AAS Annual Meeting

Japan Session 118

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Session 118: The Great Kanto Earthquake in History, Imagery, and Commemoration

Organizer: John Charles Schencking, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Discussant: Sally A. Hastings, Purdue University, USA

Writing in 1923, moral philosopher Shimamoto Ainosuke suggested that the Great Kanto Earthquake had done more than destroy Tokyo and Yokohama, kill upward of 100,000 people, and leave over 1 million homeless: he argued that it “overturned Japan’s culture from its very foundation.” Japan’s earthquake calamity compelled reflection, triggered opportunism, and fostered contestation as it amplified existing tensions and exposed new fault lines across society. The presenters in this panel sift through the ruins of this catastrophe with the aim of offering new insights into 1920s politics, society, and visual culture. We examine how various people ranging from cartoonists and social commentators, to elites, educators and members of the chattering classes constructed, employed, and commemorated Japan’s greatest natural disaster of the modern era and the reconstruction process that followed. Specifically, we examine how their responses, interpretations and prescriptions manifest in various forms including visual media, cartoons, newspapers and even the built environment. Our papers illustrate how political and politicized virtually every aspect of this disaster, the reconstruction of Tokyo, and the celebration of its rebirth became between 1923 and 1930. Using this disaster as a window onto 1920s Japan, our findings thus add to recent scholarship on the Great Kanto Earthquake and interwar society. In doing so, we hope to further enhance Japan’s relevance in the burgeoning field of disaster studies whose practitioners examine catastrophes not just as cataclysmic events that turn society upside down, but also as events that reveal or unearth underlying social processes and patterns of behavoiur.

Constructing, Using, and Memorializing Japan’s Earthquake Calamity
John Charles Schencking, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

At an 11 November 1923 memorial service, the Mayor of Tokyo declared that the tragedy that had befallen the capital on 1 September was “the most unprecedented calamity our nation has ever experienced.” Nagata Hidejiro’s interpretation was not unique. Throughout the autumn of 1923, various elites and members of the chattering class constructed the Great Kanto Earthquake as an epic event of immeasurable loss. This paper explores how people and organizations packaged news of this disaster, what mediums they used to disseminate it, and for what larger political ends people constructed this catastrophe. Hopeful of mobilizing the nation for the task of recovery, analogies to previous wars were employed to contextualize Japan’s 1923 experience. Elites, moreover, adopted similar techniques to those applied in war to introduce the calamity to Japanese. These included the publication of harrowing survivor accounts and heroic tales of valour, the production of emotive picture postcards and vividly coloured prints, and the dispatch of road shows that brought items from the epitcentre of tragedy to the far reaches of Japan. One striking difference existed. The 1923 earthquake was a domestic tragedy that had resulted in unprecedented civilian deaths. This paper will therefore also examine the important role the dead, the services for their soles and surviving relatives, and the creation of the earthquake memorial played in the construction of Japan’s earthquake calamity. My findings will emphasize the perceived malleability of catastrophe, its limits, and the opportunistic ways people and organizations attempted to use it for larger objectives.

Laughing in the Face of Calamity: Visual Satire after the Great Kanto Earthquake
Gennifer S. Weisenfeld, Duke University, USA

While the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that devastated the Japanese capital and surrounding areas was a tragedy of unprecedented proportions, not all responses to it were melancholic. Visual satire and humor have long been an important element in responses to catastrophe in Japan. Laughing in the face of calamity was not only a means of reclaiming normalcy through stress relief and psychological catharsis, it was also a method of conveying powerful social and moral criticism. The immediate post-quake moment echoed with the popular phrase, “under these circumstances!” (kono sai [da kara]!) and opened the door for a wide array of reform proposals. This paper will explore the visual satire of Kitazawa Rakuten, Ogawa Jihei, and the stable of skilled, popular cartoonists (mangaka) working for the weekly publication Jiji Manga (Cartoons of Current Affairs), a supplement to the Tokyo daily newspaper Jiji Shinpo. Taking on the many ironies of the post-quake moment and the slippery politics of reconstruction—specifically the conflicted perceptions of its main architect, Home Minister Goto Shinpei—these visual artists mediated the perception of the disaster experience. They made a major contribution to the dynamic post-quake visual sphere, demonstrating the critical importance of visuality in shaping popular perceptions of disaster.

Showcases of New Tokyo: Reconstructed Primary Schools as Modern Sites of Learning and Spaces of State
Janet Borland, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

In March 1930, the Emperor conducted a tour of Tokyo to mark the completion of the Imperial Capital Reconstruction Project following the catastrophic 1923 earthquake and fires. The Emperor travelled twenty miles throughout the city but along the way he stopped at only seven locations described as the “most deeply significant places related to the reconstruction.” One of them was a school: Chiyoda Primary School. City and national officials praised Tokyo’s reconstructed primary schools as one of the most tangible success stories to emerge from the disaster and reconstruction. The destruction of two-thirds of Tokyo’s primary schools in 1923 was unprecedented and educators seized the opportunity to rebuild modern schools that they believed would better enable them to accomplish their increasingly diverse and complex educational and social objectives. In essence, this paper explores how and why the schools were built the way they were. In doing so, I will examine the social, political, and technological factors that shaped their conceptualization and construction. Moreover, I will argue that a greater emphasis on improving students’ health and hygiene, the desire to cultivate physically strong and morally sound Japanese subjects, and a growing realization that schools could play an important social function apart from formal education influenced the design, location and facilities incorporated into Tokyo’s reconstructed primary schools. Schools thus featured prominently in the 1930 celebrations not only as showcases of educational aims and architecture, but they were also acclaimed as modern sites of learning and important spaces of state in New Tokyo.