Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japans Great Earthquake of 1923
The Buddhist notion of ritual impurity, kegare, which was absorbed into Shinto belief as well, views things that are unclean as an offense to the gods and redolent of human guilt and sin and is associated with death, disaster, and disease. A major function of religious practitioners was to enact rituals to cleanse this pollution, and they developed a host of purification and apotropaic rituals that they performed regularly to divest communities of perceived contamination and prevent the recurrence of disasters.
The tsuina ceremony or, demon exorcism , for example, is still conducted all over Japan at the end or beginning of every year to expel demons from the community and thereby avert misfortune. For most of Japanese history, people have believed that the dead and the living are connected.
As historians of religion Jacqueline Stone and Mariko Walter have amply demonstrated, "Buddhism was the pre-eminent spiritual technology for consoling and pacifying the dead," and the Buddhist doctrine of an ethicized afterlife-where deeds were rewarded or punished by pleasant and painful circumstances and in which worldly bonds persisted beyond death-enjoined the living to dispose of bodies properly.
This was particularly important after the untimely deaths caused by disasters, when the "feeding of hungry ghosts," the important ritual of segaki, had to be performed. This was a joint memorial service conducted for the souls of disaster victims in which offerings were made to appease the tormented souls of unattended wandering spirits muen botoke and hungry ghosts gaki residing in a liminal purgatory; the segaki guarded the spirits of the dead from the malevolent hungry ghosts and protected them from entering into this purgatory.
While the imaging of disaster in Japan, if you include warfare, dates back to Japan's earliest pictorial traditions, two visual genealogies coalesced in the mid-nineteenth century to form the backbone of earthquake imagery that was transmitted into the modern period. The scroll dialectically ties together misfortune and fortune within the Buddhist cyclical notion of reincarnation and provides a powerful visual polemic for righteous behavior in accordance with Buddhist principles. His mission was to proselytize righteous behavior by instilling fear of realistic divine punishment and the incentives of earthly rewards.
These expressive representations of suffering beings in infernal landscapes became stylistically codified over time, although they never lost their evocative potential to instill fear in viewers. The cyclonic fires are rendered with a combination of black ink sumi and vermilion red mineral pigment to express the dynamism and searing intensity of the blaze. Burning, bloody bodies writhe in agony in the whirling conflagration, only inches from fleeing, terrified mothers clasping infants to their breasts.
The violent nature of the tragic events is conveyed in exquisite detail. All of the misfortune images-which include torrential floods and rainstorms, dramatically zigzagging lightning bolts striking people fig. This spectacularized and macabre mode of visualizing the cautionary tales of disaster continued unabated into the modern period.
Such imagery is evident in the important visual chronicle of firsthand accounts of the devastating Ansei earthquake, Ansei kenmonshi Ansei-Era Observations, March , which appeared soon after the quake hit on 11 November The images in Ansei-Era Observations, combined with the vividly descriptive text, clearly provided visual entertainment as well as moral lessons. Stylistically, they drew heavily from the explicitly rendered gruesome scenes of the supernatural and macabre that were enormously popular in late Edo visual culture.
Renowned print designers such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Kuniyoshi produced extensive corpora of these images. This predilection for the macabre was also abundantly evident in the increasing focus on gruesome stories of criminality in the news. Disaster imagery could not be separated from visual entertainment, even when it conveyed strong moralistic messages. The merging of the moral and the macabre is apparent in the depiction of the segaki purification ritual in a double-page illustration in the first volume of the Ansei-Era Observations; it shows a mob of disfigured blue corpses clustering before a group of Buddhist priests who are behind an altar performing the rituals fig.
The text reads, "The many horrid deaths of people in the recent earthquake, though it was a natural disaster [therefore they deserve their own suffering], were so piteous that Segaki services were held on 2 December at the following temples The grisly features of individual figures rendered by the artist Utagawa Yoshitsuna include one with half his skin missing to reveal the skull beneath, one completely charred from fire, a pregnant woman with her distended blue belly, and another woman gripping her dead infant.
These sufferers all look beseechingly toward the clergy for their salvation. While the service protected both the dead and the living, the spectacularly ghastly scenes frightened and titillated the public. One unique and enduring motif in Japanese disaster imagery is the catfish. The catfish image emerged out of talismanic maps, known as dai Nihonkoku jishin no zu great Japan earthquake maps , which were designed to prevent earthquakes and foretell their future consequences.
These maps originated in the fourteenth century but were popularized in the mid-seventeenth century on the covers of yearly almanacs and were sometimes used in tsuina demon-expelling ceremonies. Unlike specific regional representations, these images pictured the entire country in potential peril and unified in its fate. These maps specifically evoke the dragon imagery-with the creature seemingly about to constrict and choke off the lifeblood of the country. Over two centuries of reproduction, the dragon became conflated with a large cosmic fish-later specifically a catfish.
Catfish often act strangely before earthquakes, perhaps because they can sense the first small tremors as they swim in the mud close to the ground. Through the force of the Kashima deity, the stone or in some cases the deity's sword subdues this beast and prevents it from moving and causing earthquakes. This connection established Kashima as a national protector, and the shrine promoted this identity to bolster its importance and social status.
The bound versions of the Ise koyomi Ise Almanac later printed in Edo city include stylized versions of these talismanic maps, which were issued yearly to ward off earthquakes and to predict month by month when and where earthquakes might occur. They continued to have currency into the nineteenth century. The project was prompted by a massive earthquake in the Kyoto area that year. The months are segmented around the figure under the dorsal scales, going counterclockwise from the two o'clock position, indicating the predictions for each period.
