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Earthquakes as Creators

Although seemingly counterintuitive at first glance, earthquakes were not solely destructive phenomena. In many cases, their shaking created opportunities for economic profits, opportunities for governments to demonstrate their benevolence, and even significant new agricultural real estate. The rebuilding phase of urban earthquakes usually increased the demand for labor, thus raising wages for a wide range of commoner occupations. Unskilled laborers could find abundant work hauling debris, and skilled workers in the construction trades could command many times their normal wages. Although terrifying, earthquakes could be a short-term gold mine for urban survivors. An entry in Tadokoro's Record (Tadokoro-shi kiroku), an account of local conditions near the southern tip of the Kii Peninsula in present-day Wakayama Prefecture, reports that the wages of carpenters and day laborers are high because of the recent Hōei earthquake and tsunami.[1] The Hōei earthquake was not the first time that laborers enjoyed high pay during the rebuilding phase after earthquakes. Nevertheless, the idea that earthquakes can profit certain segments of society appeared with increasing frequently in earthquake-related documents and literature over the course of the eighteenth century. In the immediate aftermath of the Ansei Edo earthquake, even before rebuilding had begun, catfish prints included graphic elements that anticipated windfall profits for those in the construction trades.[2] A similar attitude appears in the following lines from a series of short earthquake-related verses in the aftermath of the 1830 Kyoto earthquake: Face lights up with joy . . . Carpenters Truly enlivened . . . Plasterers[3]

Simple economics may have been one reason early modern earthquakes in Japan never produced large-scale civil unrest. The likelihood of windfall profits for many survivors was a strong incentive for people to work within the existing social system.

Starting in the eighteenth century, there was a steady growth in the extent to which governments responded to disasters by providing relief to the victims of floods, volcanic eruptions, fires, and earthquakes. In describing state responses to the 1891 Nōbi earthquake, Gregory Clancey points out that the emperor assumed a high profile in the relief effort. Clancey further suggests that this response was a radical departure from the past: “Here was a much different Japanese government than the one that had lived in mysterious seclusion in Kyoto or Edo. . . . Here was also a different moral universe than the one that surrounded the Ansei quake in 1855. In the Nōbi earthquake, the previously sharp Japanese sense that disaster critiqued the order of things and redistributed good and ill fortune was buried behind a façade of a collective 'human emotion' and concerted 'national' action.”[4]

Certainly there were differences between 1855 and 1891 in the nature of the relief effort, and the shogun and emperor were indeed secluded figures in 1855 and earlier. Key elements of the “moral universe,” however, were substantially the same. Indeed, those who saw disasters as a critique of society could be more focused in their blame during the modern era. This phenomenon was especially apparent after the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923, when diverse segments of society regarded the disaster “as a warning, an act of divine punishment, or a necessary evil.”[5] In any case, it was the duty of the state to provide relief in the wake of disasters, whether in 1855 or 1891. One reason the emperor was so prominent in 1891 is that he was by then the unquestioned center of the sole kuni (“country,” a term that in early modern times usually referred to provinces and large daimyō domains) in Japan. During the Tokugawa period, the state was much less centralized, and domain governments closest to the afflicted areas often provided much of the relief.

Documents from the Hōei earthquake in Tadokoro's Record describe grants of relief rice from the local lord. For example, seven villages received an initial grant of over eleven koku of relief rice and small quantities of cash for the purchase of agricultural tools. The same villages later received over 37 koku of rice, 124 koku of barley, over 28 koku of rice bran, and 45 bags of salt.[6] Another account from the same region, near present-day Tanabe City, includes the details of relief rice distribution approximately ten days after the earthquake from the local government office. This office also distributed basic supplies for constructing temporary shelters.[7] From approximately the time of the Hōei earthquake, indications of official relief frequently appeared in earthquake documents. By the end of the century, charitable relief from relevant governments was standard practice and had developed into a predictable pattern that included providing food and shelter for the poorest members of society for one to two months.[8]

