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The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan (Contemporary Asia in the World)The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan (Contemporary Asia in the World)
J. Charles Schencking


In September 1923, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake devastated eastern Japan, killing more than 120,000 people and leaving two million homeless. Using a rich array of source material, J. Charles Schencking tells for the first time the graphic tale of Tokyo's destruction and rebirth. In emotive prose, he documents how the citizens of Tokyo experienced this unprecedented calamity and explores the ways in which it rattled people's deep-seated anxieties about modernity. While explaining how and why the disaster compelled people to reflect on Japanese society, he also examines how reconstruction encouraged the capital's inhabitants to entertain new types of urbanism as they rebuilt their world.

Some residents hoped that a grandiose metropolis, reflecting new values, would rise from the ashes of disaster-ravaged Tokyo. Many, however, desired a quick return of the city they once called home. Opportunistic elites advocated innovative state infrastructure to better manage the daily lives of Tokyo residents. Others focused on rejuvenating society -- morally, economically, and spiritually -- to combat the perceived degeneration of Japan. Schencking explores the inspiration behind these dreams and the extent to which they were realized. He investigates why Japanese citizens from all walks of life responded to overtures for renewal with varying degrees of acceptance, ambivalence, and resistance. His research not only sheds light on Japan's experience with and interpretation of the earthquake but challenges widespread assumptions that disasters unite stricken societies, creating a "blank slate" for radical transformation. National reconstruction in the wake of the Great Kanto Earthquake, Schencking demonstrates, proved to be illusive.


In March 2011 the world was reminded of the extraordinary force that earthquakes and
tsunamis unleash. In dramatic fashion the Tohoku catastrophe revealed how vulnerable parts of our planet are to natural hazards. Disasters do more than destroy, however. They also compel reflection, inspire optimism, and lead people to believe that something better can and will emerge from the devastation. Some people suggest that disasters possess the potential to change everything.

Numerous individuals opined that the Great Tohoku Earthquake would transform
Japan. Some argued that rising to the challenge of recovery would instill citizens with
a newfound confidence and make people once again proud to be Japanese. Many
predicted that reconstruction spending would provide the economic stimulus
necessary to end two lost decades of deflation. Still others posited notions that the
Japanese people might lose their faith in science and demand a reorientation of the
nation's economy, or that humanitarian aid from China might help resolve long-
standing territorial disputes between both countries. Will these transformations ever
materialize or will contestation and resistance limit policy outcomes? History
suggests the latter.
In September 1923 Japan suffered a far more deadly natural calamity. Then, a
magnitude 7.9 earthquake and resulting firestorms killed more than 120,000 people
and turned roughly half of Tokyo and virtually all of Yokohama into blackened,
corpse-strewn wastelands. Amid this desolate landscape, bureaucratic elites
suggested that a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild Tokyo as a modern
metropolis had emerged. Others argued that the cataclysmic Great Kanto Earthquake
could, if manipulated artfully, rouse urbanites from their increasingly consumer-
oriented, hedonistic mindsets and enable the government to forge a more moderate,
wholesome moral path for social regeneration. Even foreigners involved in
humanitarian assistance succumbed to the postdisaster culture of optimism. Admiral
Edwin Alexander Anderson, who oversaw the initial US relief effort in Tokyo,
informed navy officials upon his return to US territory - at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii - 
that American aid and Japanese appreciation of such aid had so firmly cemented
friendly relations between both countries that no possibility of war in the Pacific
existed in his generation.



The Great Japan Earthquake of 1923
The powerful quake and ensuing tsunami that struck Yokohama and Tokyo traumatized a nation and unleashed historic consequences
By Joshua Hammer
Smithsonian magazine, May 2011, Subscribe

My own view is that by reducing the expatriate European community in Yokohama and putting an end to a period of optimism symbolized by that city, the Kanto earthquake accelerated Japan’s drift toward militarism and war. Japan scholar Kenneth Pyle of the University of Washington says that conservative elites were already nervous about democratic forces emerging in society, and “the 1923 earthquake does sort of begin to reverse some of the liberal tendencies that appear right after World War I....After the earthquake, there’s a measurable increase in right-wing patriotic groups in Japan that are really the groundwork of what is called Japanese fascism.” Peter Duus, an emeritus professor of history at Stanford, states that it was not the earthquake that kindled right-wing activities, “but rather the growth of the metropolis and the emergence of what the right wing regarded as heartless, hedonistic, individualistic and materialist urban culture.” The more significant long-term effect of the earthquake, he says, “was that it set in motion the first systematic attempt at reshaping Tokyo as a modern city. It moved Tokyo into the ranks of world metropolises.”

University of Melbourne historian J. Charles Schencking sees the rebuilding of Tokyo as a metaphor for something larger. The earthquake, he has written, “fostered a culture of catastrophe defined by political and ideological opportunism, contestation and resilience, as well as a culture of reconstruction in which elites sought to not only rebuild Tokyo, but also reconstruct the Japanese nation and its people.”