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This page presents woodblock prints made by 9 different Japanese artists that illustrate the gruesome events that followed the Great Kanto Earthquake of September 1, 1923. The woodblock print series was published three years after the earthquake by Emaki Kenkyukai.
On September 1 of 1923 a massive earthquake shook the Kanto area in Japan with the densely populated cities of Yokohama and Tokyo. Approximately 140,000 people lost their lives - most by the fires that started to rage immediately after the earthquake. The fires spread within minutes. The construction of Japanese cities and houses and strong winds on that day enforced the spreading of the fires and augmented the death toll and the damages by far beyond the direct impact of the earthquake.
Many Japanese printmakers made woodblock prints afterwards to remember and document the terrible events. Historically Japanese woodblock prints in the nineteenth century were a media to report and illustrate news and events of major interest for the public like the Satsuma rebellion of 1877 lead by Saigo Takamori ("The last Samurai") or the Sino-Japanese War.
In the twentieth century woodblock prints as a news media were replaced by photography and newspaper offset printing. But either artists and publishers felt an emotional need to express themselves or there was a demand by the public. Japanese prints depicting the events of the Great Kanto Earthquake are a part of the history of Japanese woodblocks, although they are not often found in the market.
In April of 2009 we received a consignment of 23 rare woodblock prints. They were published by Emaki Kenkyukai in 1926, three years after the events. The series is titled "Taisho Shinsai Gashu" (Pictures of Taisho Earthquake)." The complete series has 25 designs.
The prints were made by 9 different artists of whom the names are known but hardly any further biographical data. We have no other information about the series.
This design depicts the chaos around Gofuku-bashi bridge. Many people were trampled to death. Some horses which were used to carry loads became wild.
The artist was Hakuhan Yawata.
The image shows a rescue operation to free a man buried under bricks from the Hirokoji district .
The artist was Kougai Noguch.
The trembling of the earth started at 12:58 AM on September 1, 1923. That was the time when many people prepared their lunch on open fires. This was a major reason for the immediate outbreak of fires that took two days to get under control.
The artist was Kouyo Shibata.
People ran away from the fires and jumped into the water. But the fire particles showered on the surface of the water and the water became boiling hot.
The artist was Nyosen Hamada (1875-?).
This design shows a vigilante group that patrols the neighborhood at night. Immediately after the earthquake there was complete chaos and disinformation all around Japan. Rumors were spreading that Koreans took advantage of the disaster by arson, robbery and by poisoning the wells. This lead to massacres by vigilante groups against Koreans, Chinese and Okinawans. The official number released later by the Japanese government was around 300 killed, but the actual number is estimated much higher.
The artist was Sengai Igawa, 1876-1961.
The woodblock print shows what once was the plush Ginza street, an elegant shopping area with brick buildings and gas street lanterns.
The artist was by Senrin Kirigaya.
Only minutes after the first earthquake shocks tsunami waves of up to ten meters hit the coasts of Japan killing several hundred people and making thousands homeless. This design shows the tsunami wave throwing fishing boats more than 100 meters inland.
The artist was Shiun Kondo.
The progress of recovery after the earthquake was slow in the beginning. This design shows the recovery activities at Suda in Chiyoda Ward. Construction materials are transported by horse carts, and refugees are coming back to the remains of their homes.
The artist was Shunpan Katayam.
The image shows the firestorms around Ueno. People are trying to escape along the broad streets. Many had sought for refuge in open spaces inside Tokyo and found themselves trapped. On the place where an estimated 38,000 people were caught by the fires and killed, the Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum was erected in commemoration of the victims.
The artist was Unpo Takashima.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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