Monday, 14 March 2011


Fukushima, for me, still brings associations of calm and tranquillity, and red leaves. We holidayed up there in Autumn 2008, staying in what the Japanese call a pension, a wee B&B in the country. The red leaf viewing season was just starting up. It was extremely still, ordered, and quiet.


All sorts of images and stories cluster together in my mind when I think of Christchurch’s last earthquake. Most are to do with people I know and love, or with areas where particular memories have attached themselves. Others are more general , like those faces attached to media reports and newspaper headers.

Some of those stories now get re-processed into a new narrative and a ghastly sort of retrospection.


A week after Christchurch’s last earthquake this comment appeared on 2-channeru, the unmoderated sewer of the Japanese internet.

Under the discussion “Earthquake-hit New Zealand rejects Korean rescue team due to a concern with foot and mouth disease” on e of 2-chan 's users wrote

Koreans will behave disgustingly to get praise, which only lead to their bad reputation. If accepted help from Korean, NZ will forever demanded to thank Korea. New Zealand knew this and that’s why they rejected Korean team.

Korean monkeys have vanity, but not sincerity, modesty, respect towards others.

Even though half of Korean population are Christians, their Christianity has produced evil Christians who are totally different from Christianity.

There are no other shameful people like this.

The discussion continued for some time


If you can love a city, I love Tokyo.

It took me a while to work out why William Gibson had put that on his twitter feed and then, as the flow of comments, panicked questions and re-tweets of civil defence instructions built up to a rush, it all became frighteningly clear.

Loving Tokyo has always, in more of less macabre ways, involved feigning indifference or excitement about natural disasters and the dangers of living on earthquake-prone, unstable islands. Inhabitants of Edo used to boast of their city’s devastating fires, and Edward Seidensticker’s Low City, High City reports, with quite some high conservative-aesthete pride, that, after one of early Tokyo’s many massive fires, Ginza stores re-opened with parts of their property still burning.

Isn’t some of the attraction of Neo-Tokyo, from Akira to today, in this sense that we – those who know how to love Japan – are already in that future, already living in a post-apocalyptic landscape? It takes real devastation, and the hurt of real loss’ humdrum details and complications, to dislodge that self-indulgence.


Junichro Tanizaki, initially at least, exhulted in the Great Kanto Earthquake:

When the earthquake struck I knew that I had survived, and I feared for my wife and daughter, left behind in Yokohama. Almost simultaneously I felt a surge of happiness which I could not keep down. “Tokyo will be better for this!” I said to myself […] Tokyo too would be rebuilt in ten years, into a solid expanse of splendid buildings like the Marunouchi Building and the Marine Insurance Building. I imagined the grandeur of the new metropolis, and all the changes that would come in customs and manners as well. An orderly pattern of streets, their bright new pavements gleaming. A flood of automobiles.

Retrospection, again: we’ve all now, after this weekend, seen a flood of automobiles.



150 000 people died in Kanto Dai-shinsai, the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1923. Thousands died during the quake; half of Tokyo was destroyed, and Yokohama was almost completely ruined. After Kanto Dai-shinsai, around 1.5 million people – over half Tokyo’s population – were left homeless. Many more people died in the fires which followed the earthquake:

It was not long before the place turned into a veritable sea of fire, and one of the most horrible and shocking events ever recorded in the annals of human tragedy followed; hell was indeed let loose on earth.

That’s the official government narrative, from the Home Office 1923 publication The Great Earthquake.

A different kind of hell was let loose after this. Rumours spread that Korean day-labourers and migrants had started the fires, and were poisoning water supplies. Gangs of thugs carried out pogroms in Korean areas, beating and killing perhaps as many as several thousand.

Eventually, to avoid international attention, the army was used to restore order. But the massacre served a valuable role for the Japanese state and, amidst the chaos, the secret police took the opportunity to abduct and murder scores of communists, trade unionists and Korean activists.

Shintaro Ishihara's name for Koreans today? Sangokujin, outsiders who, as he stated in 1999, might be a danger in the case of natural emergencies. This is the man who runs Tokyo.


On the Establishment of Righteousness and the Safety of the Country

Earthquakes and tsunami in 1257 came close to destroying Kamakura. Plague, famine and riots followed. Kamakura’s Buddha is a major tourist attraction now; it’s also all that stands from the historic city after the earthquakes of 1257, 1369 and 1494.