After the Sanjō earthquake, domain governments in the region provided relief. One account near present-day Shibata City, Niigata Prefecture, describes the damage and adds that the district government office decisively took action, distributing five hundred bales of rice.[9] Another document describes the efforts of temples to provide temporary shelter for the homeless.[10] The bakufu also sent aid to the region, and local emergency granaries assisted in the effort.[11]

Domain governments likewise intervened effectively after the Zenkōji earthquake struck. Collapsing sides of mountains and other landslides created natural dams in fifty-one places in the Matsushiro domain and forty-one places in the Matsumoto domain.[12] The collapse of Mt. Iwakura created the most important of these dams, consisting of mud and sand approximately one hundred meters high. It blocked the Sai River near its headwaters and buried the two villages of Iwakura and Magose in the process. As the days went by, more villages became inundated by an expanding lake that reached forty kilometers in length, eventually swallowing up thirty villages.[13] The potential for a much greater disaster was present owing to the likelihood that the dam would give way and inundate areas downstream with powerful floodwaters. To deal with the danger, the Matsushiro domain mobilized thousands of retainers. They began work on an embankment to help channel the water. The domain sent messengers to downstream areas urging villagers to flee to higher ground. The messengers also visited mountainous areas, ordering villagers to assist any strangers who might show up. Domain officials established a watch over the dammed area on a nearby mountain and floated small, unoccupied boats on the growing lake to serve as an early indication of the dam starting to give way. When the dam showed evidence of collapsing, those on duty were to light a signal fire.[14]After half a month, the dam showed no signs of collapse, and those who had fled downstream villages were approaching physical and psychological exhaustion. Some even returned to their villages and began working the fields. On the evening of May 27, the dam broke with a great roar, and twenty days' accumulation of water burst onto the Zenkōji Plain. At Koichi, a town along the river at the edge of the plain, the water level briefly reached twenty meters. The wild rush of water lasted about four hours, washing away over eight hundred dwellings and inundating over two thousand more with sand and mud. Only about one hundred people perished, however, thanks to the domain's emergency measures.[15] The official response to the disaster encompassed much more than encouraging flood safety measures. In some areas, the earthquake wiped out sources of food, drinking water, and shelter all at once. Domain relief efforts included establishing temporary shelters, providing basic food and supplies, cash grants, and emergency loans for rebuilding. The Matsushiro domain, for example, provided some 1,268,000 meals as of the ninth day of the seventh lunar month, and it had by then distributed 13,429 ryō in cash.[16] Eight years later, the bakufu's emergency relief agency, the Machigaisho, undertook many of these same steps in dealing with the aftermath of the Ansei Edo earthquake. In many instances, early modern earthquakes functioned not so much as divine chastisements of rulers but as opportunities for governments to demonstrate their benevolence. Of course, when earthquakes caused beneficial changes, rulers were probably pleased by suggestions that their virtue was somehow connected with the process.

For all of the destruction it caused, the Kanbun earthquake brought some dramatic benefits to the coastal area near the Japan Sea. The earthquake caused as much as 4.5 meters of uplift between the shore of Wakasa Bay and the eastern part of the Mikata-gokō Lake, which created new agricultural fields for the Obama domain in Wakasa and in adjacent areas.[17] Indeed, these new fields significantly increased the productivity of that domain, allowing it to recover from the effects of the Kan'ei Famine of the 1640s.[18] According to one local account discussing hydraulic geography, Mikata Lake tilted to the west and areas that had once been under water in the eastern sides of three lakes became dry land. It concluded by declaring, “The virtue of our ruler became the profit [rieki] of the land.”[19] Presumably, this virtuous ruler was the lord of the Obama domain. Similarly, according to Origins of Tidal Flat Kanzeon (Higata Kanzeon engi), the appearance of over three thousand koku of new fields was the result of the deep desire of the domain lord to save the people.[20] Although such praise was little more than a figure of speech, in these examples we can glimpse a limited invocation of the classic view that the state of the ruler's virtue can influence powerful cosmic forces.

