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Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan's Great Earthquake of 1923

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Focusing on one landmark catastrophic event in the history of an emerging modern nation—the Great Kanto Earthquake that devastated Tokyo and surrounding areas in 1923—this fascinating volume examines the history of the visual production of the disaster. The Kanto earthquake triggered cultural responses that ran the gamut from voyeuristic and macabre thrill to the romantic sublime, media spectacle to sacred space, mournful commemoration to emancipatory euphoria, and national solidarity to racist vigilantism and sociopolitical critique. Looking at photography, cinema, painting, postcards, sketching, urban planning, and even scientific visualizations, Weisenfeld demonstrates how visual culture has powerfully mediated the evolving historical understanding of this major national disaster, ultimately enfolding mourning and memory into modernization.

ISBN-13: 9780520271951

Media Type: Hardcover(First Edition)

Publisher: University of California Press

Publication Date: 11-14-2012

Pages: 400

Product Dimensions: 7.30(w) x 10.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Series: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes #22

Gennifer Weisenfeld is Associate Professor in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University and the author of Mavo: Japanese Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1905-1931 (UC Press).

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Imaging Disaster

Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan's Great Earthquake of 1923

By Gennifer Weisenfeld


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95424-3



A Brief Prehistory

As an archipelago created by the highly active tectonic zone where the Pacific and Philippine plates collide with the Eurasian plate, Japan is regularly rocked by volcanic eruptions, typhoons, earthquakes, and tsunamis. That has stimulated a particularly rich Japanese tradition—reaching all the way back to the beginning of its recorded history—of visual responses to calamitous events. One might even say that disaster has been a generative force in Japanese culture. It certainly has been a catalyst for change.

Disaster, commonly saigai or saika in Japanese, usually suggests tragedy, ruin, catastrophe, and calamity. It implies misfortune and adversity. But natural events are not inherently disasters; disasters are made. As Haruno Ogasawara poignantly notes, the designation of disaster is predicated on a moral and sociological interpretation of an event that perceives it as disrupting society with negative repercussions. Disruptions, of course, can be bad or good, depending on the interpreter's status or position. In Japan, earthquakes historically have been considered transformative, even numinous events associated with contemporary social and political circumstances. They could be both devastating and renewing. And as Kitahara Itoko, one of the foremost scholars of disaster in Japan, has emphasized, the study of disaster should not be just a historical chronicling of damage and loss; it should be an interdisciplinary exploration of the dialectical relationship between destruction and reconstruction in the context of social formations. Disaster is a defining feature of Japan's cultural landscape, and, consequently, the country's general belief system has integrated the cyclicality of destruction and renewal. Since Kitahara and others have devoted a lifetime to elucidating the extraordinary history of disaster in Japan, my intention here is not to repeat their efforts but to undertake the more modest project of illuminating a select set of premodern religious and philosophical beliefs, as well as imaging practices, that contributed to the genealogy of Japan's modern culture of disaster, particularly as manifested during the Great Kant Earthquake of 1923.

In this chapter, I focus on the deep-seated belief in the moral connections between human action and disaster (natural or man-made) and the role of spiritual activities, particularly a range of imaging practices, in helping to prevent or ameliorate such circumstances. These imaging practices reveal the humorous and playful amalgamation of horror and parody and highlight the amusing fusion of the moralistic and the macabre that produced spectacular forms of visual entertainment.

Interpreting disaster

The common jocular aphorism for the four most powerful forces of nature, "earthquake, thunder, fire, and father" (jishin, kaminari, kaji, oyaji) suggests that earthquakes are one of the most feared natural phenomena in Japan—comparable to the wrath of the stern Japanese patriarch. The earliest texts in classical Japanese, such as the Nihon shoki (Chronicles of Japan), dating to the sixth century, use the term nai to describe a tremor of the earth (na refers to the land, and i indicates the verb to be). The common current term for earthquake, jishin (literally, trembling of the earth), upon which the name of the modern scientific study of earthquakes—seismology (jishingaku)—is based, seems to first appear in documents from the early part of the eighth century (734) in the Shsin temple repository of Todaiji Temple in Nara. It was in common use by the beginning of the seventeenth century as indicated by its transliteration as gixin in the comprehensive 1603 Jesuit dictionary Nippo jisho (Vocabulario da lingoa de Iapam com adeclaração em Portugues) that translated Japanese words and their pronunciations into Portuguese. The other common current term, shinsai (quake disaster), did not appear until the year after the Ansei earthquake of 1855, but by 1892 it was being used officially for the establishment of the national Earthquake Disaster Prevention Research Council (Shinsai Yobo Chosakai).

