Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity, 1868-1930 (review)
- East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal
- Duke University Press
- Volume 2, Number 1, 2008
- pp. 135-137
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEW On Gregory Clancey’s Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity, 1868–1930 (Berkeley/Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2006) Boumsoung Kim Received: 22 November 2007 / Published online: 6 May 2008 # National Science Council, Taiwan 2008 Although the seismicity of Japan as a natural phenomenon belongs to the realm of tectonics, perspectives from the history of culture, architecture, and science and technology can problematize the ways in which socio-cultural contexts have formed and transformed the knowledge and technology of earthquakes. In Earthquake Nation, Clancey carefully analyzes discourses about Japan’s representation as an “earthquake nation” from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, investigating how European architecture, Japanese seismicity, knowledge and technology of earthquakes, Japanese carpentry, and cultural politics co-produced one another. His main finding is that the media through which the lithosphere’s movements propagated were not monolithic, in that they were situated in geopolitical contexts such as the imperialism and nationalism of the time. I should confess that my own research has been much indebted to his work. One of the main points of this book concerns the portability of knowledge, from “the West” outward to “the East.” As Clancey points out, by the last decades of the nineteenth century, the European knowledge system did not possess a toolbox with which it could aptly handle the endemic problems of earthquakes on Japanese soil. European experts employed by the Japanese government, in this situation, could not provide univocal instructions for the Japanese natives on how to construct buildings strong enough to withstand earthquakes. On the shaking “Asiatic” field, without established answers, the invited representatives of “Western” knowledge and technology exchanged polemical discussions between the proponents of masonry and those of more flexible wooden structures. According to Clancey, the choice between the “Western” architecture and the “Japanese” variety was something more than a technological decision. Buildings of brick and stone, during the earliest decades of the Meiji period, were represented as East Asian Science, Technology and Society: an International Journal (2008) 2:135–137 DOI 10.1007/s12280-008-9036-7 B. Kim (*) University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan e-mail: email@example.com “strong,” “eternal,” and “male” in nature, representing the European civilization, while traditional Japanese wooden buildings were discussed as their “weak,” “temporary,” and “female” counterparts. Even though sometimes the latter was hailed in terms of the beauty and the skill that the traditional artisans rendered, within the gendered hierarchy of the civilizations it was difficult for the latter to match the foreign system of architecture. Buildings of brick and stone became diplomatic symbols of the “civilizing” Japan. Thus, the earthquake and its science, in this sense, provided the possibility to reverse the given authority of foreign technology. While European architects and their Japanese pupils continued to argue for the solid foreign masonry, other voices arose on behalf of the earthquake-proof nature of traditional structures, five-story pagodas in particular. Hand-in-hand with Japan’s nationalist turn after the late 1880s, Clancey argues, seismology, a newborn science of earthquakes which was incubated in Japan by European scientists, shared, along with traditional practices of buildings, a vector to refute the claim of superiority for foreign structures. As far as I could understand, it does not seem clear if the ruins of the Great Nôbi Earthquake of 1891 alone played the role of a decisive field test, since the witnesses interpreted in diverse ways what they had seen and heard. Clancey, however, cinematographically offers a discursive canvas upon which discussions of the dreadful earthquake were portrayed: as the collapsed “Western” infrastructures in the devastated areas were visualized against the background of less damaged Japanese castles and mountains, it became harder for the proponents of masonry to keep their previous claims for its pure form. On the other hand, the traditional way of construction, while its practices and history were being transformed, was appropriated into the “modern” landscape of Japan. Furthermore, beyond the national context, the ability of newly excavated Japan to resist earthquakes could function as a fulcrum to reverse the imperialistic hierarchy of technology. The presumed relative strength of Japanese structures was compared with the “much more fragile” landscape of...