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The Great Kanto Earthquake was one of the worst natural desasters in the history of mankind and the worst known earthquake in the history of the Japanese islands.
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On September 1, 1923 two minutes before noon, a devastating earthquake hit the densely populated area of Tokyo and Yokohama. The shocks reached peaks of 7.9 on the Richter scale. The damages caused by the fires that immediately broke out and raged for three days, were by far worse than those caused by the earthquake itself. When the first shocks hit, many charcoal cooking stoves were in use for the preparation of the lunch meal. And light to strong winds made the fires spread within a few minutes in Tokyo and Yokohama.
The death toll was terrible. 140,000 people lost their lives - 58,000 of them in Tokyo. The typical Japanese houses were light buildings with wooden tile roofs and fires had always been a major threat in Japanese cities. Houses were built close to each other with hardly any empty space between them. People had no place to escape and most victims suffocated or burned in the fires.
Tokyo and Yokohama were destroyed to 70 and 80 percent. Photographs from the scene show completely flattened areas. Today the Kanto Earthquake Museum inside a temple preserves the memory of those who died.
On September 2, 1923 the Japanese government proclaimed the state of emergency.
Communication between the disaster area and the rest of Japan and the world was completely cut off. In the first days and weeks after the earthquake, posted signs as shown on the print by Saiten Tamura (below) were the only way to inform the citizens and organize the rescue efforts.
The news of the disaster was first transmitted by ships anchored in the Yokohama and Tokyo bay area. When first reports of the tragedy arrived in the capitals outside Japan, immediate relief efforts were launched by the United States and other countries.
After the rescue operations had set in and after the debris had been removed, rebuilding began - first at a very slow pace. But from 1926 on, the rebuilding took a breath-taking speed and by 1932 Tokyo and Yokohama were modern, vibrating cities. In 1932 the population of the Tokyo prefecture had risen to 6 million from 3.7 million in 1920.
When looking back in history, one can see that artists always dealt with great natural disasters or wars. Writers, filmmakers, painters or printmakers are often sensitive personalities and feel a need to express their feelings in their works. It was like that after the two world wars, after Vietnam and right now it is happening again after the September 11 terror attack against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC.
Japanese print artists in the Tokyo area were hit hard by the earthquake. The famous Watanabe print shop was completely destroyed by the fire and hundreds of wooden blocks stored in the shop were lost. Most artists like for instance Kawase Hasui had lost their homes.
The Shin Hanga publisher Watanabe Shozaburo and his artisans and affiliated artists had to start again from scratch. In the beginning they revitalized the business by producing small-sized cards and calendars.
A wave of support from his clients outside Japan, mainly from North America and Europe, helped Watanabe and his circle to recover fast from the disaster. Many of the more popular print designs were redesigned and recarved.
Japanese prints depicting the devastations and the scenes immediately after the disaster are rare. Unichi Hiratsuka began the series Scenes after the Tokyo Earthquake - Tokyo shinsai ato fukei. Twelve prints were created from 1923 to 1926. And while the early prints of the series showed the devastations, the later designs showed the reconstruction works.
Prints showing the reconstruction of the city after the earthquake are more frequent. Kishio Koizumi designed and carved the series 100 Views of Great Tokyo in Showa (Period) from 1928 to 1937. It is an impressive document of the enormous reconstruction work.
From 1929 to 1932 the series One Hundred Views of New Toykyo - Shin Tokyo Hyakkei - was published. It was a collaborative work by eight artists with contributions by Koshiro Onchi, Maekawa Senpan, Sumio Kawakami, Fukazawa Sakuichi, Fujimori Shizuo, Henmi Takashi and Suwa Kanenori. The series shows views of the rebuilt city and reflects the resilient spirit of Tokyo's citizens.
The print shown on this page by Saiten Tamura shows a hastily erected barrack village in Hibiya Park in autumn of 1923 with notice posts by the Japanese Red Cross.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
(October 2002, updated April 2009)
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