Most Japanese people from the premodern period (before 1600) up through the nineteenth century believed that natural disasters were the result of imbalances in the five elements of nature caused by social impurities directly linked to human behavior; therefore, they thought that appropriate actions could be taken to ameliorate the situation. On the occasion of major disasters, rulers took extreme measures such as moving the capital and changing the imperial reign name of the period to dissociate themselves from previous rulership. This reflected the Confucian belief in the mandate of heaven that linked equilibrium in the cosmos with proper governance, a set of beliefs that had a pervasive influence in Japan along with Buddhism and Shinto. Throughout the medieval period in Japan, earthquakes figured prominently in didactic historical texts to articulate causal links between natural disasters and the moral turpitude of the current rulership or the immoral behavior of the general populace, notions that continued to have resonance up through the modern period.

Two medieval tales exemplify this understanding of earthquakes as expressions of the terrible state of moral affairs, particularly during the period known as the latter day of the Buddha's law (mappo): the Hojoki (An Account of My Hut, 1212) by the exiled Buddhist monk Kamo no Chmei and the military epic Heike monogatari (The Tale of the Heike, 1242). The Hojoki is a moralizing tale about the period after the Genpei civil wars (1180–85) and the profligate behavior in the age of the decline of the Buddha's law. The tale expounds on the transience of life (mujo), describing five disasters that befell the residents of the imperial capital, Kyoto, including a large-scale earthquake in July 1185. Like many interchangeable Japanese tales of natural and man-made disaster, the Hojoki describes tragic human suffering in vivid detail as a warning to readers about the punishments that lay in wait for their actions.

A story of the internecine Genpei warfare, the Heike monogatari similarly features the 1185 earthquake, among others. The tale evinces an overwhelming pessimism as it chronicles the downfall of the Heike (Taira) clan. Reading the rumblings of one quake for the emperor, the chief of the Board of Divination ominously predicts terrible destruction in the future because of moral lapses: "The charter of the divination indicates that the earthquake this time is a warning for far more than minor self-control. When I consulted the Konko-kyo, one of the three texts of divination, the article said: 'Within a year, or within a month, or within a day, a great disaster will come.' This is an emergency." Responding to another quake, people exclaim, "The god of the earth has been angered." The final great earthquake that hit Kyoto, and the ensuing terror, is once again described (and later illustrated) in all its horrific detail and is seen as the retribution of the vengeful spirits of the Heike and the murdered child emperor Antoku.

Traditionally, a range of Buddhist sutras enumerated various misfortunes brought on by improper adherence to the Buddhist law. The thirteenth-century cleric Nichiren was the first to bring them all together in his 1260 treatise On Establishing the Correct Teaching for the Peace of the Land (Rissho ankokuron), written soon after the devastating earthquake that hit the shogunal capital Kamakura in 1257. In it, he coined the term "three calamities and seven misfortunes" (sansai shichinan) to describe the result when both rulers and their people turned against the true teaching of the Buddhist law. The three calamities had greater and lesser versions. The greater calamities that would destroy the world were fire, wind, and water; the lesser that would cause human society to perish were high grain prices or inflation due to famine, warfare, and pestilence. The additional seven misfortunes were pestilence and epidemics; foreign invasion and aggression; internal strife; extraordinary changes in the heavens, such as those signaled by the appearance of comets and meteors; solar, lunar, and stellar irregularities; abnormal weather, such as unseasonable storms; and abnormal climatic conditions, such as prolonged droughts. This Buddhist worldview did not distinguish natural and manmade disasters from each other, as they all were linked to human moral rectitude.

