Friday, April 29, 2011

Observations on the 19th c. Japanese response to natural disasters

One of the themes of this still-new blog is the revelatory potential of perspectives brought by history, other cultures, and other disciplines. Julian Sands' beautiful essay in this week's London Review of Books explores Japan's present-day reaction to March's triple disaster (earthquake-tsunami-nuclear reactor meltdown) through a 19th century Japanese lens. I was so struck by the inversion of our present-day values that I wanted to share it with you; excerpts are below but the whole can be found through the link above. 
On 11 November 1855, a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of Japan's capital city, Edo, the precursor of modern Tokyo. Roughly 7000 people were reported dead or injured, and the numbers rose in the days that followed. There were no newspapers published in the city—the shogun's government forbade public comment on anything directly concerning the regime—but by the end of the year hundreds of woodblock broadsheets had appeared with stories and interpretations of the disaster. Among the surviving broadsheets one type stands out: colour woodblock prints depicting the earthquake as a catfish.

Since the 17th century, folklore had associated catfish with earthquakes. It was said that a giant catfish lay under a stone at the Kashima shrine... The god of the shrine had the duty of holding the catfish down. When he neglected his job, the catfish would wake up and shake, causing earthquakes. The god of Kashima seems to have been peculiarly negligent around this time: an earthquake destroyed the castle in the city of Odawara in 1853, another struck near the imperial shrine of Ise in the summer of 1854, and two tsunamis caused thousands of deaths along the Pacific coast that autumn. These events occurred soon after the arrival of American gunships under Commodore Perry forced the shogunate to open its ports to trade, rocking a dynastic system that had maintained stability in Japan for 250 years. It is not surprising that many in Edo believed the gods had chosen this time to overturn the existing world and start things anew....

I have been showing these pictures to students for years, interested in what they tell us about the period, but until the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on 11 March it had never occurred to me just how remarkable and strange to modern sensibilities this outburst of satirical humour in the face of disaster was.
The example reproduced here, ‘Mr Moneybags Launches Forth His Ship of Treasure’, employs a common motif: the suffering of elite merchants and the delight of working men. The man at the top is a wealthy miser: with the encouragement of a catfish, he is vomiting gold coins. Three men wearing the blue leggings, jackets and cloth headbands of craftsmen and builders scramble for the fallen money. The catfish lectures the miser: ‘Sir, you suffer now because you oppressed those beneath you in ordinary times. It would be well for you to change your ways and practise charity and virtue.’ Meanwhile, one of the labourers tells his mates: ‘Don’t be greedy. If you save too much and an earthquake comes you’ll regret it: better to go and spend it at the temporary brothels and keep it circulating.’ Destruction of property naturally hurt the haves more than the have-nots, and construction workers in particular stood to profit from the city’s rebuilding. Indeed, just as many occupations seem to have profited as suffered in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Another print depicted two groups of people standing on either side of a catfish, one labelled ‘those who laugh’ (a carpenter, a plasterer, a lumber merchant, a roofer, a blacksmith, a prostitute, a physician and a street-food vendor) and the other ‘those who weep’ (a teahouse proprietor, a seller of eels, a seller of luxury goods, a diamond dealer, an import merchant, musicians and entertainers). A city made entirely of wood, paper and clay could be rebuilt in a matter of weeks, and reconstruction provided work at good wages to a large segment of the urban population...
Although Japan’s disaster-prone capital lies on a major faultline and tremors are frequent, fire was by far the more common source of destruction in the 19th century. A conflagration that turned several blocks to ashes occurred in Edo on average every five or six years... Since there was a seasonal rhythm to these events and the gap between them was short, Edo’s citizens learned to flee, then return and rebuild. They kept their belongings light and portable and lived in houses that were easily dismantled. In 1880, a fire swept through Kanda’s city centre, destroying 16 blocks of dense tenements and displacing 5986 people. The mayor reported that, fortunately, it had occurred during the day, so there were no deaths or injuries. With a population well prepared for disaster, destruction of property even on this scale was accommodated within the management of the city.
This accommodation was possible because the city’s light physical infrastructure was matched by a strong and enduring social infrastructure. The people of Edo policed themselves and fielded their own fire brigades. The wealthy property owners who had the most to lose from lawlessness and property damage paid directly for these services, which were provided by their tenants and employees, and established town residents provided alms to the poor until houses were rebuilt. Although this charity was in theory voluntary, the need to maintain neighbours’ respect (and keep their custom) made it effectively obligatory. After major disasters such as the earthquake of 1855, registers were compiled in each neighbourhood listing the names of donors and amounts given, making the contributions a matter of public record. Kitahara Itoko, Japan’s leading historian of disasters and the author of a social history of the 1855 quake, has found that the donations corresponded closely to the wealth of each household, with the city’s wealthiest merchant houses, like the Mitsui dry goods business, contributing more than a thousand gold pieces, while smaller shops contributed as little as a few coppers. The shogun’s government made a practice of rewarding almsgivers after disasters, but the same fixed amount was doled out to everyone on the register, so that the compensation was little more than a token to the wealthy but could be double the amount of the original donation in the case of a poor household.
The working man gathering Mr Moneybags’s treasure implicitly referred to a physiological theory of cycles in nature, of destruction followed by renewal. Like typhoon-season floods and dry-season fires, earthquakes and tsunamis were understood as corrections of temporary imbalances in the vital force perpetually flowing through the world (known in Japanese as ki and in Chinese as qi). Periodic eruptions of natural violence released pent-up force and kept both nature and human society healthy by renewing them. In a study of the catfish prints, Gregory Smits has shown that Confucian philosophers as well as ordinary people believed that the economy followed the same principles. Just as ki flowed continuously in nature, money should be kept moving in the economy too, not allowed to stagnate and foster greed. For this reason, many people viewed capital accumulation distrustfully. Nature, they believed, censured it. 
It would be a mistake to presume that these Japanese fatalistically accepted natural destruction. Other contemporary accounts reveal that Edoites mourned the loss of family and friends, that they commemorated their deaths solemnly and sought solace in religion. But the relief of having survived, the outpouring of private and public charity, the break from everyday life and its duties, the levelling effect of the shared crisis, and the economic activity and opportunities in the reconstruction that followed, gave a positive tone to many of the catfish prints, prompting Kitahara to coin the term ‘disaster utopia’ to describe the world they depict. Of course, the condition was temporary, and neither alms nor higher wages were sufficient to cause a fundamental change in the poverty of the masses in the city’s tenements. Nevertheless, since everyone suffered together, and practically everyone contributed alms to relieve that suffering, common folk could believe that nature – in the form of the trickster catfish – had indeed instigated a healthy social renewal, and that these were bright times. Many of the prints plainly celebrate the present: using a formulaic phrase containing equal measures of irony and genuine hope, they call it ‘this blessed age’.
[VL comment: this is quite a contrast to the world of "disaster capitalism," in which wealthy developers swoop in to buy up, rebuild, and profit from areas that have been decimated by disasters, leaving the original residents permanently displaced.  It is also noteworthy that private charity, strongly local, was enforced by a system of complete transparency that itself depended on a strong social fabric. Our atomized American culture is comparatively ill-equipped to care for the dispossessed.]
Why aren’t the Japanese celebrating today? If the Fukushima nuclear plant can be brought under control, post-disaster reconstruction, at least in the long term, holds out the possibility of social and economic renewal. Assistance is flowing into the tsunami-affected region, voluntarism is flourishing and there is talk of this being an opportunity to revitalise the country, evoking notions of economic stagnation and flow that Japanese would have readily understood 150 years ago. Yet a wide gulf separates the Japan of the mid-19th century from the Japan of the present. In its slow unfolding and the inequality of its social effects, March’s triple disaster may bear more resemblance to a premodern famine than to the earthquake-tsunami that destroyed the capital in 1855. No one ever welcomed a famine because of its potential for enabling renewal. The drawn-out disaster gradually exposed and exacerbated class and regional disparities. The tsunami also brought to the surface deep structural problems: the depopulation of rural areas and the advanced age of their inhabitants (the median age of tsunami victims was reportedly around 70); the economic fragility of Japanese farming, which depends on government subsidies and tight import restrictions; and the fragility of the food system, vulnerable as it is to the invisible threat of contamination.
...In Tokyo one of my former neighbours, a woman in her sixties, writes of ‘trains running on reduced schedules, blackouts and calls to save energy, shops half dark, heat off in the house – why, we lived this way just a little while ago. I can only hope this will be the turning point away from mass production and mass consumption, towards a sustainable society.’ For people like her, who remember the days before Japan’s economic take-off, the hope is that this disaster will lead to a reduced dependence on heavy technological infrastructure.

