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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
Gennifer Weisenfeld
University of California Press, 2012
400 pp., $65.00

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Makoto Fujimura


Learning How to See

Japan's response to disaster.

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Weisenfeld devotes significant attention to images related to namazu, the catfish. Catfish can detect earthquake tremors with their antennae, but in Japan's animistic culture, the catfish was endowed with a prophetic voice, expressing an undercurrent of dissent and critique. A cartoon depicts a catfish as the voice of nature, and Weisenfeld notes:

One cartoon … shows an animated catfish labeled "earthquake" rearing its head from the subterranean level beneath the buried electrical power lines and the planned subway construction to view the scorched earth above. It exclaims, "They just don't seem to learn from experience; Tokyoites are really callous..." Here the catfish presumably seeks to punish the city dwellers again for disturbing his lair with their intrusive underground urban development.

The word translated "callous" can also mean "insensitive," and it literally refers to "a numbed nervous system." This word captures the reality of the post-trauma city, as well as the gray utilitarian pragmatism pervasive in the postwar recovery of Tokyo. The Japanese have become numbed to their own sense of beauty. Perhaps the catfish appears over and over in Imaging Disaster in part because Weisenfeld herself identifies with the namazu. What she gives us, and the Japanese people, is a book animated by the opposite of insensitivity and callousness. What she gives us is a delight that permeates to the depth of urban humanity—the gift not only of a scholar but of an artist.

Makoto Fujimura, an artist based in Princeton, New Jersey, is the founder of the International Arts Movement. His illuminated edition of The Four Holy Gospels was published by Crossway in 2011.

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