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  • Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo by Janet Borland
  • Gregory Smits
Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo. By Janet Borland. Harvard University Asia Center, 2020. 352 pages. Softcover, $32.00/£25.95/€29.00.

Earthquake Children begins and ends in 2011, in the wake of the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake. Its main focus is the aftermath of the September 1, 1923, Great Kanto Earthquake. The book also includes a brief discussion of a variety of earthquakes, typhoons, floods, and other disasters occurring between 1923 and 2011 at various places in Japan. What ties these diverse disasters together and provides a unique perspective on social history is the book’s focus on children. Janet Borland not only includes children’s perspectives in their own voices but also discusses topics such as infrastructure (old and new), charity, ideology, healthcare, education, and more through the lens of children. Her research is thorough, her writing is often vivid, and the book is very well illustrated. Whether using her own words or those of Japan’s children, the author is able to convey a vivid sense of the horror of an event like the Great Kanto Earthquake and the difficulties faced by many survivors.

Borland begins with the assumption that today’s Japan is a “disaster-prepared nation,” characterized by a “culture of preparedness, disaster prevention, and risk reduction” (p. 2). Earthquake Children describes the social and infrastructural transformation whereby Tokyo changed from a disaster-prone city in 1923 to a much more resilient urban area circa 2011. In part, this book is a fill-the-gap study. Borland notes that although the Great Kanto Earthquake has received multidisciplinary academic attention in recent years, nobody has examined the event from the perspective of children, society’s most vulnerable members. A related, secondary lacuna that she seeks to fill is the role of schools and education in natural disaster preparedness. Overall, Borland is successful. In addition to describing the Great Kanto Earthquake through the eyes of children, Earthquake Children tells a story of how, in today’s Japan, the school system is the main socializing agent of resilience vis-à-vis natural hazards. The book contains an implicit argument that children played a central role in the process of Japan becoming a society well prepared to mitigate natural hazards. [End Page 224] The focus, however, is on rich description rather than on advancing arguments about Japanese history or society.

The Great Kanto Earthquake produced a vast trove of written material that Borland has mined effectively. Newspapers, of course, covered the event from many angles. In the aftermath of the earthquake, schoolchildren often wrote about their experiences in essays or kept diaries as part of their schoolwork. Teachers likewise put their experiences into writing. Government officials, in cooperation with newspapers and organizations like the Federation of Boy Scouts of Japan, compiled exemplary tales (bidan) derived from earthquake experience for use in schools and elsewhere. Government reports, surveys, reconstruction plans, psychological studies, and earthquake preparedness advice from Japan’s leading seismologist at the time, Imamura Akitsune, inform Earthquake Children. Borland weaves this material together to produce a modern history of (mainly) Tokyo focused on children and disaster preparedness. The main actors in this history are teachers, education officials and academics, politicians, seismologists, physicians, parents, and, of course, the children themselves.

The organization of Earthquake Children is straightforward; the book consists of an introduction, seven chapters, and a lengthy epilogue that is a de facto chapter. Chapter 1 examines Tokyo’s vulnerabilities, including the geologic environment and the built environment. Borland uses fires and earthquakes prior to 1923 to highlight the weaknesses and deficiencies that turned the Great Kanto Earthquake into Japan’s deadliest seismic disaster. Chapter 1 also summarizes the dispute between seismologists Ōmori Fusakichi and Imamura. Imamura sought to publicize Tokyo’s vulnerabilities to seismic hazards in the hope that shedding light on the problem would promote corrective action. By contrast, Ōmori tended to downplay these dangers in the interest of promoting public calm.

Chapter 2 describes the horrors of September 1, 1923, and the subsequent days of “hell on earth” (the chapter title), as firestorms ravaged the...


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pp. 224-227
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