Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 28, 2016
Gennifer Weisenfeld Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923 An Ahmanson-Murphy Fine Arts Book. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. 400 pp.; 104 color ills.; 94 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780520271951)

The Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923 was a defining moment in modern Japan’s history. The tremors and aftershocks caused significant damage, but even more destructive were the out-of-control fires that raged across the cityscape in the aftermath. Over forty-five percent of Tokyo and ninety percent of Yokohama were razed, with over ninety-one thousand people killed, thirteen thousand missing, and fifty-two thousand injured. While there were heartening episodes of self-sacrifice, other stories suggest that tragedy fed tragedy, as the disorder that sometimes follows in disaster’s wake brought privation and disease, theft and violence. The opportunistic murders of prominent leftist activists and unionists by police are an oft-mentioned coda to the earthquake and fires, and rumors that Koreans were taking advantage of the anarchy to set the fires or poison water supplies resulted in the massacre of as many as six thousand Korean residents at the hands of vigilante groups, the military, and the police.

The economic cost of the disaster, calculated at more than ¥6.5 billion (more than four times that year’s national budget), traumatized the nation and wrecked havoc in its cultural spheres, permanently altering Japan’s arts-related economy. In expression of mourning and solidarity, nearly all significant juried art shows were canceled in the Tokyo region and across the country. When the government-sponsored Teiten exhibition finally opened its doors in the days after the earthquake, it was not to admit viewers but to provide shelter to more than three thousand disaster refugees, who encamped in the galleries amid the still-installed artworks. The Tokyo Imperial Household Museum was all but flattened, and whole collections of artworks were lost, including one of the earliest known assemblages of Western art in Japan; works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Édouard Manet, and many other important Western artists brought back to Tokyo only months earlier were reduced to ash. Considered from humanitarian, economic, or cultural viewpoints, the Great Kantō Earthquake ranks as the worst natural disaster in the history of Japan, its devastation eclipsed only by the man-made destruction inflicted by the Pacific War.

In Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923, Gennifer Weisenfeld studies this historic catastrophe through the visual-culture lens of image production and consumption. She considers an impressive array of media categories offering images of destruction, recovery, memorial, and understanding. At times graphic and disturbing, the book also recognizes that resilience and recovery were as much a part of the story of the disaster as was ruination. Importantly, Weisenfeld situates this “public visual lexicon of disaster” within the disaster milieu, not external to it, making it part and parcel of the Great Kantō Earthquake itself (4, 5).

The first chapter offers a cultural account of earthquakes in Japan as well as of popular perception and visualization of natural disasters in general during the Edo period (1603–1868). While many of the points made here are covered in other scholarship, particularly by Andrew Markus and Gregory Smits (at least in English; there is a vast array of scholarly literature on earthquake culture in Japanese as well), Weisenfeld supplements their literary and historical exposition with visual analysis of artworks, particularly woodblock prints. In addition to their proto-journalistic functions, Weisenfeld argues that these pre-twentieth-century images of earthquakes served multiple purposes as vibrant if grotesque forms of visual entertainment, often with Buddhist subtexts.

Chapter 2 considers how the Great Kantō Disaster was “scaled” or mediated by the mass media. It has themes in common with chapter 3, as both cover widely ranging historical and topical sources, from visual records of volcanic eruptions to propagandistic Russo-Japanese War prints, as well as documenting the 1923 disaster. Weisenfeld addresses the macabre side of disaster images, including the voyeuristic tendencies of the mass media, the morbid attraction of “dark tourism,” and other forms of sensationalism that inevitably accompanies human suffering. Some illustrations in these chapters are graphic and shocking, making them difficult to confront and emotionally process. Yet Weisenfeld also demonstrates how abstract representations in the form of maps and diagrams can be as emotionally evocative as any photograph, such as a color reproduction of a seismographic recording of the earthquake’s magnitude. This image, which also appears on the book’s cover, shows a dark black surface covered with small, quivering white scratches incised by the seismograph’s moving needle, with notational data recorded in red ink. The lines suddenly leap off the edge of the paper at precisely 11:58 AM, creating a series of vigorous, spasmodic scratches. This seismograph was widely reproduced in the mass media, commemorative albums, and government publications, an image rendered by the earthquake itself in a stark red, white, and black register, a palette suggestive of violence and tragedy.

