Clancey, Gregory. 2006. Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity, 1868-1930. University of California Press.

Earthquake Nation provides crucial historical context for understanding more recent outbreaks of “Japanese seismicity” in Kobe (1995) and the Tōhoku and Kanto regions of Japan (2011). Recipient of the 2007 Sidney Edelstein Award from the Society for the History of Technology, this book eloquently lays out the complicated interactions among seismology, architecture, engineering, culture, politics, and the living earth itself during a particularly dynamic period in Japanese history.

The Meiji Period (1868-1912) has often been characterized as a time of febrile “modernization” in Japanese history. During this period, what role did seismicity play in shaping Japanese conceptions of nature, technology, and “Western” vs. Japanese or other Asian knowledges? How did seismicity – the science, the technology, and the physical experience of it – influence the projects of state-building, “modernization” and imperial expansion? These are some of the questions that Clancey addresses in this richly detailed and accessible study.

The historical event that propels much of the book’s analysis and narrative trajectory is the estimated 8.0 magnitude Great Nōbi Earthquake, which struck near Nagoya in 1891, killing over 7,000 people, leaving 140,000 homeless, and providing a stern test for the Meiji state. Clancey traces “the cultural politics of Japanese seismicity” from before this event all the way through the 7.9 magnitude Great Kanto Earthquake and subsequent fires of 1923, which devastated Tokyo and Yokohama and killed an estimated 142,000 people.

Clancey’s argument is multifaceted and complex, but part of it goes like this: During the feverish “modernization” (née “Westernization”) of the Meiji era, Western brick- and masonry-based architecture was championed as strong, eternal and masculine – an emblem of modern civilization – whereas wooden Japanese structures were portrayed as weak, temporal and feminine – symbols of obsolete tradition. The Great Nōbi Earthquake literally shook up these notions when it wrecked the rigid masonry buildings that often did not fare as well as the more flexible wooden buildings, at least among larger, more prominent, marquee structures. Although the landscape was littered with the remains of shattered native architecture as well as Western, Japanese journalists and artists reproduced a discourse on the remarkable phenomenon of the apparent brittleness of Western structures versus the perceived, relative resilience of native buildings. This gave rise to new nativist, nationalistic discourses that became taken up by the ongoing state-building (and eventually, imperialist) project in Japan.

For teachers or students who would like to use a shorter, pared-down version of Clancey’s book, he has also published a 50-page paper that tells much of this story of the Great Nōbi Earthquake:

Clancey, Gregory. 2006. “The Meiji Earthquake: Nature, Nation, and the Ambiguities of Catastrophe.” Modern Asian Studies 40:909-951.

– Tyson Vaughan

Note: This appeared originally as a sample annotated citation for Teach 3/11. We welcome scholars and graduate students to participate in this project.

BOOK: Earthquake Nation: The Cultural Politics of Japanese Seismicity, 1868-1930. (2006)
Tagged on: