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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

Anyone who has lived or worked in areas along the Pacific Rim “ring of fire” knows that earthquakes and related natural disasters are always a possibility. But having just completed years of research on the devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake that flattened Tokyo and surrounding areas in 1923, perhaps I am more fixated on this topic than most. I vividly remember a friendly yet chilling chat with an elderly neighbor in the downtown Kachidoki district of Chūō ward in Tokyo, where I lived in a charming, if slightly rundown, old wooden nagaya (row house) on one of the small back streets of this working-class neighborhood. I had been told that my neighbor lived through the 1923 quake as a young child, and while hesitant to ask about his experiences, I eagerly sought his advice about evacuation plans and sites if another temblor hit. His answer was sobering: “Don’t even bother. This place will burn to the ground.” No matter how much we plan, nature offers no guarantees.

The 1923 quake is unparalleled in Japan’s modern history in its combined seismic scale and extent of damage; in fact, it was one of the world’s worst natural disasters of the early twentieth century. in terms of loss of life and material damage, it is still Japan’s worst national disaster. But when the unprecedented 9.0-magnitude earthquake of 11 March 2011 hit off the coast of Tōhoku, the northeastern region of Japan, followed by hundreds of strong aftershocks, people throughout the world were reminded of modern humanity’s fragility in the face of nature. Not only did the quake produce another massive tsunami that washed away the coastline, but also like its 1923 predecessor, it generated a torrent of images that saturated the visual field. Given that I was already . . .

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