Tokyo Modern I: Koizumi Kishio’s “100 Views” of the Imperial Capital (1928-1940), available at:

While people in Japan are still suffering from the shock of earthquakes and tsunami, soon there will be efforts to rebuild cities, villages, and the infrastructure between them. How are places and communities reborn after indescribable devastation? How do they regain their former vitality? What social and cultural tensions are revealed during the process of recovery?

Tokyo in the aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 offers one historical precedent. In this educational unit titled “Tokyo Modern,” the reconstruction of Tokyo following the massive earthquake is visualized through numerous woodblock prints by Koizumi Kishio and other contemporary artists. In his essay for the unit, James Ulak, the deputy director of Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, writes of “the exuberant rebirth of Tokyo that took place after 1923:”

The earthquake was a catastrophe—but also the occasion for massive reconstruction in modern, up-to-date ways. ‘New Tokyo’ became a catchphrase of the time. Imposing structures of steel and stone were one manifestation of this. Mass transit including a subway system was another. Yet another manifestation of rebirth was the emergence of vibrant inner-city districts devoted to governance, commerce, and entertainment. After the earthquake, Tokyo began to emerge as one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities.

The unit features digital scans of Koizumi’s woodblock prints along with his own annotations, which depict Tokyo’s urban scenes of construction and vitality. This will be a good source for discussion on how to re-imagine the future of a devastated region and how to deal with newly emerging political, economic, and social concerns in the process. Ulak comments on possible effects of the recovery efforts on Japan’s subsequent path:

Central to recovery was a secure source of natural resources, most readily available in the northeastern Chinese territory of Manchuria. Ensuring such access became a development parallel and not unrelated to reconstruction at home, leading to increased Japanese militarism and eventually war.

After all, the ultra-modern Tokyo that began to rise above the ruins of the earthquake could rise above neither its uneasy present nor its uncertain future.

The long journey from Tokyo’s earthquake-devastated landscape to a city reordered, rebuilt, and renewed, was narrated in official literature as a kind of ‘march of progress,’ a sequence of mercantile successes and modernizing projects. Yet, contrary news—resistance and war in China, political assassinations at home—gave Japanese reason to view the newly formed city and its outlying empire with some skepticism. And beneath the vicissitudes of daily life the earthquake had left a permanent memory scar that quietly mocked optimism. Living in the new city required adjustment to changed configurations, different points of emphasis, and, most importantly, resetting awareness of the places that conveyed a sense of identity and stability.

Visualizing Cultures, of which “Tokyo Modern” is a part, is a web-based educational project on the modern history of East Asia. It is headed by two MIT professors, John W. Dower and Shigeru Miyagawa. The project has been digitizing a vast amount of visual historical materials from Japan, China, and elsewhere, and contextualizing them with thoughtful essays and annotations. Its initial focus was on modern Japan, but it has been expanding its scope to cover China as well, particularly with the participation of Professor Peter Purdue at Yale University.

“Tokyo Modern” lists a number of sources on the Kantō earthquake and reconstruction, including website links to images from the period in question.

— Chihyung Jeon

Further readings:

Seidensticker, Edwin. 1991. Low City, High City: Tokyo from Edo to the Earthquake: how the shogun’s ancient capital became a great modern city, 1867–1923. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Seidensticker, Edwin. 1991. Tokyo Rising: The City Since the Great Earthquake. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

WEBSITE: “Tokyo Modern” from MIT’s Visualizing Cultures project
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