This was the age of the mass-produced printed broadsides kawaraban that served as Edo newspapers. The Ansei quake has a particularly important place in Japanese history, for it damaged large portions of the Tokugawa capital, Edo, which was a major center of commercial and cultural activity in the mid-nineteenth century, not to mention the seat of government rule.
Correspondingly, the collapse of the stone watchtower on the perimeter of Edo Castle was deemed to presage the imminent collapse of Tokugawa authority. The Ansei quake inspired a tremendous surge in literary and artistic production, much of which was issued anonymously by commercial gesaku artists, a subject that has been considered at length by Andrew Markus.follow site
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They quickly became subject to regulation and censorship, but their popularity ensured their continued production illegally. Over four hundred varieties of catfish prints are known. The destructive catfish was both deliverer of moral reckoning and facilitator of world renewal or world rectification yonaoshi or yonaori. Therefore, the Ansei catfish prints presented earthquakes as having restorative effects as well as destructive repercussions. A look at some of the thematic concerns of Ansei catfish prints as visual satire can help us understand the continuities and ruptures enacted in the visual production of Kitahara has identified two distinct yet intermingled messages in catfish imagery: fortune and misfortune.
The people venerate the "large" catfish as a messenger from heaven because it reveals deleterious social ills in an effort to bring about the eventual betterment of society-a view that was generally held by the upper classes, particularly the samurai class.
In contrast, the "small" catfish, as a symbol of the myriad misfortunes of disaster, is reviled and attacked by the people-a view generally held by the working classes. This dichotomy is complicated, however, by the fact that many namazu-e express sympathy for the plight of the working classes, presenting the earthquake as a positive event that will precipitate a much-needed redistribution of wealth. The theme of class inequity undergirds many of the works.
Great Earthquake 1923 Japan
In this namazu-e, people happily look on as they imagine the forging of a new, more equitable society. The print can also be read as a critique of the enormous amount of profiteering that took place in reconstruction-related business, a commonly recurring subject. Issues of class equity and social abuse are also addressed in a number of prints that depict the catfish delivering divine punishment tenken or tenbatsu to the rich or ruling class for their moral lapses, materialistic excesses, and inept leadership.
According to Cornells Ouwehand, through the anthropomorphization of the catfish and the personification of earthquakes, the namazu-e could represent human players in disasters from all angles, as destroyers, renovators, enemies, and heroes. The catfish mirror human society in all its ambiguity. As such, they epistemologically transpose earthquake disasters into something understandable. Namazu-e indicate a more active notion of personal will in relation to earthquakes, as evidenced in the earnest images of mobs of townsmen kneeling in prayer to the brightly labeled protective keystone at Kashima Shrine- Safety Protective Keystone Anshin kaname ishi , is one example-which demonstrate their attempts to control natural phenomena through pious action.
At the same time, images sharply satirized the connection between human action and disaster. An amusing pendent image to the townsmen shows a group of clothed, catfish-men, grinning with teeth bared from ear to ear, similarly bowing in contrition to the Kashima deity for their transgressions in causing the Ansei quake along with others throughout the country fig. They agree to sign a formal declaration of their good intentions.
In recent work, Gregory Smits has focused on Ansei catfish prints in the context of Japanese urban society at a time of uncertainty and has related them thematically to the weakening of the social and political order. Among other things, he reads the prints as expressing popular anxiety over the political pressure American Admiral Matthew Perry and his Black Ships exerted on the weak Tokugawa shogunate. Anxiety about foreign incursions onto Japanese soil and the international situation in general was indirectly responsible for the magnitude of the quake's damage in that large quantities of gunpowder stored throughout the city for protective purposes exploded in the ensuing conflagration.
Along with the sophisticated multilayered wordplay common throughout Japanese print culture, particularly ukiyo-e images of the floating world of the pleasure quarters , a tinge of parody and a comedic veneer often infused the underlying moral message of earthquake representations. As people gain distance from traumatic events and their lives begin to return to normalcy, they often use humor to highlight the absurdities of the event and relieve the stresses of the disaster.
But perhaps most important in Japan was the ability to use parody as a powerful form of veiled social critique, at a time when open public criticism was strictly forbidden. In one well-known, satirical catfish print fig.
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As the hapless Kashima races back on the right, the catfish wreaks destruction upon Edo. Gold and silver coins are shaken loose from the city, indicting the wealthy elites and heralding the redistribution of wealth.
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The squatting scatological figure on the left shows the thunder deity engaged in the popular Edo pastime of competitive farting, also known as "thunder farting. Quasi-comic and decidedly scatological in tenor, this image reminds viewers that even the gods fall down on the job; hence, they themselves must be even more vigilant. Anger and revenge against the destructive catfish as scapegoat was a common theme. One print, for example, depicts a frightened, beseeching catfish and its children being set upon by a vision of the vengeful Kashima deity and an angry mob of armed citizens seeking retribution.
In other whimsical examples, the catfish and his cohort engage in more endearing human activities. One such print fig.
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The humor in this image lies in the comical representation of these fantastic characters playing the well-known children's game kitsune ken, or "fox fists," involving hand gestures a game akin to rock-paper-scissors , and the allegorical pictorialization of the common aphorism about the four most fearful things: "earthquake, thunder, fire, father.
In the end, the gods are busy playing games while the fate of humanity is left to chance. National Library of Australia.
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