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Resilient Land of Deities

Situating one's local, badly shaken area within the larger framework of Japan was part of the process of reassurance. A town or city might lie in ruins from shaking imagined to have been felt everywhere in Japan, yet the “land of deities” has a long history of resilience in the face of such events. We have already seen several examples of verse stating in various iterations that Japan's long reign of sovereigns would continue regardless of how much the earth might shake. Typically, that sovereign was the emperor, even though the emperor in early modern Japan was more a concept than a specific person. The following short poem from the Kyoto earthquake is a typical example:

The coolness we faced as the shaking made us prostrate ourselves to the outside Was a sign that our venerable reign [miyo] continues.[1]

Earthquakes focused on Edo, however, might stimulate similar talk of the shogun's resiliency. Discussing the Genroku earthquake, Nectar Chronicle (Kanrosō) states, “Because the shogun [taikun] is militarily strong and deeply benevolent, the population, in the manner of children, will come at once to repair the damage, thoroughly excelling in construction. Well governed and suffering not from hunger and cold—can we not be grateful for the pride of our indomitable spirit? Someone in the palace composed the following lines of verse about the present earthquake: 'Grasping the state for a thousand generations, some shaking / has tried to dislodge our unmovable, august reign.'”[2] Even in this case, however, the shogun's role in partaking of or nurturing the people's “indomitable spirit” was rooted in the longer, deeper tradition of the imperial court. By contrast, during the next big shakeup in 1855, we will see that the shogun did not appear so invincible. He and his city required active intervention and assistance from the principal deity of the imperial court. Earthquakes highlighted Japan's long history and deep roots in the imperial court. They also foregrounded another key characteristic of Japan. It was a land of deities, a shinkoku, presided over by thousands of kami, buddhas, and bodhisattvas. These deities helped ensure the country's prosperity, especially in the form of bountiful harvests. Earthquake Tales from the Capital (Jishin kidan miyako manzairaku, 1830) points out that “Japan is a land of deities unchanged for 10,000 generations.” It mentions “Amaterasu's Shrine,” the Kashima Shrine, and includes a variation of the verse we saw in Foundation Stone: “No matter how much the earth might shake, the Foundation Stone will not be dislodged, as long as the Kashima deity is present.”[3] Earthquake Tales from the Capital was written for popular entertainment, which is precisely why this religious vision of Japan in connection with the earthquake is especially worthy of note. Of course, in the aftermath of an earthquake, feelings toward the deities, who were far from infallible, might be mixed. One account of the Zenkōji earthquake speculates that the event might have been a cruel joke by “mad kami,” directed not only at people from “our country” (Shinano) but also at those from “other countries”—that is, other provinces. Such a situation was especially cruel because the people dwelling in “our divine country” devoted themselves day and night to the deities of heaven and earth.[4]

Writing the in the month after the Zenkōji earthquake, a local resident named Miyasaka began an essay by stating, “Our country is a land of deities, superior to all others and whose people possess superior wisdom. The five grains flourish, and we receive divine favor.” Even such a magnificent country as Japan, however, cannot escape natural disasters. Miyasaka explained that in times of calm, people inevitably incline toward luxury, thus angering Heaven, which sends down calamities such as landslides, floods, and earthquakes. He discusses several ancient examples of earthquakes before turning to the Sanjō earthquake, “in recent times.” The discussion of past earthquakes then narrows in geographic scope to “our Shinano country,” going back to an earthquake in 887, during the reign of Emperor Kōkō. Mention of recent strange weather conditions and “people out of touch with the deities” sets the stage for a discussion of the present conditions in the aftermath of the Zenkōji earthquake.[5] Miyasaka's account, of course, includes the strategy we have already examined of using the fact of a recent earthquake to amplify a social critique.

In Miyasaka's account, “Heaven” seems to be a higher power than “the deities,” which likely reflects a variety of late medieval and early modern religious thinking known as “tentō thought,” in which tentō—literally “Way of Heaven”—takes on some of the qualities of a supreme deity. In any case, what is especially noteworthy is Miyasaka's assertion that Japan's characteristic of being a land of deities makes it superior to other countries. This point may seem obvious, but the history of the term shinkoku is complex. In many medieval conceptions of shinkoku, for example, Japan's being a land of kami reflected its remote, inferior status vis-à-vis the sagely land of China and the Buddha land of India.

I examine the topic of shinkoku in more detail in connection the Ansei Edo earthquake in chapter 5. From what we have seen thus far, however, it should be clear that in the context of earthquakes, Japan was as much or more a religious entity as a geopolitical one. The frequency with which writers used the term shinkoku increased after earthquakes, reflecting the claim of resilience. Because Japan enjoyed the protection of thousands of deities, even a severe earthquake would not destroy its social fabric. Indeed, an examination of the relative frequency with which the term shinkoku appeared in written discourse throughout Japan's history reveals that it serves as a rough barometer of social anxiety. The term first appeared in the context of the possibility of a joint Tang-Silla invasion of the Japanese islands in the seventh century. Later, it appeared with great frequency in connection with the armed disputes between temples, shrines, and the court during the era of cloistered emperors, in establishment attacks on new forms of Buddhism in the early Kamakura period, and in connection with the Mongol incursions of the thirteenth century.[6] As we will see, the term shinkoku appeared frequently in popular discourse in 1853 and 1854, in connection with Perry's visits. Not surprisingly, major earthquakes evoked levels of anxiety roughly on a par with foreign military incursions or large-scale political unrest. As a reaction to this anxiety, writers often pointed out that Japan was a land full of deities with a long history. Moreover, despite individual flaws and limitations, as a whole these deities were benevolent. They bestowed benefits on Japan and its people, especially bountiful harvests. Surely, a country thus blessed would rebound from any recent earthquake.

