Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923
University of California Press, 2012
400 pp., $65.00
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 Weisenfeld, who teaches at Duke University. She had been invited by Jeremy Begbie to participate in a symposium related to the QU4RTETS project, a collaborative work that responds in visual art, music, and writing to T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Weisenfeld's symposium presentation on Eliot and her book are both remarkable works of visual journeying, and during her presentation my own sense of belonging "in between" the cataclysmic events of 9/11 and 3/11 came alive. One of the works in QU4RTETS, a painting by Bruce Herman, is a portrait of my father, and the symposium was part of an inaugural event for the Fujimura Institute, an entity I desired to dedicate to my father, so I felt keenly the divide and the historic realities behind each of the images presented.
In many ways my father's life as a scientist has been a quintessentially Japanese journey of rejuvenation. Determination—even stubbornness—still flows in his character today at the age of 85. It is a miracle that my father exists at all (and, therefore, that I do); his mother and father lived through the 1923 earthquake and conceived my father a bit later. In the postwar period, my father mostly stayed with his older sister Yoshiko, who lost her husband soon after the war. His aloof father sent him to a prestigious private school where he had further chances to develop his scientific and linguistic acumen.
Weisenfeld's book is based on prodigious research, but it is also a highly aesthetic effort, a narrative that reveals the sophisticated and subliminal visual journey of the Japanese psyche. Japanese aesthetics are deeply embedded in what Weisenfeld calls her "Visual Scholarship." Glossy, heavy paper makes Imaging Disaster unusually weighty, and allows for exceptionally high-quality images of photos and art, to a degree rarely found in scholarly publications; it seems a hybrid of an art catalogue and an academic monograph. Surely, this is beyond the budget of most publishers, university presses included—so how did she manage it? She told me that with Duke University's blessing and support, she raised her own funds relentlessly as she collected images. I find this commitment to aesthetics enthralling, and just as valuable as the scholarly content of her writing.
While many commentators rightly decry publishing trends that undermine a commitment to excellence, we have seen some heartening counter-examples: superbly produced books, and at affordable prices. Take, for example, the recent publication of Carl Jung's The Red Book, finally allowed by the Jung estate to see the light of day—some 212 pages of illuminations of contentious rumination and pre-schizophrenic images. My own experience in producing a book illuminating the four gospels, made possible by a commission from Crossway, was deeply encouraging. But this commitment to a high level of visual excellence, as exemplified by Weisenfeld's book, is scarce in Christian circles. We have much to learn from her: to lavish attention on aesthetics and historical data, to illumine our journeys. However difficult to achieve, such efforts are worth our investment: they will expand our understanding of our Ground Zero existence beyond what words can express.