Earthquakes and national (Japanese) character

Lafcadio Hearn changed the way the west viewed Japan when he lived there between 1890 and 1904. Over that period he wrote several books and articles in English, most famously his 1894 publication ‘Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan‘ which is still in print. Less well known is an editorial he also published in 1894 (for the Kobe Chronicle) titled ‘Earthquakes and national character‘. Hearn, like me, had an interest in the relationship between people and nature. And like me, he pondered the connection between the frequent natural ‘disasters’ in Japan and the character and culture of people who live in such a changing and unpredictable environment. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, floods, fires, snowstorms and typhoons are all expressions of the elements at their most forceful and energetic. For me they ‘set the scene’ for my exploration of elemental Japan.

In June 2017 I visited both the Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn) residence in Kumamoto (shown here) and the Lafcadio Hearn Museum in Matsue (shown at the end of the post). Both provided useful insights into Hearn’s interest in the relationship between people and nature in Japan.

During my visit to Japan in May/June 2017 I wanted to get a better sense of what it was like living in such a volatile and uncertain environment. Where I live in Tasmania we get strong winds at times, and bushfires and floods are of concern. We have no earthquakes, active volcanoes or typhoons to keep us on our toes however. In contrast Japan has hundreds of earthquakes a year, several typhoons each season, and more than 10% of the worlds active volcanoes that are a threat to humans. One of those volcanoes is Sakurajima that looms over Kagoshima in southern Kyushu. I spent a week in an apartment looking over and visiting the volcano. It had a strong presence both physically and psychologically. I will write more about that in another post. For the moment the focus is my impressions so far about earthquakes and their impacts.

At some stage I will also write about the Fukuoka City Disaster Prevention Centre where I was able to experience the force of typhoons and earthquakes in a safe environment. It’s definitely worth a visit.

Hearn described the environment in Japan as harsh, violent and calamitous. When he wrote his editorial in September 1894 the most recent damaging earthquake had occurred three years earlier in Gifu. It is still the largest recorded inland earthquake in Japan’s history with over 7,000 people killed and 17,000 people injured. There have been many major earthquakes since, with the Great Kanto earthquake and conflagration in 1923 causing massive damage and loss of life in Tokyo and surrounding regions. Wikipedia lists an estimated 142,800 casualties. The responses to this landmark event was many and varied, as captured in the book ‘Imaging Disaster‘ by Gennifer Weisenfild. In 1960, the government declared September 1, the anniversary of the 1923 quake, as an annual “Disaster Prevention Day”.

This richly illustrated book provides many insights into the ways in which visual images mediate our vision and understanding of disasters. The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan also generated a flood of imagery, shared around the world through the internet and social media.

This book uses Japan as an example of what it is like to experience a great earthquake. Using a time sequence from 1000 BC to 2003 (when the book was published) it tells the story of an earthquake – including  the impact of tsunami waves, landslides and fires that followed the initial quake. The book illustrates how the town responds and some of the ways that buildings have and can be constructed to withstand severe earthquakes.  I found the pictorial format an effective way to transmit information about earthquakes and their impacts. Not included in this publication is the more recent phenomenon in Japan of alerting people of earthquake activity on their mobile phones.

The magnitude of the Great Kanto Earthquake has been estimated between 7.9 – 8.2 (Source: Wikipedia). In comparison the Great East Japan Earthquake, that occurred off the coast of Japan on March 11, 2011, was of magnitude 9.0-9.1. The combined force of the earthquake and resultant tsunami caused catastrophic damage to life and property, including to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant. The failure of the power plant infrastructure to  contain the impacts of the tsunami added another dimension to disaster management in Japan. The consequent release of radiation has had widespread ramifications.