The Buddhist notion of ritual impurity, kegare, which was merged with similar Shinto beliefs, views things that are unclean as an offense to the gods and redolent of human guilt and sin and is associated with death, disaster, and disease. A major function of religious practitioners was to enact rituals to cleanse this pollution, and they developed a host of purification and apotropaic rituals that they performed regularly to divest communities of perceived contamination and prevent the recurrence of disasters. The tsuina ceremony (or, demon exorcism), for example, is still conducted all over Japan at the end or beginning of every year to expel demons from the community and thereby avert misfortune.

For most of Japanese history, people have believed that the dead and the living are connected. As historians of religion Jacqueline Stone and Mariko Walter have amply demonstrated, "Buddhism was the pre-eminent spiritual technology for consoling and pacifying the dead," and the Buddhist doctrine of an ethicized afterlife—where deeds were rewarded or punished by pleasant and painful circumstances and in which worldly bonds persisted beyond death—enjoined the living to dispose of bodies properly. Religious ceremonies were essential for coping with the spiritual predicament of allaying the vengeance of the souls of the dead, who posed a real and present danger to the future prospects of the living if they were not properly conveyed back into the samsaric cycle of rebirth or given salvific rebirth in the Pure Land (ojo).

This was particularly important after the untimely deaths caused by disasters, when the "feeding of hungry ghosts," the important ritual of segaki, had to be performed. This was a joint memorial service conducted for the souls of disaster victims in which offerings were made to appease the tormented souls of unattended wandering spirits (muen botoke) and hungry ghosts (gaki) residing in a liminal purgatory; the segaki guarded the spirits of the dead from the malevolent hungry ghosts and protected them from entering into this purgatory.

Visual Spectacle and the Macabre

While the imaging of disaster in Japan, if you include warfare, dates back to Japan's earliest pictorial traditions, two visual genealogies coalesced in the mid-nineteenth century to form the backbone of earthquake imagery that was transmitted into the modern period. One emanates from the work of the well-known eighteenth-century painter Maruyama Okyo, who produced his now famous three-fascicle Handscroll of Misfortunes and Fortunes (Shichinan shichifuku zukan, 1768), commissioned by Abbot Yujo of Enmanin Temple in Otsu in 1765, which illustrated the misfortunes of natural and human disasters in the first two scrolls (fig. 1.1 shows the first scroll), with a final scroll detailing the leisurely, luxurious lives of the aristocracy. The scroll dialectically ties together misfortune and fortune within the Buddhist cyclical notion of reincarnation and provides a powerful visual polemic for righteous behavior in accordance with Buddhist principles. Okyo took his cue from Abbot Yujo's eclectic vision as articulated in the prelate's preface to the scroll and preparatory drawings (still extant), for which Yujo drew from a range of ecclesiastical sources. But perhaps most important, the abbot incorporated local elements that he felt were most relevant to his parishioners, such as earthquakes, which were particularly prevalent in the Kansai region near Otsu and the imperial capital, Kyoto, but were never specified in any sutra texts. Yujo focused on the contemporary, real-life experiences of the people around him to make his message more potent. His mission was to proselytize righteous behavior by instilling fear of realistic divine punishment and the incentives of earthly rewards.

Okyo's representations of disaster drew heavily from historical models for compositions and motifs, particularly classical illustrated handscrolls, but they also resonated with contemporary Edo trends in naturalism and realism, for which the painter was known as a pioneer. At Yujo's request, Okyo combined real-life elements with some aspects of historical Buddhist images of the six realms of transmigration or rebirth (rokudo-e), which include portrayals of those condemned to hell and the purgatory-bound hungry ghosts at the lower echelons of the karmic order, along with elements from traditional stand-alone pictorial depictions of hell (jigoku-e). These expressive representations of suffering beings in infernal landscapes became stylistically codified over time, although they never lost their evocative potential to instill fear in viewers. Okyo and Yujo were able to update this genre and make it feel distinctly contemporary. And Okyo's handscrolls continued to have a significant impact on pictorial representations of disaster through extensive copying by followers of the popular Maruyama-Shijo school of painting, who practiced widely into the modern period.

