Yet another interesting bit from the London Review of Books. Whatever. Jordan Sand’s Diary in the current issue (subscribers only again) is about Japanese earthquakes, but with a more historical perspective than most of the few things I read about the recent disaster.
In the 19th century fires and earthquakes apparently seemed less disastrous because people lived much more lightly:
Since there was a seasonal rhythm to these events and the gap between them was short, Edo’s citizens learned to flee, then return and rebuild. They kept their belongings light and portable and lived in houses that were easily dismantled. In 1880, a fire swept through Kanda’s city centre, destroying 16 blocks of dense tenements and displacing 5986 people. The mayor reported that, fortunately, it had occurred during the day, so there were no deaths or injuries. With a population well prepared for disaster, destruction of property even on this scale was accommodated within the management of the city.
Strong social ties and obligations also helped recovery.
These days, Japan is much more “western” and its urban infrastructure has changed accordingly.
It is remarkable that a country so seismically active and vulnerable, and which had developed the art of light infrastructure, should have embraced nuclear power. Japan began building heavy in the 1870s, soon after the modern state that replaced the shogunate chose to join the international economic and military competition led by the Western imperial powers. The country’s first model factory, a silk filature built under French guidance, and its first planned commercial district, the main avenue of Ginza in central Tokyo, were both constructed from brick in 1872. A massive earthquake in central Honshu in 1891 damaged iron bridges and toppled brick buildings, sparking debate over the appropriateness of Western technology to Japan, and the possible superiority of the lightweight, flexible structures that carpenters had built there for centuries (Gregory Clancey’s brilliant book Earthquake Nation explores the cultural politics of this debate). The debate would continue into the era of nuclear power. Today, Tokyo’s skyscrapers are built with flexible frames, designed to sway in earthquakes. Yet nowhere have architects been able to match the light and quickly constructed urban fabric that Japanese artisans had perfected before modernisation.
I don’t want to get all “oh weren’t things better in olden times when everything was simpler,” because obviously that’s rarely true. But a historical society in which people are used to living and building lightly, and are able to (relatively) easily flee disaster and rebuild, is an interesting one to think about when considering our more dystopian possible futures.
While I’m here it would be remiss of me not to mention my grandfather getting caught up in the Yokohama earthquake of 1923 and only just surviving. I guess the photos shown on that page, which he took of the aftermath, come from a time after Japan began to be westernised, with buildings perhaps more suited to earthquake-free areas of the world.