation, 220–226.
  • [19] “Jishin kasai no tenrankai,” Yomiuri shinbun, November 18, 1923, morning edition, 5.
  • [20] In Namazu Taiheiki konzatsubanashi, for example, Kashima’s victorious forces sell the defeated catfish rebels to local restaurants. See FN, 519. The theme also occurs frequently in catfish prints: for example, prints #57, #58, #59, and #60, Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 228–229, 274–278.
  • [21] “Ansei daijishin no komonjo hakken,” Yomiuri shinbun, September 20, 1953, morning edition, 6.
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