One surviving late nineteenth-century anonymous underdrawing (shita-e) copy of some of Okyo's misfortune sections shows this continued spectacular visualization of earthquakes, with infernal cyclonic firestorms bearing down on fleeing refugees as they shriek in terror, dragging their few salvaged worldly belongings. The cyclonic fires are rendered with a combination of black ink (sumi) and vermilion red mineral pigment to express the dynamism and searing intensity of the blaze. Burning, bloody bodies writhe in agony in the whirling conflagration, only inches from fleeing, terrified mothers clasping infants to their breasts. The violent nature of the tragic events is conveyed in exquisite detail. All of the misfortune images—which include torrential floods and rainstorms, dramatically zigzagging lightning bolts striking people (fig. 1.2), and mythic demonic chimera such as tengu (monstrous birdlike creatures) and giant serpents menacing towns, carrying off children, and gnawing on bloody human limbs—capture the truly spectacular quality of disaster, simultaneously evoking fear and excitement. This spectacularized and macabre mode of visualizing the cautionary tales of disaster continued unabated into the modern period.

Such imagery is evident in the important visual chronicle of firsthand accounts of the devastating Ansei earthquake, Ansei kenmonshi (Ansei-Era Observations, March 1856), which appeared soon after the quake hit on 11 November 1855. Published anonymously because of the concern about censor punishment, the text (together with some illustrations) is widely believed to have been authored by Ippitsuan Eiju II, although it has also been credited to the well-known writer Kanagaki Rbun. Some illustrations in the volume are by well-known ukiyo-e print designers Utagawa Kuniyoshi (known as Ichiysai Kuniyoshi; 1798–1861) and Utagawa Yoshitsuna (active 1848–68), as well as at least two other artists.

The images in Ansei-Era Observations, combined with the vividly descriptive text, clearly provided visual entertainment as well as moral lessons. Stylistically, they drew heavily from the explicitly rendered gruesome scenes of the supernatural and macabre that were enormously popular in late-Edo visual culture. Renowned print designers such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Kuniyoshi produced extensive corpora of these images. This predilection for the macabre was also abundantly evident in the increasing focus on gruesome stories of criminality in the news. There was no shortage of blood and gore in Edo popular imagery, a feature that was carried through to the subsequent Meiji period (1868–1912) by skilled print designers such as Tsukioka Yoshitoshi and Kawanabe Kysai. Disaster imagery could not be separated from visual entertainment, even when it conveyed strong moralistic messages.

The merging of the moral and the macabre is apparent in the depiction of the segaki purification ritual in a double-page illustration in the first volume of the Ansei-Era Observations; it shows a mob of disfigured blue corpses clustering before a group of Buddhist priests who are behind an altar performing the rituals (fig. 1.3). The text reads, "The many horrid deaths of people in the recent earthquake, though it was a natural disaster [therefore they deserve their own suffering], were so piteous that Segaki services were held on 2 December at the following temples ... [to console their spirits]." A list of temple names follows. The grisly features of individual figures rendered by the artist Utagawa Yoshitsuna include one with half his skin missing to reveal the skull beneath, one completely charred from fire, a pregnant woman with her distended blue belly, and another woman gripping her dead infant. These sufferers all look beseechingly toward the clergy for their salvation. While the service protected both the dead and the living, the spectacularly ghastly scenes frightened and titillated the public.


Excerpted from Imaging Disaster by Gennifer Weisenfeld. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


1. Earthquakes in Japan: A Brief Prehistory
2. The Media Scale of Catastrophe
3. Disaster as Spectacle
4. The Sublime Nature of Ruins
5. Reclaiming Disaster: Altruism and Corrosion
6. Reconstruction’s Visual Rhetoric
7. Remembrance
8. Epilogue: Afterlives

Selected Bibliography
List of Illustrations