Chapter 4 is centered on the sublime, specifically as evoked by the yakegahara—the “fire-scorched field” that was formerly the vibrant city of Tokyo. This post-disaster tableau drew artists, photographers, and illustrators eager to capture the poetry of wreckage at such sites as the hifukushō in Honjo, a former Army clothing depot and the deadliest locus of the disaster, where nearly forty thousand refugees sought protection only to be burned to death by raging fires. Horror is paired with poignancy in such artworks as a woodblock print by Kawasaki Shōko, which depicts the depot grounds covered with piles of ash-like funerary mounds, overlooked by the shell of a ruined mansion in the distance. A setting sun illuminates the scene—soft, warm, and orange—yet is also suggestive of the lingering heat of a fire that claimed thousands of lives. Like chapter 3, chapter 4 also deals directly with ethical issues such as the nature of artistic exploitation on the one hand, and, on the other, the role of creativity and artistry, in Weisenfeld’s words, to “represent the truth more truthfully” (100).

The fifth chapter, entitled “Reclaiming Disaster: Altruism and Corrosion,” examines the use of refugees’ narratives and on-the-ground experiences to promote diverse social and political agendas. This section is particularly wide-ranging, with attention given to amateur and popular imagery, including childrens’ drawings, snapshot photographs, impromptu sketches, magazine illustrations, cartoons, and even earthquake-themed designs for sugoroku, a snakes-and-ladders type game played on an illustrated board. In the mass media, professional satirists criticized inept politicians, police malfeasance, and the activities of vigilante groups, which were the result of temporary mob rule responsible for the most violent episodes of human-on-human violence in the disaster’s aftermath. Weisenfeld also discusses temporary shelters or huts that housed refugees, known as “barracks” (barakku), as well as barrack life as the subject of documentary photographs, exhibition paintings, and popular illustration. Also examined is barrack decoration, which Tokyo-based art and design collective Mavo (the subject of an earlier monograph by Weisenfeld [Mavo: Japanese Artists and the Avant-Garde, 1905–1931, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002]) recognized as harboring potential for avant-garde expression.

The last two chapters share a focus on policy and projects related to disaster recovery and memorialization. Chapter 6 offers a detailed explanation of the reconstruction plan promoted by Tokyo mayor Gotō Shinpei, who saw in the earthquake’s aftermath a golden opportunity to replace Tokyo’s narrow, maze-like systems of roads and alleyways with a rational and progressive system of roadways and train lines, public green spaces, and modernized housing. Weisenfeld shows how the battle for political and public approval of Gotō’s vision was fought to a significant degree in the mass media, and discusses image-based strategies adopted to promote the mayor’s reconstruction plan. These include two public memorial exhibitions, the first of which took place in 1924 and featured melted household goods, torn clothing, and other forms of material documentation, the display of which incited what Weisenfeld describes as an “emotional riot” among visitors numbering as many as thirty thousand a day (247). The second memorial exhibition took place in 1929, and while this too included relics and mementoes of the destruction, it also displayed posters, models, and schematic plans suggesting the bright, modern city that would emerge in disaster’s wake. The seventh and last chapter of the book discusses earthquake memorials, sculptural and architectural, and the process described by Weisenfeld through which artists and officials selected and refined designs demonstrates what was at stake. Some of the proposals were criticized as “too modern and too Western,” suggesting that lost life and property were not the only things to be mourned; in a sense, the disaster was emblematic of the loss of “old Tokyo” itself, and by extension, Japan’s traditional way of life, the passing of which also required memorialization (274).

Imaging Disaster is a comprehensive, fascinating, and informative study, and an important contribution to an expanding, cross-disciplinary list of recent publications on the subject of what might be called “disaster culture.” Other books for this list are 9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster by Thomas Stubblefield (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014); Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form by Hillary Chute (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2016); and specifically on Japan, The Culture of the Quake: The Great Kantō Earthquake and Taishō Japan by Alex Bates (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2015). These and other discussions of “disaster culture” constitute a humanities branch of the larger field of disaster studies further comprising sociological, statistical, and policy-related research branches, which when considered together examine all relevant aspects of the life history of disasters.

John Szostak
Associate Professor of Japanese Art History, Department of Art and Art History, University of Hawaii at Manoa