Remembering Japanese Earthquake Victims

Remembering the victims of the recent Sendai earthquake and tsunami….

The tremendous human losses from this massive disaster are incredibly tragic.  No words can express our sorrow at such terrible devastation.

Even as we remember the victims, we may wish to reconsider whether or not this was a “natural disaster.”  Historians have recently begun to explore the history of disasters, including earthquakes, in comprehensive ways.  René Favier, professor of history in Grenoble, has been studying changing patterns of human responses to natural disasters. Other historians raise questions regarding the extent to which human settlement patterns,  environmental transformations, and poverty conditions often contribute to “natural” disasters.

Historian Gregory Smits provides an especially relevant perspective on the history of Japanese experiences of earthquakes in the early modern and modern periods.  His recent article is “Shaking Up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints,” Journal of Social History 39 (Summer 2006): 1045-1078.

Here is the abstract for the article:

“Following the Ansei Edo Earthquake of 1855, Japanese print makers produced hundreds of varieties of catfish picture prints (namazu-e). These prints afforded the common people of Edo (soon to become Tokyo) an ideal vehicle for commenting on politics and society under the cover of discussing the recent earthquake. Some were sharply critical of the existing situation, and some adumbrated alternative political and social visions. One of these visions was of “Japan” as a natural community. Some prints portrayed the earthquake that shook Edo as having shaken all of Japan, and others incorporated events of the recent past into new narratives of world-renewal and change. The solar deity Amaterasu, who played a prominent role in national ideology after 1868, first came to widespread attention in Edo via these prints. In this and other ways, the catfish picture prints helped lay the psychological groundwork for the process of “making Japanese” that would begin in earnest after 1868. Furthermore, owing to a coincidence in which 1855 and 1867 were both years of special religious significance, it is likely that the folk memory of the Ansei Edo Earthquake helped condition popular expectations of upheaval and change during the Tokugawa bakufu’s final year.”

Earthquakes have histories, and we should move beyond mere recounting of statistics to understand their broader significance for human societies and the environment.


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