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Japan as a modern earthquake country

Clancey explains that seismology in Japan “was not just subterranean science.” It was closely intertwined with questions of national character and national essence. Japan's seismicity had direct implications for architecture, and particular conceptions of Japan as an “earthquake country” competed to determine the physical appearance of urban spaces. “Seismology and architecture had this in common: both sought to explain national character with reference to geology.”[1] The Meiji period was also a time when many Japanese began to ponder the broader question of how their country's natural features and landscape shaped what was assumed to be its unique culture. Especially instrumental in what we might call a “geographical turn” was Shiga Shigetaka (1836–1927), whose 1894 book, On Japan's Landscape(Nihon fūkeiron), became a best seller. Shiga emphasized volcanoes in shaping Japan's national character, but the approach he popularized also lent urgency to the work of seismologists. Writing in the periodical Nihonjin (The Japanese), which Shiga edited, he stated, “The influence of all environmental factors of Japan—her climate and her weather conditions, her temperature and humidity, the nature of her soil, the configuration of her land and water, her animal and plant life and her landscape, as well as the interaction of all these factors, the habits and customs, the experiences, the history and development of thousands of years—the totality of all these factors has gradually, imperceptibly, developed in the Japanese race inhabiting this environment a unique kokusui [national essence].”[2] Shiga engaged European writers such as Thomas Buckle, rejecting his idea that gentler landscapes meant greater progress. Shiga was familiar with the work of John Milne and argued that volcanic Italy, cradle of Western civilization, was an important point of comparison for Japan.[3] Indeed, the early modern tendency to compare Japan and China with respect to earthquakes shifted in the Meiji era to constant comparisons of the two “earthquake countries,” Japan and Italy.[4]

The Great Kantō Earthquake occurred precisely at a high point in social anxieties about modernity, urbanization, changing gender roles, and related matters. Therefore, it produced extensive discussion of divine retribution, possibly even to a greater extent than most early modern earthquakes. Of course, it is possible that many such characterizations of that earthquake deployed divine retribution as a figure of speech, not as a reflection of theological belief. Despite continuities with the early modern past in rhetoric and in earthquake-related lore, the Meiji era marked a major shift in conceptions of Japan and the significance of earthquakes. Early modern earthquakes caused nervous survivors to remind themselves that Japan is a resilient shinkoku, blessed by thousands of benevolent albeit somewhat underpowered deities. In the Meiji era, earthquakes reminded Japanese that they lived in a country subject to frequent violent outbursts of nature. Furthermore, there was a strong tendency to assume that this severe natural environment has molded Japan's people, architecture, culture, and national character, even if the precise qualities were debatable and elusive.

Somewhat reminiscent of the Tokugawa era was the capacity of earthquakes to serve as moral drama. As we have seen, works such as Ansei Record and Ansei Chronicle claimed an edifying purpose, even if their entertainment value is what sold copies. Modern earthquakes and other disasters produced precisely the same kind of moral drama, but in a more systematic manner and often with support from the state. Janet Borland gives the following example that took place after the Great Kantō Earthquake :

During September and October, Boy Scouts wandered throughout Tokyo and Yokohama in search of appropriate stories. They interviewed people ranging both in age and social status, from young schoolboys and girls, to servants, policemen and school teachers, so as to record miracles of survival and escape, as well as tragic tales of sacrifice, suffering and loss of life. In particular, they sought stories which characterised praiseworthy qualities of the ideal Japanese sub ject. Although the assignment was made difficult by the grim conditions prevailing in Tokyo, the Boy Scouts completed the task with great efficiency so that within a matter of weeks the Ministry of Education began to sort, select, and edit the collection of stories for distribution.[5]

Such a project bore some resemblance to Ansei Record or Ansei Chronicle, but it was different in significant respects. The primary purpose in 1923 was edification, not entertainment. Moreover, in 1855 a wide range of behavior, good and bad, and a range of outcomes, just and unjust, emerged in the pages of Ansei Edo earthquake accounts. By contrast, Materials for Education in Connection with the Earthquake (Shinsai ni kansuru kyōiku shiryō), the Ministry of Education's earthquake-related educational materials, focused exclusively on exemplary stories. Only the wide range of subjects covered and the inclusion of an account of the damage was reminiscent of the 1855 earthquake accounts.[6] The Great Kantō Earthquake functioned to highlight the exemplary character of the Japanese people.