The book ‘When the Tsunami Came to Shore‘ (2014) was published in response to the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. It has a chapter titled ‘Disaster and National Identity‘ based around the science fiction story ‘Japan Sinks‘.  The story is said to explore the collective fear that natural disaster may destroy the foundation of Japanese culture. The author of the chapter goes on to argue that disaster fiction, promoted as an entertaining medium that can reach a wide audience, is a powerful means to foster critical thinking about natural disasters. The concluding sentence in the book chapter states that ‘if we cannot protect ourselves from natural disaster, we can reflect on it to better understand the world and ourselves’.

My friend Takao Ono, a Tokyoite, is involved in a volunteer group who regularly travels to the Tohoku region to help communities recover after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. This is a long term commitment. Some of the posts he shares on Facebook are from a group called ‘Never forget Tohoku’. Social media has made a big difference to how people respond and react to phenomenon such as earthquakes, before, during and after the event.

In May 2018 I visited the 3/11 Community Memorial Centre in Sendai. The photo below shows the entrance to the main exhibition space on the second floor. To the right of the door is a hand-drawn map of the coastal area impacted by the tsunami on March 11th, 2011. Local people impacted by the event write their feelings on post-it notes and stick them on the relevant area on the map. Opportunities were provided for visitors to write their thoughts and impressions as well, on long strips of white paper displayed elsewhere. For me the Centre reinforced the power of the earthquake and resultant tsunami and embodied the resilience and humanity of the people who lived through the event and the magnitude of the rescue and relief efforts during and afterwards. All of the communities along the coast affected by these twin events are working on ways to rebuild and reinvigorate their towns.

The entrance to the main exhibition space of the 3/11 Community Memorial Centre in Sendai, opened in early 2016. When I visited in May 2018 a special exhibition titled ‘Miyagi 1951‘ was on show. This displayed photos  of the region taken by an American soldier in 1951, providing a priceless record of that time.

Earthquakes will continue to be a feature of the Japanese environment, sitting as it does on the Pacific Ring of Fire. The most recent example that caused serious damage occurred in April 2016 in Kumamoto, a city in the southern island of Kyushu. Hearn lived in Kumamoto for three years between 1891 and 1894. It was a display at his former city residence that drew my attention  to his essay on earthquakes, highlighted in the material on show. Also highlighted was a story by Hearn titled ‘A Living God‘ that popularised the word ‘tsunami’ in the west. This essay appears in ‘Gleanings in Buddha-Fields‘, a book by Hearn published in 1897 on the philosophy and teachings of Japanese Buddhism.

It was this information board at the Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn) residence in Kumamoto that drew my attention to the editorial on ‘Earthquake and national character‘ and the story about the living god and tsunamis. Using Google Translate (given all of its quirks) the text on the board states that because earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons frequently occur, the Japanese have developed a unique feature of ‘renewal’ and a spirit of superior resilience and perseverance. These natural forces have had other influences on Japanese culture as my reflections in other posts on ‘Elemental Japan’ refer to.

It took a while to track down the full text of Hearn’s essay on earthquakes and national character. Fortunately a selection of his editorials in the Kobe Chronicle had been published in 1960. Hearn writes in his editorial that it might be expected, as a consequence of the instability of the Japanese environment, that uncommon national capacities of endurance, patience, and self-adaptation to the environment would be developed. These are precisely the qualities Hearn said he found in the Japanese. He also observes that the building styles in Japan were a response, at least in part, to the ‘conditions of nature’. I have a number of references on Japanese architecture that explore this connection. Another fascinating aspect of elemental Japan.

This poster is a recent example of the response to earthquakes in Japan. After the April 2016 earthquake in Kumamoto considerable effort was put into encouraging people to visit the area. Tourism is an important source of income in the region and incentives were put in place to attract visitors. In June 2017 I saw this image in a train in Kyoto saying that the people in Kumamoto/Aso were doing OK and that they are only a Shinkansen ride away. That’s how I travelled to Kumamoto. I’m pleased that I did. While considerable damage from the earthquake was still evident, the ‘City of Water’ was very inviting and people were making the most of life.

