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  • The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan by J. Charles Schencking
  • Gregory Smits (bio)
The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan. By J. Charles Schencking. Columbia University Press, New York, 2013. xxii, 374 pages. $50.00, cloth; $49.99, E-book.

As Japan’s most deadly seismic disaster by far, the September 1, 1923, Great Kanto Earthquake has received much attention over the years in Japanese. It has also been the subject of numerous journalistic accounts in English of varying quality.1 Scholarly treatments of this event in English have often focused on the lawlessness following the shaking and fires.2 Recently, the Great Kanto Earthquake has come in for a new round of study by scholars of Japan. One example is Gennifer Weisenfeld’s monograph analyzing the visual culture connected with the catastrophe.3 Now, J. Charles Schencking has produced a meticulous study of the social and political history of the earthquake and its aftermath. These books constitute part of a growing body of academic literature in English on Japanese earthquakes.4 Their broader intellectual context includes studies of earthquakes in other regions of the world and a large multidisciplinary literature on natural disasters.5 [End Page 505]

Although The Great Kantō Earthquake makes an important contribution to the literature on Japanese earthquakes and on natural disasters, much of the book is a close analysis of politics during the 1920s. In other words, Schencking uses reactions to the 1923 catastrophe as a lens through which to bring sociocultural debates and the political process into sharper relief. With respect to natural disasters, Schencking argues convincingly that despite the rhetoric of change and renewal that modern catastrophes inevitably generate, even events as dramatic and destructive as the Great Kanto Earthquake lack the power to bring about a fundamental alteration of society. A related argument with respect to Japanese politics during the 1920s is that the state was neither a democracy nor an autocracy. No single entity in the field of political power in that era possessed sufficient power to force significant change. Moreover, mediating or coordinating structures and practices were weak. It was a perfect configuration for blunting bold initiatives and fostering indecisiveness. This structural situation and the inevitable differences in priorities among the various political actors resulted in intense political battles and the collapse of utopian reconstruction plans. The new Tokyo that slowly emerged from the charred rubble of the earthquake was indeed an improved version of the capital, but only incrementally.

The organization of the book works well. An introduction sets the stage by summarizing the major issues, with some attention to the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami disaster. The first chapter takes on the difficult task of narrating the event itself in a way that describes the nature and scope of the disaster without overwhelming the reader and conveys a sense of the perceptions of those who experienced it. Such an undertaking is more an art than a science, and Schencking’s narrative, use of quoted passages, and selection of photographs does the job well. The next chapter focuses on immediate postdisaster chaos, relief, and the discourses of fear and uncertainty to which the calamity gave rise. Not surprisingly, the human response in particular shocked many commentators. The murderous anarchy that swept through many parts of the devastated city revealed an apparent deficiency in society, one that amplified a tragedy initially caused by seismic waves and flames.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the processes that imparted meaning to the catastrophe in the months that followed. Newspapers were the most important communications medium, and their work in reporting the earthquake and soliciting donations transformed it, at least rhetorically, from a local disaster into a national tragedy. Although Schencking does not discuss this point, newspapers played similar roles in earlier earthquakes such as the 1896 Meiji Sanriku earthquake and tsunami and the 1891 Nōbi earthquake. Indeed, one could make the case that print media began the process of transforming earthquakes from regional disasters into nationwide events as early as the 1830 Kyoto earthquake. Although it is possible to find commentary [End Page 506] on Tokugawa...


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pp. 505-509
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