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Images of 1896 Sanriku quake found

Old glass-plate negatives show tsunami damage in Iwate town

by Kiyoshi Numata

Kyodo

More than 10 glass-plate negatives of photos taken by an amateur photographer showing damage inflicted on a town in Iwate Prefecture by a devastating earthquake and tsunami 118 years ago were discovered recently, with experts describing them as important for both disaster studies and the history of photography.

Kyodo News learned that the 13 negative plates, found at the Morioka Local Meteorological Observatory in Iwate Prefecture, were taken by a photographer the day after an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of up to 8.5 hit the Sanriku region in northeastern Honshu shortly after 7:30 p.m. on June 15, 1896.

The photographer, whose name is believed to be Jimpei Matsusaki, took photos of damage in his hometown of Kuwagasaki, which is now part of the city of Miyako.

While little is known about Matsusaki, he placed an advertisement in a local newspaper and in the Tokyo-based Jiji Shimpo newspaper offering his photos for sale, saying that he had taken them to show the “dismal state” of the coast the morning after the tsunami.

For one photo caption, Matsusaki wrote: “Parents look for their children under collapsed houses and children cry for their parents.”

Despite the existence of other photos of the Sanriku disaster, these are the first negative plates to be discovered.

Matsusaki’s name may not be prominent in the history of photography, but collector Keisho Ishiguro said that glass-plate negatives from the early days of news photography in Japan are “extremely rare and important materials both for the history of disasters and also photography.”

Matsusaki was a “very skillful photographer,” Ishiguro said, judging from the clear photos printed from the negative plates. “He had a photographic sense akin to news photography of the day.”

The history of news photography in Japan is believed to have started with photos of the eruption of Mount Bandai in Fukushima Prefecture in 1888. Advances in printing technology enabled newsmagazines to increase the number of photos they used, especially those taken during the first Sino-Japanese war in 1894-1895.

The Sanriku earthquake was followed 30 minutes later by a huge tsunami that towered as high as 38.2 meters. It killed more than 20,000 people in Iwate and surrounding areas. More than 20 professional photographers are known to have been dispatched to cover the disaster. Matsusaki’s photos are believed to have been taken in the immediate aftermath.

More than 1,000 people were killed in the Sanriku region in 1933 by another massive earthquake and tsunami.

Iwate is one of the three prefectures ravaged by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

Matsusaki’s photos, printed from the negative plates, are on display at the National Museum of Japanese History in Chiba Prefecture as part of the special exhibition “Earthquakes in Japanese History” running through May 6.