It is remarkable that a country so seismically active and vulnerable, and which had developed the art of light infrastructure, should have embraced nuclear power. Japan began building heavy in the 1870s, soon after the modern state that replaced the shogunate chose to join the international economic and military competition led by the Western imperial powers. The country’s first model factory, a silk filature built under French guidance, and its first planned commercial district, the main avenue of Ginza in central Tokyo, were both constructed from brick in 1872. A massive earthquake in central Honshu in 1891 damaged iron bridges and toppled brick buildings, sparking debate over the appropriateness of Western technology to Japan, and the possible superiority of the lightweight, flexible structures that carpenters had built there for centuries (Gregory Clancey’s brilliant book Earthquake Nation explores the cultural politics of this debate). The debate would continue into the era of nuclear power. Today, Tokyo’s skyscrapers are built with flexible frames, designed to sway in earthquakes. Yet nowhere have architects been able to match the light and quickly constructed urban fabric that Japanese artisans had perfected before modernisation.
Sands goes on to discuss changes wrought by nuclear power technology, the quintessential heavy infrastructure, in 20th century Japan, and he makes the case that the traditionally robust social network is inseparable from the light physical infrastructure that characterized 19th century city life. As various "slow" movements spring up here in the West—slow food, slow gardening, slow art, slow fashion, slow blogging (my neologism for my lengthy posts, perhaps not inappropriately close to "slogging")—I keep thinking that as human beings we long for the kinds of connections that really need to be forged face-to-face, slowly building trust and interdependence over time... in other words, locally. I am grateful for the internet, for the phone, for being able to communicate with dear friends who live far away and 'meet' new friends through comments on this and other blogs. But there is still something irreplaceable about inviting someone over for tea and pastries warm from the oven, about making music together, about having long conversations curled up on a cozy couch, that goes well beyond the advantage of not getting a sore ear from the telephone. Even suffering together through a disaster can be a bonding experience, if all members of a given community share a sense of responsibility.

Given the increasingly inescapable effects of climate change, we need to think about the consequences of our own "heavy infrastructure" for the social fabric of our communities as well as their ability to rebuild.

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