Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Smithsonian magazine: The Great Kanto Earthquake

Woodcut print by Japanese artist Unpo depicting the destruction in Ueno due to the Great Kanto Earthquake.
Woodcut print by Japanese artist Unpō depicting the destruction in the Ueno area of Tokyo due to the Great Kantō Earthquake.

The May 2011 issue of the Smithsonian magazine included an interesting article by Joshua Hammer about the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1, 1923, then considered to be the worst natural disaster to hit Japan. The article describes how earthquake, tsunami, and especially the resulting firestorms destroyed the port city of Yokohama and a large part of Tokyo. According to the article, the death toll from this natural disaster was estimated at around 140,000 people.

One interesting point of view mentioned in the article was the idea that the natural cataclysm also gave rise to political upheaval—that the devastation of two of Japan's major cities and the ensuing national trauma kindled right-wing passions and accelerated the rise of militarism and fascism in Japan.

On the lighter side, I was amazed by some of the earthquake-related artwork featured in the article. One such artwork is a woodcut print by an artist with the name of Unpō Takashima that I posted above (note the artist's signature, which is itself part of the art). I couldn't really find a reliable online source for information about this artist. But it's a vividly wonderful depiction of a suddenly tragic moment of time. You can find images of the other earthquake-related artwork and photos linked with the article on the Smithsonian website. (Update: I have posted more information about the Japanese artist Unpō in a blog post entitled, Visual impressions of the Great Kanto Earthquake, which was posted on August 19, 2013.)

One rather embarrassing thing about the article is that it spelled the name of the major Japanese writer Tanizaki Jun'ichiro (谷崎潤一郎) incorrectly. It also referred to him as a Nobel laureate, which he was not. One of the commenters on the Smithsonian article pointed these out. These were very easy things to check, so it made me wonder about the quality of magazine articles nowadays.

Here is a link to Wikipedia's page on the Great Kanto Earthquake.

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