The Genroku earthquake lifted the southern part of the Bōsō Peninsula by four to five meters, creating new land.[21] Indeed, the name of the Nojima Promontory derives from its having been an island prior to the earthquake. The visible part of the one-time island is now a hill, and the ring of land surrounding it is called the Genroku Terrace. Fishing settlements quickly developed on the flat ground of the terrace, and the JR Tateyama Station is located atop the terrace today.[22]

Taking examples from present-day Chiba Prefecture, Tateyama experienced one meter of uplift, and land around the village of Iida rose by 5.5 meters. The village of Numa received 720 meters in extra shoreline, and nearby Kashiwazaki Inlet expanded its shoreline by about 200 meters.[23] In many cases, uplift also extended the tidal flats in coastal areas. Sometimes, local villages were able to develop this land into sites for houses or, with a source of fresh water nearby, into agricultural fields. Boundary lines between villages sometimes had to be redrawn, irrigation arrangements rearranged, and, of course, the new fields had to be sold or distributed. In general, uplift in this earthquake added to the prosperity of many coastal areas, but the new shape of the landscape also caused disputes over resources.[24]

About a century later, in 1804 in Kisakata (Akita Prefecture), the situation was even more dramatic. As the sun rose on July 10, local residents were amazed to see islands rising from a swampy lagoon. An M7.1 earthquake created the “Ninety-Nine Islands of Kisakata.” The earthquake thrust upward the wet fields famously described twenty-five years earlier by Matsuo Bashō. Today's wet fields in the area were once the ocean floor, and today's hills were islands prior to the earthquake.[25] Similarly, a broadside from 1847 reported on the creation of an earthquake mountain in a farmer's field in Tango, named “Prosperity Mountain” (Hōeizan).[26] The 1854 Tōkai and Nankai earthquakes also produced significant uplift. In the Muroto Peninsula in Kōchi, for example, uplift raised the port of Murozu about 1.2 meters, making it difficult for large ships to dock there.[27] Around the western edge of today's Tōkaidō Shinkansen Fukikawa Railroad Bridge, uplift of between one and three meters created “Kamahara Earthquake Mountain” and additional agricultural fields for Kamahara. A local song inspired by this gift of land from the cosmic forces included the line “Earthquake, oh earthquake, please come back—once for my generation and twice or three times for my descendants.”[28]

Being located at the intersection of several plate boundaries, Japan's islands have been shifted by earthquakes in vivid fashion from time to time. Several earthquakes during the Tokugawa period caused significant uplift, creating new land. Although the claim of Ways of Earthquakes in Japan (Honchō jishin no shidai) that earthquakes created Mt. Fuji and Lake Biwa overstated the power of seismic activity, earthquakes did contribute to the contours of Japan physically, socially, and in the realm of the imagination.

