This study of the Great Kanto Earthquake by scholar Charles Schencking, begins not as you might expect, with the cataclysmic temblor of 1923, but with the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011. In this latter event, optimism was predicated on the assumption that swift and decisive action would fulfill the old Japanese adage, “After disasters, prosperity.” In both instances, this proved illusory.

The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan, J. Charles Schencking, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS

The lesson of this book then, is that post-disaster dreams often fall short. There is nothing new about such disillusionment. One thinks of Christopher Wren’s never-realized road and zoning plans for London after the Great Fire of 1666, or more recently, the global community’s dashed hopes that Haiti would be released from poverty, corruption and disease after its 2010 mega-quake.

The author is to be commended for his painstaking research, accessing popular journals, academic publications, folklore, song and commentaries issuing from political, military and business sources from the 1910s to the 20s. It would be tempting to say that it will remain the standard work on the subject, but it appears to be the only major work of its kind in English.

The writer describes how newspapers quickly seized on the disaster as the most consuming story in years, one that would multiply their circulation figures. Fanning the flames of distress were rumors and speculation. Based on a series of malicious canards implicating Koreans in starting fires, looting private property and poisoning wells, neighborhood vigilante groups sprang up. The Japanese did not show rational judgment or orderly deportment. Nor did the police, who took advantage of the hysteria to round up —and in some cases murder — socialists, labor organizers and communists in a sweep to eliminate left-wing dissent.

The notion that the earthquake was caused by the wrath of heaven gained ground among the more conservative politicians and clergy, who had long railed against the capital’s decadence, hedonism and social fractiousness, linking its cult of pleasure to economic woes, even a defect in the national character. This reminded me of a similar interpretation made by Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo governor at the time, who declared that the Tohoku earthquake was an instance of tenbatsu (divine punishment) for Japan’s lapse into materialism. Reflecting a more mature age, perhaps, the observation was not well received.

The Sept. 1, 1923 disaster was an extraordinarily well-documented event, recorded in private diaries, newspapers, magazines, lithographic prints and popular songs. Postcards functioned as social commentary and documentation, and many are included in this book. Documenting the 1923 earthquake required a somewhat forensic approach. Visitors to Tokyo flea markets, thumbing through boxes of postcards, still occasionally come across harrowing images of bodies floating in canals and ditches, or heaped into mounds that resemble Hindu funeral pyres.

Those who have read film director Akira Kurosawa’s book “Something Like an Autobiography” will recall his description of walking through the carnage of the 1923 disaster, seeing “piles of corpses forming little mountains. On top of one of these mountains sat a blackened body in the lotus position of Zen meditation.”

Novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa, whose interest in the ghoulish was well established, wrote equally realistically of the scene around the pond in the entertainment district of Asakusa: “Imagine tens and hundreds of men and women as if boiled in a cauldron of mud. Muddy red cloth was strewn all up and down the banks, for most of the corpses were courtesans.”

Ponds, canals and rivers afforded little relief from the intense heat of the conflagration, which, sucking oxygen from the air, caused these bodies of water to boil. Tokyo was no longer a functioning city but a charred hecatomb. In this traumatized landscape, full of swollen and blackened corpses, people began to feel numb, the nightmarish atmosphere heightened, as Schencking writes, by the “murmur of chanted sutras that floated on the heavy air.”

Besides offering the prospect of purging old mentalities, the erased city, now a scorched wasteland, offered a more pragmatic opportunity to widen roads, build parks, facilitate the flow of people and commercial goods. On the initiative of the Tokyo mayor, Shimpei Goto, plans projecting what the city could look like 30 years in the future had been drawn up before the earthquake. Those plans envisaged the creation of fireproof buildings, safe limits on construction heights, and stricter zoning for residential, industrial and commercial districts. Goto’s was the only real master plan for rebuilding the city, but like so many before and after, it was emasculated by political interests and the objections of landowners. There were some successes, but essentially, Tokyo reverted once more into a medina of narrow, twisting roads, alleys and firetraps.

Schencking describes the handwringing that took place after the event, many asking themselves how Tokyo could have been consumed by anarchy within just hours of the earthquake. The author offers little reassurance to the residents of the Tokyo region today, his text a damning critique of how ill prepared the city was, how riven by vested interests and dissent the government and its elites were.

Tracing the optimism that springs forth after disasters, how the ruins of destruction can be the seedbeds for rebirth, Schencking analyses the lessons that can be drawn from disasters, how our preparedness for them can be improved by examining precedents. But as he is at pains to point out, the disquieting fact is that now, on the eve of 2014, the survivors of the devastating Tohoku tsunami, earthquake and radiation spills, are little better off than their stricken counterparts of 1923.

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