- Seismic Japan: The Long History and Continuing Legacy of the Ansei Edo Earthquake by Gregory Smits, and: When the Earth Roars: Lessons from the History of Earthquakes in Japan by Gregory Smits
Earthquakes remind us of the precariousness of human existence and, in turn, the fragility of history. People and governments can (imperfectly) prepare for damage caused by super typhoons, floods, heat waves, droughts, volcanic eruptions, and other extreme events, but earthquakes strike without warning, turning lives upside down. Japan is located in one of the most seismically active regions of the world. The Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 and the ongoing disaster caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the devastating tsunami that followed (together commonly referred to as 3/11) have opened up new avenues of research in disaster studies, accelerating what may be called an “environmental turn” in scholarship on Japan. Moreover, these unsettling events have challenged our understandings of history, replacing any assurance of predictability and orderly change with ideas of risk and adjustment to the unforeseen. Gregory Smits has added to this historiography [End Page 314] with two books, both published after 3/11, one focusing on the legacy that a major earthquake can leave behind and the other, a more argumentative book, questioning the extent to which past experience can help to prepare Japan for the next “big one.”
Seismic Japan digs into the social and intellectual history of the devastating earthquake that struck Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1855 (Ansei 2). Smits writes in his acknowledgments that he worked on this project for more than ten years. One suspects that 3/11, closely preceding the publication of this volume, significantly influenced his research agenda. Certainly the final chapter, “Into the Twenty-First Century,” and references to the “continuing legacy” of the Ansei Edo Earthquake are a result of his intellectual and personal engagement with the trauma of 3/11. Smits’s second book, When the Earth Roars, expresses his response to 3/11 explicitly, seeking to place Japanese earthquakes in historical perspective and trace the development of seismology in Japan. Written with a sense of urgency, the book is a dialogue between present and past. Smits concludes by outlining what he believes should be done in order to mitigate the damage from the inevitable seismic hazards to come.
Seismic Japan is an exciting work of social history. What distinguished the Ansei Edo Earthquake from its many predecessors in Japan were the accidental circumstances of time (a spiritually charged period of social and political instability) and place (Edo was Japan’s largest city and the headquarters of the Tokugawa shogun’s government). Smits argues that the 1855 quake prompted a rethinking of politics and religion in Japan. It opened new avenues for the scientific study of earthquakes and new ways of mitigating their consequences. It also exposed the incompetence of the Tokugawa rulers, who had failed to deal effectively with Commodore Perry’s Black Ships in 1853 and 1854 and were similarly unable to combat the forces of nature in 1855. Disillusioned, people began to look elsewhere for political and spiritual leadership. Textbooks commonly credit Perry’s arrival as the starting point for events that led to the Meiji Restoration of 1868; Smits adds to this by arguing that the Ansei Edo Earthquake was a catalyst accelerating sociopolitical change. Moreover, increased contact with the Western world in the middle of the nineteenth century meant that the Ansei Edo Earthquake coincided with the availability of new theories of earthquake mechanics. It “produced new ideas about human agency vis-à-vis earthquakes that have affected notions of seismicity and society in modern Japan” (p. 4).
The first of the book’s six chapters, “Earthquakes in the Early Modern Era,” sets the stage for a more detailed examination of the 1855 quake. For readers not...