  • [1] “Tadokoro-shi kiroku,” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 310.
  • [2] For example, see prints #46, #48, and #49 in Miyata and Takada, Namazue, 14–15, 223, 267–269. To view print #46, see ishimoto/2/02–125/00001.jpg. Notice the members of the construction trades in the upper left rushing to protect the giant catfish from attack by Yoshiwara courtesans and employees.
  • [3] DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 568.
  • [4] Clancey, Earthquake Nation, 131.
  • [5] See J. Charles Schencking, “The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Culture of Catastrophe and Reconstruction in 1920s Japan,” Journal of Japanese Studies 34, no. 2 (summer 2008): 295–331 (quote on 303).
  • [6] “Tadokoro-shi kiroku,” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 310. A koku was roughly 180 liters in volume or 150 kilograms in weight.
  • [7] “Tanabe mandaiki,” in NRJSS, vol. 2, 90–92.
  • [8] Kitahara Itoko, “Kinsei ni okeru saigaikyūsai to fukkō,” in Kitahara, Nihon saigaishi, 196–197.
  • [9] “Gokiroku kenbyōki,” in NRJSS, vol. 2, 171.
  • [10] “Senfukuji shoji kenmon zakki,” in NRJSS, vol. 2, 175.
  • [11] For details, including extensive tabular data, see NRJSS, vol. 2, 179–190. For additional documentation of local relief efforts, see 191–199.
  • [12] Harada Kazuhiko, “Matsushiro-han,” in Chūō bōsai kaigi, 1847 Zenkōji jishin, 110.
  • [13] For a hand-drawn map illustrating the collapsed mountain and affected villages, see NRJSS, vol. 2, 239–240. For a better version of this same map and another similar to it, see NRJSS, vol. 3, 354–357. For another map, see
  • [14] “Kenshūroku,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 105–107, 109–111; Harada Kazuhiko, “Matsushiro-han,” in Chūō bōsai kaigi, 1847 Zenkōji jishin, 110–111; Itō Kazuaki, Jishin to funka no Nihonshi (Iwanami shoten, 2002), 138–139; Shinano mainichi shinbunsha kaihstsukyoku shuppanbu, Zenkōji daijishin, 138–150; and Kitō Yasuyuki and Nagase Satoshi, “Saigai to kyūsai: Machi to mura,” in Akahane and Kitahara, Zenkōji jishin, 75–94.
  • [15] “Kenshūroku,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 107, 109–111; Itō, Jishin to funka no Nihonshi, 139–141; and Shinano mainichi shinbunsha kaihstsukyoku shuppanbu, Zenkōji daijishin, 150–180.
  • [16] Harada, “Matsushiro-han,” 111. For a comprehensive study of emergency response, relief, and rebuilding efforts, see 71–121. See also Shinano mainichi shinbunsha kaihstsukyoku shuppanbu, Zenkōji daijishin, 180–204. For a sample of relevant documents concerning specific relief efforts and proposals, see “Kamahara Dōzan jishin kiji,” 51–52, 83–85, 90–91; “Nogisono zakki,”139; “Daijishin kōzui saigai kiroku,” 212–232; and “Sinkōkan,” 317–318, in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu).
  • [17] Itō, Jishin to funka no Nihonshi, 186, and Kitahara, “Saigai to jōhō,” 234. The process of creating new fields and preserving them also required active dredging and infrastructure work by the Obama domain. For details, see Higashi Sachiyo, “Uramikawa kussaku jigyō to shinden kaihatsu,” in Chūō bōsai kaigi, 1662 Kanbun Ōmi-Wakasa jishin hōkokusho (Mizuho jōhōsōken kabushikigaisha, 2005), 115–119.
  • [18] Higashi Sachiyo, “Kanbun jishin ga motarashita mono,” in Chūō bōsai kaigi, 1662 Kanbun Ōmi-Wakasa jishin hōkokusho, 119–121; tabular data, 120.
  • [19] “Mikata goko shūhen no shinden kaihatsu,” in NJS, hoi (supplement), 180.
  • [20] “Higata Kanzeon engi,” in NRJSS, vol. 2, 61.
  • [21] Sangawa, Jishin no Nihonshi, 137. The geologically similar 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake caused approximately two meters of uplift.
  • [22] Itō, Jishin to funka no Nihonshi, 86–88. Itō states that maximum uplift of the Bōsō Peninsula was 5.5 meters.
  • [23] “Tateyama-wan engan no okeru Genroku jishin higai to higata riyō nitsuite,” in NRJSS, vol. 3, 122–125. See these pages for additional examples and maps.
  • [24] For details, see “Tateyama-wan engan ni okeru Genroku jishin higai to higata riyō nitsuite,” in NRJSS, vol. 3, 125–128.
  • [25] Sangawa, Jishin no Nihonshi, 149–154, and Itō, Jishin to funka no Nihonshi, 121–126.
  • [26] Nishimaki, Kawaraban shinbun, 125, and Inagaki, Edo no taihen, 50–51.
  • [27] Sangawa, Jishin no Nihonshi, 180–181, and Ishibashi, Daishinran no jidai, 25–26.
  • [28] Ishibashi, Daishinran no jidai, 27.
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