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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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But it is also true that such technological advances led to the development of atomic weapons and nuclear power, and the fire of disasters to follow, from Hiroshima to Fukushima. What Weisenfeld accomplishes is to capture the tremors and rumblings of disaster in a visual package.

There is a difference between natural disasters and wars. We might argue that the damages brought by war are self-inflicted. In either case, though, the trajectory of recovery may point to exploitation (as when a defeat or a disaster is used to fuel resentment and nationalistic ambitions) or toward humility and collaboration. Often these two trajectories are commingled. Such was the case, well documented in Imaging Disaster, with the responses to the Great Earthquake of 1923. Weisenfeld quotes an American historian who was living in Japan at that time, Mary Beard: "On all sides we hear tales of the daring, resourcefulness, and unselfishness that the laboring class exhibited when the crash came and the fire spread … . It sometimes takes a catastrophe on an immense scale to teach us true values."

Weisenfeld's book veers away from observations that lead to cause-and-effect judgments. Instead, she draws upon the data of post-earthquake art as evidence of a type of universality in all responses to all disasters, in all cultures. Many times, I saw in this book direct parallels between the Japanese responses to the 1923 earthquake and post-9/11 reconstruction efforts in my Manhattan neighborhood. Weisenfeld notes:

This sensational exhibitionary rhetoric of physical trauma and relic veneration was powerfully continued in the quake's official memorial and taken up later in the memorialization of other disasters, such as the wartime atomic bombings. In the early post-quake period, such visceral displays coexisted in a tentative balance with the urban renewal rhetoric of reconstruction, even as government officials tried mightily to harness the powerful emotions os public trauma and empathy in the cause of the future city. Through calculated display of these objects and representations, they importuned the living to honor the sacrifice of the dead by cooperating with the reconstruction effort, going so far as to compare the deaths of earthquake victims to those of soldiers killed for the nation on the battle fields of the Russo-Japanese War. By the end of the decade, this balance would tip, however, as the national and municipal governments felt a need to enfold mourning and memory within the progressive narrative of a forward-looking construction.

Ironically, this "progressive narrative" did not pave the way for a kind of renewal. Instead, the result was a modernistic pragmatism in which budget and utility always outweighed the interests of beauty. Instead of taking care to harmonize Tokyo with nature, "reconstruction" meant to get the work done quickly and cheaply, so resources could increasingly be used for military purposes.

Curiously, Weisenfeld remains silent on these connections. What is most striking to me is that the book, ostensibly an "outsider's" document, does not read like that: Instead, it reads as a lovingly crafted work of visual scholarship that nurtures our interest in a period of history largely left behind. And part of what makes the book fascinating and worth exploring is the reader's awareness of silent, in-between areas of conjecture and historical reality that Weisenfeld herself does not explicitly address. It is haunting that Japan repeated, with the help of the United States, the pragmatism of post-earthquake days in the post-Hiroshima and Nagasaki days. One could argue, looking at this book, that postwar construction was even more short-sighted and gray than the first rebuilding efforts after the earthquake.

The bright, color-filled pages of this book attest to a deeply rooted Japanese disposition toward aesthetics that postwar Tokyo ignored. To behold this book is to imagine a possible future in which such a disposition can be restored, leading to a Japan that a loving observer might wish for.

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