Monday, August 19, 2013

Visual impressions of the Great Kanto Earthquake

On September 1, 2013, Japan will commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Great Kantō Earthquake. Many will perhaps look to images as a means of connecting to a past that they never experienced, images like the 4.6-meter-long panoramic photo of earthquake evacuees which will be on display next month in Tokyo. We turn to images because they are effective; they are a viable link which enables us to explore the past, those events we never experienced.

When I first started this blog, I wrote a post about an article I had read in the Smithsonian Magazine about the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923. That article's online version included several images—photographs and woodcut prints—which depicted the aftermath of the earthquake, and even the moment when the earthquake struck. I included one of those woodcut prints in my blog post, noting that I couldn't find any information about the Japanese artist who created it, cited as Unpō Takashima in the article (see Figure 1).

Woodcut print by Japanese artist Unpo depicting a scene from the Great Kanto Earthquake.
Figure 1: A woodcut print by Japanese artist Unpō depicting a scene from the Great Kantō Earthquake. Click on the image to enlarge.

I am writing this post because I was trying to find out if I could read the kanji which comprised the artist's signature on that image. My thought process was, if I could do a search using his kanji name instead of his romanized name, maybe I would be able to find information about him in Japanese. Well, the signature was in a cursive script, and the accompanying seal was in seal script, so I couldn't read any of it (see Figure 2). (Being able to read Japanese text written in cursive script is a skill that I would love to acquire someday.)

Signature and seal of Japanese artist Unpo.
Figure 2: The artist Unpō's signature and seal.

Having failed at the attempt to decipher the kanji in the signature, I did a little more research online about the artist using his romanized name. But this artist doesn't seem to have much information about him online, so he is still a mystery. However, I did come across some information about his woodcut print—and I also found his kanji name. More correctly, I should say that I found his studio name.

Taishō Shinsai Gashū

It turns out that, in the years following the earthquake, a series of woodcut prints were created by various artists which etched in print the horror, chaos, and the destruction of that moment and its aftermath. Through their works of art, memories of those events have been permanently preserved in artistic visual form—if one could find them.

In 1926, twenty-five of those works by several artists were published in a collection called Taishō Shinsai Gashū (大正震災画集, or Taishō Earthquake Disaster Print Collection), where Taishō (大正) is the Japanese calendar designation for the era in which the earthquake happened, 大正12 (12th year of Taishō) in particular. Among these was the woodcut print by the artist called Unpō. The Wolfsonian, a museum, library, and reasearch center in Florida, owns a copy of this collection and, fortunately, they have posted reproduction images of all 25 art prints on their website. There are scenes of panic, death, tsunami, flattened structures, rubble, derailed train cars, firestorms, people drowning, people displaced from their homes, and more. The incongruity of deriving pleasure from the aesthetics of art prints which depict such horrors was hard to miss. Which is to say, the images on the site are worth a look.

In scouring the internet for information about the artist Unpō, I also came across a collection of resources pertaining to the Great Kantō Earthquake hosted by the Chuo City Library, which is located in Tokyo. This comprehensive collection, which is in Japanese, includes many photos which serve as records of the destruction in the Kantō area. To view the photos, click on the links marked 写真 (shashin = photograph) in the left-most column of the displayed table.

Looking at photographs, the incongruity disappears. These are immediate records captured on film, unsoftened by time, memory, and heart, although the eyes which painted them behind the lens, even if perhaps in a state of disbelief, were not necessarily less compassionate.

One of the photos, which depicts the remnants of Tokyo's Shinbashi Station (新橋駅), can be seen in Figure 3 below, and a picture with a contrasting depiction of a splendid Shinbashi Station before its destruction can be seen in Figure 4. This pair of photos is probably as good as any for answering the question, "How strong was the earthquake?"

Remnants of Tokyo's Shinbashi Station after the Great Kanto Earthquake.
Figure 3: Earthquake remnants of Tokyo's Shinbashi Station. The image is from the collection of the Chuo City Library in Tokyo. Click on the image to enlarge.

Tokyo's Shinbashi Station depicted before the Great Kanto Earthquake.
Figure 4: The Shinbashi Station pre-quake. The image is from Wikipedia. Click on the image to enlarge.

Another digital collection of photographs is hosted by the University of Hawaii at Manoa Library Asia Collection. On their website, you can browse photos by category or city, among other possibilities.

The artist's studio name and seal

As I was saying, I was trying to pin down the kanji characters of the artist Unpō's name. I was finally able to do so with the help of the table of contents of the Taishō Shinsai Gashū (see Figures 5 and 6). The table is printed in the traditional manner, and so should be read right to left, top to bottom. It gives each of the 25 prints' titles on top, and the corresponding artist's studio name on the bottom. It was common practice for woodcut artists to sign their work using a studio name or a pseudonym. Usually, the signature consisted of one name only. Sometimes, the artist's seal was also stamped below the signature, as was the case for Unpō's work. I counted 10 unique signatures in the table of contents.

Table of contents of the Taisho Shinsai Gashu, part 1.
Figure 5: Table of contents of the Taishō Shinsai Gashū. Click on the image to enlarge.

Table of contents of the Taisho Shinsai Gashu, part 2.
Figure 6: Table of contents of the Taishō Shinsai Gashū (continuation). Click on the image to enlarge.

The work of Unpō is 15th in the print sequence, listed in the third column from the left in Figure 5. Reading this column, we have:

十五  上野附近  雲峰

Translated to English, this is:

15  Ueno neighborhood  Unpō

And so, from the title we see that the scene of destruction takes place in a neighborhood in Ueno. And we also easily obtain the kanji studio name of our mystery artist (Figure 7):

The kanji name of Japanese artist Unpo deciphered.
Figure 7: The artist Unpō's studio name deciphered.

The table of contents also indicates that the sixth image belongs to Unpō as well:

六  本所方面  雲峰
6  Honjo area  Unpō

My conjecture is that Honjo (本所) refers to the old Honjo ward of Tokyo.

Having found the kanji which comprised Unpō's signature, the next question was, do the characters in Unpō's seal match the kanji characters?

I found a really useful website about Chinese etymology. The website has an application which lists the ancient Chinese character forms corresponding to modern Chinese characters or kanji. There are also Android and iPhone versions of the application. This useful site is worth a bookmark.

Happily, the output of the web application for the characters in 雲峰 match the seal characters stamped on Unpō's work:

Chinese seal characters for 雲 (seal character L31320 is a match)
Chinese seal characters for 峰 (seal character L00485 is a match)

A thought on learning Japanese

Studying a language, too, is a viable link to unfamiliar times, places, and cultures, a vast adventure of exploration not limited to grammar books and dictionaries. If I had been able to read that signature straightaway, my exploration would have ended there. But, thanks to my unskilled eye, what started out as a curiosity about a relatively unknown artist's kanji name led to discoveries of other things—about the Great Kantō Earthquake and the images that were made of and for it, about woodcut artists and their names and what they remembered.


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