In his editorial ‘Earthquakes and national character‘ Hearn gives us one perspective on how the elements shape the character of the Japanese. I have touched on others in this post. They all provide food for thought. Hearn wrote about many other aspects of Japanese culture in the late 19th century and early 20th century.  You can learn more by reading his books and articles. John Dougill has also written a series of posts on Hearn in his blog Green Shinto (see for example John’s first post on Hearn). I would recommend reading these posts and visiting the Hearn Museum and residence (in Matsue and Kumamoto respectively) if you find yourself in these Japanese cities. His writings on the nature of Japan, and observations on the many guises of the elements, are important ones.

A renovated and expanded Lafcadio Hearn Memorial Museum was opened in Matsue in 2016. The catalogue for the Museum in called ‘Lafcadio Hearn: Tracing the Journey of an Open Mind‘.  The title reflects the belief that Hearn  was  not bound by Western centrism. That makes his observations of particular interest. He is a fascinating man who has been adopted by Japan.

This image and the associated text was found in the book ‘Earthquake‘ published in the Planet Earth Series of Time Life Books. It shows the Kashima God, who protects Japan from earthquakes, pinning down the earthquake causing namazu (catfish) with his “keystone” – a mighty rock with divine powers. The woodblock print was made after a ruinous quake that rocked the city of Edo in 1855, prior to the arrival of Lafcadio Hearn in Japan. Artists were inspired to transform the catfish legend into visual images after the disaster occurred in the ritual “month without gods”. The gods absence was thought to free the namazu to indulge in his fatal attacks.

Prints such as these illustrate both the frequent nature of large earthquakes in Japan and the use of visual media in response to them – a pattern that continues to this day as described earlier. In this instance a few of the woodblock prints offered the comfort of religion or proclaimed a magic of their own, saying that they would act as a talisman against earthquakes. The book notes that while much of the folklore associated with earthquakes is stark and chilling, the legends in Japan are rich with invention and even humour. Source: Walker (1982)

Since writing this post I’ve seen two references about the growing likelihood of a major earthquake in Tokyo, most recently from a Real Estate company. No mention of catfish here! Having said that I have seen a catfish, illustrated next, on a street sign in Tokyo that is set-aside for use during a major earthquake.




This striking image of a catfish is close to Tokyo Station. It connects modern emergency planning with the traditional legends of Japan. 

Published on Disaster Prevention Day the article shown above recommended three simple things to prepare for the next major earthquake that will strike in Japan: 1. Know that earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan; 2. Understand Japan’s Strict Earthquake-Resistant Building Standards and the 1981 Shin-Taishin Building Code, and; 3. Make practical preparations for the next earthquake. To assist with preparations the Tokyo Metropolitan Government published a guide in 2015 to disaster preparedness in Tokyo. It’s a reminder to live each day to the fullest. Japan has many policies in place to minimise the physical impacts of earthquakes and protect citizens and visitors. I have a friend who always carries a small ‘disaster pack’ with his essentials in it when he travels in Japan. It’s definitely worth considering. Remember – earthquakes are a fact of life there. Living with that knowledge on a daily basis is sure to have some impact on a persons character.

2 thoughts on “Earthquakes and national (Japanese) character

  1. Mr Hearn’s ability to put aside his western upbringing to be in Japan with ‘an Open Mind’ has clearly contributed to our understanding of how the Japanese relate to the threat and occurrence of natural disasters. I imagine his response would have been very different if he had looked with a western gaze. This is a fascinating glimpse into Lafcadio Hearn’s life. I could have kept reading for much longer and will now go on to read the Green Shinto posts! Thanks for sharing about this unique individual.


    • He is a unique individual indeed. Hearn’s heritage and experiences before he came to Japan were diverse. They produced an individual with an open mind to the ways of Japan in the 1890’s and early 1900s. His observations and writings are like no other. John Dougill has sent me some tantalising references that Hearn made to the Buddhist elements. I’m looking forward to discovering other gems in his books and articles.

      Liked by 1 person

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