Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Divine Retribution

While rescue workers continue to dig people from the rubble of a large earthquake in eastern Turkey, the catastrophic combination of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan this past March 11 remains fresh in the minds of many as that country continues to struggle with resulting problems. It is made visible by the ongoing repair of nuclear power plants still in a fragile state, still a threat, and the thousands of people yet unable to return to their homes. Such disasters teach big lessons about how we live, but one time is not necessarily enough to make us invulnerable to divine retribution.

On September 1, 1923 at two minutes before noon, a devastating earthquake hit the densely populated area of Tokyo and Yokohama. The shocks rattled both cities at 7.9 on the Richter scale and set loose a forty-foot high tsunami, with a series of towering waves sweeping away thousands of people. At the time the first shocks hit, charcoal stoves in most homes were being used to prepare midday meals. The tremor scattered coals and fires, and fanned by a steady breeze spread quickly to become raging firestorms with deadly cyclones of superheated air from which most of the oxygen had been burned. In the Tokyo area of Honjo alone 38,000 died of suffocation.

140,000 people lost their lives—58,000 of them in Tokyo. Fire had long been a major threat in Japanese cities, the typical house of the time a light building with a wooden tile roof, built close to other houses with little empty space between. With no place to escape most victims suffocated or burned in the fires. Seventy to eighty percent of both Tokyo and Yokohama was destroyed. Writing for Trans-Pacific magazine, Henry W. Kinney painted this picture…

‘Yokohama, the city of almost half a million souls, had become a vast plain of fire, of red, devouring sheets of flame which played and flickered. Here and there a remnant of a building, a few shattered walls stood up like rocks above the expanse of flame, unrecognizable…It was as if the very earth were now burning. It presented exactly the aspect of a gigantic Christmas pudding over which the spirits were blazing, devouring nothing. For the city was gone.’

Martial law was enforced by 35,000 troops. Among those in power at the time, certain elements took advantage of the confusion to kill ‘suspicious’ Koreans, eliminate leftist radicals and murder ten labor union activists. These deaths exemplified the breakdown of order among those sworn to uphold it. In his book Yokohama Burning, Joshua Hammer suggests that the earthquake accelerated Japan’s drift toward militarism and war. With conservative elites already nervous about democratic forces emerging in society, the earthquake presented an opportunity to reverse some of the liberal tendencies. In the months and years following the disaster there was a sizable increase in right-wing patriotic groups which possibly laid the groundwork for eventual fascism. Historians have agreed that it was this great earthquake of 1923 and its devastation that gave voice in Japan to those who believed Western decadence had invited divine retribution.

Trains crowded with passengers were thrown from their tracks as depicted here by an unknown artist.

A tidal wave sweeping in from Sagami Bay prefigures the ruin that hit northeast Japan eighty-eight years later.

The first three woodblock prints, from top to bottom:

Kyôryo no ensho (Burning Bridge in Honjo) by Hamada Nyosen. An estimated 44,000 people died when they sought refuge near Tokyo’s Sumida River in the first few hours. They were immolated by a freak pillar of fire called a “dragon twist.”

Bahitsu no sanka (Tragedy of Horses) by artist Hamada Nyosen.

• An especially evocative 1925 woodcut by Takashima Unpo showing Tokyo’s Ueno district ablaze—In the words of a Jesuit priest who witnessed the calamity, “Each gust of wind gave new impulse to the fury of the conflagration.”

1 comment:

  1. Someone recently posted a video on Facebook of the March tsunami that I hadn't seen before. Still so amazing to see everything within miles being swept away--including people trying to reach the hill where some gathered and recorded the fate of so many. Even with hurricanes and tornadoes we have no idea.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America