It was out of the upheaval around the 1257 quake Nichiren’s Lotus Sect of Buddhism developed and, after its initial period of persecution, shaped Japanese culture and society.



Government bungling, bureaucratic ineptitude and shonky practice led the novelist Oda Makoto, after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, to ask “Is this a human country?” Ten years on, critic Uchihashi Katsuto echoed this question.

Japan is an enormously wealthy country, and yet official responses to the Great Hanshin Earthquake were unable to deliver simple necessities like shelter, food, and emergency supplies. Survivors stayed, trapped, while rescue workers were kept waiting.

All this occurred in a city dotted with unsafe buildings and structures made in a social world characterised by yakuza influence, corruption and profiteering. The sins of the building industry stand as a symbol of the underside of the ‘boom’ imagery of the Showa era.

1995 was, of course, the same year that Aum released Sarin gas in the Tokyo Subway system. It’s unsurprising, then, that imaginations in the early years of the Heisei era turned towards the apocalyptic.


Another image from the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Speaking to the Kobe Shimbun in November 1995, a 59-year-old Korean man linked surviving the earthquake to developments in an anti-racist consciousness:

Since the tragedy and disaster was a common, shared experience, we have come to enjoy mutual safety and conversation when we meet on the street. Those people who used to adopt a certain attitude have stopped assuming it.

The newspaper itself took the opportunity to editorialise for foreigners’ voting rights, by no means an easy political position to assume:

Without mixing with people from other cultures and experiencing their cultures, we cannot find uniqueness and strength in cities like Kobe and Osaka […] the uniqueness of this international consciousness is a significant factor necessary to rebuild the areas. We can even go so far as to say that without the cooperation of foreign residents, it would be impossible to rebuild Kobe and Osaka. In order to reconstruct our cities, we need to build a new society of coexistence and choose a path of reconstruction together with our foreign residents.


H. Porter Abbott, in his Introduction to Narrative, uses the term “narrative jamming” to describe “this experience of indeterminacy, of wanting to know and not being able to know…itself a kind of pain.” Those experiences which most steadily resist narrativizing – I mean here of course death above all – are the ones on which we bring the most insistent narrativizing impulses to bear.

Perhaps this is why most reports on disasters, when they strain towards profundity, are so often empty, so often pompously bare. It is, certainly, why I’ve offered you these fragments of earthquake anecdotes, and feel the need to write something on earthquakes while, at the same time, realising there’s nothing of value I can add now.

It’s also why, I think, what moved me most in the weeks following the disaster in Christchurch were reports on everyday experience more than poems or services or silences produced to mark our distress. The day the quake struck I was following a discussion at Giovanni’s blog on twitter and speed and communication; what followed matched the post as a sort of horrible hidden polemic, as each of us re-posted requests for confirmations of loved ones. In later weeks, I’ve been moved by friends’ accounts of makeshift toilet arrangements, dog anxieties, silt build-up.

An anxious night on Friday, then, as the phone lines jammed and Skype gave out and not everyone was on Facebook or Twitter or email. All our immediate friends and family are safe and accounted for, and I’m very grateful for that. There are comrades from groups we worked with when we lived in Tokyo – in the unions, in the socialist press – still missing, though, and I think of them and their families. We all worry about what’s next, about the reactor, about Fukushima and beyond.

As places for donations and workers’ aid become available, I’ll post their details here.


If you can love a city, I love Tokyo.

The Rev. Jan Cheong-Woon from the Asia Pacific Workers’ Solidarity Corea sent a message to his Japanese colleagues over the weekend. It ended with an old slogan, and a good one for these days:

We have had a terrible reminder of the destructive power of nature.

Long live international solidarity


I’ve taken the Tanizaki quote from Seidensticker’s Low City, High City. The official statement on the Great Kanto Earthquake is from de Boer and Sanders, Earthquakes in Human History (Princeton University Press, 2005). The Kobe Shimbun quotes are from Yasuko Takezawa, “The Great Hanshin Earthquake and Town-Making Towards Multiculturalism” in Graburn, Ertl and Tierney (eds.), Multiculturalism in the New Japan (Berghahn, 2008).

The 2-chan quotes are taken from Rumi Sakamoto’s very helpful “Koreans, Go Home! Internet Nationalism in Contemporary Japan as a Digitally Mediated Subculture”, published at Japan Focus. I’m not linking to 2-channeru itself for obvious reasons of political hygiene.