Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan's Great Earthquake of 1923
University of California Press, 2012
400 pp., $60.00
Learning How to See
My father, one of the pioneers of acoustics research, was born in 1927 in Tokyo, a few years after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. His life reflects a generation of survivors of the greatest natural disaster to hit Japan—until, of course, the recent tsunami of 3/11/2011.
Gennifer Weisenfeld's magnificent Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan's Great Earthquake of 1923 describes Tokyo's recovery. Its text is accompanied by a wide-ranging and carefully chosen selection of images—paintings, photographs, sculptures, cartoons, seismographic charts, woodcuts, and newspaper headlines—that trace the visual record of trauma and of enormous economic commitment to recovery. The images reveal historic passages of darkness, darkness punctuated by the clarity of objective photographic imagery, hauntingly ominous sketches, and even several satirical political cartoons. What the images cannot foretell is the impending disaster of the Asia-Pacific war that would follow, of the nation's cities literally melted down in atomic hell.
Such was the backdrop to my father's childhood. In 1945, when he was a senior in high school whose teachers had already noted his astute scientific thinking, my father's mother perished in the Great Tokyo Air Raids, pierced by shrapnel from an American bomb that landed a few feet from the cave in which she hid.
What haunts me is the story of my family and their nation between the Kanto earthquake and the end of the Great War. This period, from 1923 to the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was marked by intense torment and a sense of national failure. This was the setting that shaped my father's life. Thus, when I first perused Imaging Disaster, my thoughts raced to the past, to my parents and those in their generation. But at the same time, I was thinking of more recent traumas, from 9/11 to 3/11, the Ground Zero realities that make up what is today.
I first encountered Imaging Disaster as I prepared to meet Gennifer ...