Monday, September 9, 2013

The Great Kanto Earthquake and crayons from the USA

Having previously devoted some blog space to this topic and having developed an interest in it, I thought I'd make a quick survey of how Japan commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Great Kantō Earthquake (関東大震災), a catastrophic, magnitude 7.9 earthquake which struck the Kantō region of Japan just before noon on September 1, 1923.

It is not mere coincidence that Japan also observes its National Disaster Preparedness Day (防災の日) on the day of the year when one of its most fatal and destructive natural disasters happened, flattening Yokohama and a large part of Tokyo, and resulting in approximately 105,000 deaths. Established in 1960, Japan's National Disaster Preparedness Day was created with the tragic lessons of the Great Kantō Earthquake in mind, and as a way of leveraging those lessons for the purpose of executing a well-managed response and saving lives and property in the event of a similar calamity. This year, the national government carried out disaster response exercises assuming a worst-case scenario of an eruption of a large, M9.1 earthquake along the Nankai Trough, an underwater trough in the southern seas of Japan stretching from Shizuoka Prefecture in Honshu to the Hyūga-nada Sea off the eastern coast of Kyushu.

A more quiet commemoration was held at the Tokyo Memorial Hall (東京都慰霊堂) in Sumida, where a Buddhist sevice was held in remembrance of the victims. The remains of about 58,000 earthquake victims are interred there.

At the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, an exhibit of photos and documents pertaining to how the Imperial Family coped with the aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake opened. Among other things, it includes photos of then crown prince Hirohito venturing outside of the palace grounds and surveying the extensive damage.

But the event that I read about which made the most impression on me was an exhibit of drawings by Japanese schoolchildren who survived the earthquake. It really surprised me to discover that these children made these drawings at that time and that these drawings have not only survived but also seem to have been well preserved. In a previous blog post, I wrote about the Taishō Shinsai Gashū (大正震災画集), a collection of woodblock prints by Japanese artists published in 1924 which depicted scenes pertaining to the Great Kantō Earthquake. That there was a project along the same lines but executed by children is remarkable.

The exhibit is entitled, "The Great Kantō Earthquake as seen by children (子どもがみた関東大震災)," and is being held at the Tokyo Reconstruction Memorial Museum (東京都復興記念館) in Sumida. It features drawings by school children from a former grade school in the old Honjo Ward of Tokyo (now part of Sumida Ward). Done with crayons, the drawings depict scenes of the horrible moments after the earthquake struck, and are grouped in the exhibit according to the themes of "fire", "taking shelter", and "ruins of fire". The exhibit runs through September 23, 2013.

The drawings also have an interesting story behind them.

According to the Japanese article by the Yomiuri Shimbun, it all started in March 1924, when a call was made by the Tokyo City school affairs section to grade school teachers to let the children draw their recollections of the earthquake. It seems that, along with other forms of aid, the USA also sent donations of crayons and drawing paper to the children affected by the earthquake. So it was these supplies that the children used to make their drawings.

As an expression of gratitude for its donations, the art teacher who supervised the children sent the children's drawings to the United States. But then, seven years after the earthquake, the Tokyo Memorial Hall was completed, and the drawings were returned to Japan as a gesture of goodwill and were stored in the Memorial Hall.

Twenty-two years after the Great Kantō Earthquake, on the evening of March 9-10, 1945, the United States firebombed Tokyo in what is now called the Great Tokyo Air Raid. For the second time in a generation, Tokyo was ravaged and burned. The ovenight assault by more than 300 B-29 bombers loaded with tons of incendiary chemicals resulted in about 100,000 deaths, left about a million people homeless, and boiled Tokyo's rivers. Fortunately, both the Tokyo Reconstruction Memorial Museum and the Tokyo Memorial Hall escaped damage, and the children's drawings survived.

And now, close to 90 years later and against all odds, the crayon marks remain vivid, loyal to the brave and innocent witnesses who have managed to send their memories and messages across through time to their countrymen and living descendants.


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