Similar phenomena took place in the wake of other twentieth-century catastrophes, albeit without direct state involvement. For example, Timothy Tsu explains what occurred after a devastating 1938 flood in Kobe:

A metropolis renowned for its cosmopolitan culture, modern port, thriving economy, and strategic importance lay in ruin. Against this grim backdrop, and as soon as the floodwater had receded, the local daily Kōbe shinbun began to carry “beautiful tales” [bidan] of bravery that had saved lives and kindness that had sustained needy survivors. Official “flood records” [suigaishi] published in the following years offered more such heart-warming episodes. These purportedly real-life dramas celebrate instinctive expressions of human fellowship. The courage, generosity and usually fortuitous outcomes they narrate stand in stark contrast to the reality of death and destruction in the wake of the deluge.[7]

Tsu further argues that “the beautiful tales from Kobe, taken together, constitute a larger narrative that aims to transform an otherwise horrific event into a self-affirming experience for the city and the nation.”[8] Here, too, the coordination of a central editing body helped narrow and focus the range of messages. Similarly, tales of filial devotion and other ideal virtues emerged from the Shōwa Sanriku earthquake. “The father and daughter who sacrificed themselves to the filial path,” for example, is the story of Oda Kiyohachi, head of Tanohata Village in Iwate Prefecture. As a massive tsunami moved toward his residence, Oda calmed his family, put his aged mother on his back, and had his daughter lead her aged grandfather by the hand. Later, the bodies of all four were found, the mother still on Oda's back and his daughter still grasping the hand of her grandfather. The sight moved survivors to tears.[9] Readers of such tales could vicariously partake of both their emotional impact and demonstrations of the “loyalty and filial piety” that by the 1930s had become rhetorical hallmarks of the moral fiber of true Japanese. Relative lack of state control and a central guiding ideology made the moral stage of 1855 Edo a more varied and confusing place than the moral stages of 1923 Tokyo, the 1933 Sanriku coast, or 1938 Kobe.

Although there is much more to say about many of the topics raised in this chapter, it should be clear that early modern earthquake culture and lore, and the Ansei Edo earthquake in particular, have continued to affect the modern and contemporary worlds in realms as diverse as seismology, politics, popular culture, and national images. Located at or near the intersection of four tectonic plates, Japan is among the world's most seismically active countries. Although this seismicity may not have created Mt. Fuji and Lake Biwa in the manner suggested by early modern texts, it has contributed to the making of Japan in many other ways. The process continues.

  • [1] Clancey, Earthquake Nation, quoted passages, 85.
  • [2] Quoted in Julia Adeney Thomas, Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 172–173.
  • [3] Clancey, Earthquake Nation, 106–107.
  • [4] Clancey discusses the role of Italy at length. See especially Earthquake Nation, 106–112.
  • [5] Borland, “Capitalising on Catastrophe,” 892. For more details on the production of educational materials from the earthquake, see 893–905, and Janet Borland, “Stories of Ideal Japanese Subjects from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923,” Japanese Studies 25, no. 1 (May 2005): 21–34.
  • [6] Borland, “Capitalising on Catastrophe,” 893–905.
  • [7] Timothy Yun Hui Tsu, “Making Virtues of Disaster: ‘Beautiful Tales’ from the Kobe Flood of 1938.” Asian Studies Review 32, no. 3 (June 2008): 197.
  • [8] Tsu, “Making Virtues of Disaster,” 198.
  • [9] Yamashita Funio, Tsunami no kyōfu: Sanriku tsunami denshōroku (Sendai, Japan: Tōhoku daigaku shuppankai, 2005), 99.
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