Imagined Connections with recent Events

Finally, current and recent events often intersected with earthquakes and conceptions of Japan to produce webs of associations. In the background, of course, was a general notion that earthquakes and other major events are not random occurrences. Moreover, people everywhere tend to confuse correlation and causality, early modern Japan being no exception. The 1854 Iga-Ueno earthquake occurred several months after the signing of the March 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa, which formally initiated diplomatic ties between Japan and the United States. The treaty also served as a template for establishing relations with several other foreign countries. Diaries and other documents from the time sometimes link the two events in the sense that they were both newsworthy and took place in sufficiently close proximity to imply some kind of causal connection. For example, Perry's visits, their effect on commodity prices, the establishment of diplomatic facilities at Shimoda, and recent visits of foreign ships near Osaka contextualize the Iga-Ueno earthquake in Osaka Earthquake Record (Ōsaka jishinki).[7]

As was the case with Iga-Ueno, several commentators linked Perry's black ships with the Ansei Tōkai and Nankai earthquakes. Both events were newsworthy, unsettling, and close together in time, and suggested that major changes were taking place. One letter writer spoke of military mobilization in connection with the black ships and the earthquake and concluded that “people's minds are deeply agitated,” a point he reinforced in a classical Chinese poem.[8] Another writer mentioned the appearance of foreign ships in Shimoda and, according to rumor, in and around Osaka. He added that rumors are circulating and that the upheavals of the earth and sea have caused people's minds to worry.[9] A diary entry from Kyushu describes the Ansei Tōkai/Nankai earthquake as “a great earthquake that shook the entire country of Japan: Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo.” It then explains that this earthquake occurred at about the time that four American ships entered Uraga. The passage continues, vaguely linking the arrival of the ships with “many” deaths in the area. Moreover, the author spins a wide web of associations that includes the arrival of two foreign ships in Nagasaki. At the end, he summarizes the following coincidental (or not) occurrences: the great earthquake, the situation in Edo, the deaths of twenty-four thousand people, the loss of a large ship (probably the Russian vessel Diana), collapsed houses, and much else. The situation is a “great anomaly,” unprecedented even in connection with earthquakes of the past.[10] The association of Commodore Perry, earthquakes, and other recent events continued for the next year and a half, reaching a peak during the Ansei Edo earthquake. We will see that in many minds, the seismic events of recent years and the coming of exotic foreigners became elements in a larger process of social change and upheaval.


Earthquakes helped shape the social and imaginative contours of Japan. They encouraged reflection on core social values and individual virtue and the broader world of deities and cosmic forces. Earthquakes encouraged a broad view of geography that situated local communities within larger imagined communities. Survivors of an earthquake could and did imagine that throughout wide areas, perhaps throughout Japan as a whole, others had experienced a similar terrifying event. Mass media encouraged such views, even while often exaggerating the extent of earthquake damage, especially from 1830 onward. Earthquakes literally created more of Japan, and may have created certain of its iconographic features in the imaginations of some writers.

More important, earthquakes set up a cycle of social discourse. It was difficult to regard major earthquakes as random events. Moreover, most Japanese would have experienced a major earthquake only once in their lifetimes. Such a momentous event would have seemed like an unprecedented upheaval of society, thus exacerbating anxiety levels among survivors. These anxiety levels produced rhetoric assuring survivors that earthquakes (1) are common historical experiences in both Japan and China; (2) can be explained in rational terms (see chapter 2); and (3) cannot harm Japan because it is a resilient country protected by benevolent deities. Those deities might not be able to prevent earthquakes, but they were capable of sustaining society in the aftermath. Furthermore, as time went on during the Tokugawa period, governments played an increasingly active role in providing relief in the wake of natural disasters.

We turn next to a close examination of what is arguably the most important earthquake in early modern Japan, the Ansei Edo earthquake. This earthquake was in many respects a culmination of cultural trends up to that point. It also cast a long shadow over the Meiji era and beyond to the present day.

  • [1] DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 568.
  • [2] “Kanrosō,” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 302.
  • [3] “Jishin kidan miyako manzairaku,” in DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 558, 560. There was a long-standing folk custom of singing this verse to ward off earthquakes. See Koga rekishi hakubutsukan, eds., Tenpenchii to seikimatsu: Nihonjin no saigaikan (Ibaraki-ken, Koga-shi, Japan: Koga rekishi hakubutsukan, 1999), 35.
  • [4] “Shinano bukō, Chōshin hikan,” in NRJSS, vol. 3, 313.
  • [5] “Eikan zasshi,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 248–249.
  • [6] Satō, Shinkoku Nihon, 90–93, 130–158.
  • [7] “Ōsaka jishinki,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 334.
  • [8] “Zoku jishin zassan,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 419.
  • [9] “Zoku jishin zassan,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 455.
  • [10] NRJSS, vol. 2, 434.
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