Letter to the Editor: Response to Andrew Robinson’s “When Tokyo Shook, Burned Down, and Rose Again.”

February 14, 2014   •   By J. Charles Schencking, Andrew Robinson

The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan

J. Charles Schencking

The following is a letter to the editor from J. Charles Schencking regarding Andrew Robinson's review for LARB of Schencking's book The Great Kantō earthquake. Immediately below Dr. Schencking’s letter is Andrew Robinson’s response.


I AM DELIGHTED that the Los Angeles Review of Books reviewed my book on the Great Kantō Earthquake. As one of the most deadly and destructive natural disasters of the 20th century, it is a topic that warrants attention. Moreover, for those interested in contemporary Japan, my book contextualizes current debates concerning catastrophe and reconstruction and compels readers to question the often-repeated trope that disasters change everything. The reviewer, Andrew Robinson, described my study as “the first book, either in English or Japanese, to cover the entire story from 1923 up to 1930.” He also lauded the painstaking research — articulated by him as “a decade and more excavating hitherto un-translated Japanese sources” — that underpin my findings. 

What then led Robinson to pronounce my work as “significant but patchy”? For one, Robinson spends two paragraphs critiquing my study for not using three works by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Kawabata Yasunari, and Kurosawa Akira. Translated into English, each described the landscape of post-disaster Tokyo. Pointedly, Robinson wrote that my omission of any reference to Kurosawa’s memoir was inexcusable. 

We all love Kurosawa’s movies. But, Kurosawa compiled his memoir nearly six decades after the 1923 cataclysm. My approach privileged a vast array of recollections, reflections, memoirs, diaries, and newspaper accounts written and published in the days, weeks, and months immediately following the 1923 earthquake. Moreover, rather than recycle descriptions from Akutagawa or Kawabata, I sought to illuminate a series of new, previously unheard voices from the epicenter. In crafting my narrative of terror, pandemonium, death, destruction, resilience and eventually reconstruction, I drew from writers, academics, journalists, military men, relief workers, priests, parents, children, teachers, architects, planners, hospital patients, day laborers, shopkeepers, factory owners, tenants, landlords, municipal bureaucrats, political elites, social commentators, philosophers, a billiard hall manager, and even a gas station owner. I will let readers of my response — and those who read my book — decide for themselves which approach provides a more in-depth and original understanding of the 1923 earthquake. 

Robinson raised a valid point in suggesting that my study only briefly explored the international dimension of humanitarian aid to Japan following this tragedy. My original manuscript included a chapter on this issue, but I removed it because it did not fit the overall theme of national reconstruction well enough to justify the length it added. My current book-length project entitled America’s Tsunami of Aid: Compassion, Opportunism, and Delusion following Japan’s 1923 Earthquake Calamity focuses exclusively on this important yet understudied issue. 

Robinson used considerable space critiquing my book because it did “not even touch on the perhaps more fascinating question of whether the seismic destruction of Tokyo in 1923 may have been a key factor in propelling Japan towards authoritarianism in the 1930s and eventually into a world war.” It would be sensational to write that the attack on Pearl Harbor was somehow linked to the earthquake; it would also increase sales. Unfortunately, it would also be woefully inaccurate to suggest anything close to this simplistic conclusion. The very premise of such a question reduces the international factors behind Japan’s fateful choice in 1941 to a level of secondary or worse yet, superficial importance.  

As for the earthquake’s role in propelling authoritarianism within Japan, I wonder if Robinson was more interested in reviewing and reflecting on what I wrote — or in rearticulating questions that he raised in his own book on this topic? On page 93 of his 2012 book, Earthquake: Nature and Culture, Robinson wrote: 

It is not difficult to postulate a causal connection between the massive disruption caused by the earthquake and the eventual declaration of total war by Japan in 1941. But it is more difficult to substantiate such a link. Two significant books first published in the early 1990s came up with different assessments of the earthquake's long-term impact.

In his 2013 review of my book, Robinson wrote: 

It is not difficult to conceive of some causal link between the massive disruption caused by the earthquake in the 1920s, the economic effects of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the declaration of total war by Japan in 1941. More difficult is to substantiate such a link. Two well-informed books first published in the early 1990s — only the second of which receives a (passing) mention from Schencking — came up with starkly different assessments of the earthquake’s long-term impact.

Then, in the next paragraph of his 2012 book he wrote: 

the journalist Peter Hadfield, who knows Tokyo well, straightforwardly argues in Sixty Seconds that Will Change the World, his book on 'the coming Tokyo earthquake,' that the reconstruction of Tokyo provoked an economic crisis, worsened by the Great Depression, which then allowed the complete takeover of a military government. 'Few earthquakes in history have had such a decisive and powerful effect on world events', writes Hadfield. 

In his review of my book he wrote: 

The first, Sixty Seconds That Will Change the World (the title refers to a possible future great earthquake in Tokyo) by journalist Peter Hadfield, straightforwardly argues that the 1920s reconstruction of Tokyo provoked an economic crisis, worsened by the Great Depression, which then facilitated a military government’s complete takeover. “Few earthquakes in history have had such a decisive and powerful effect on world events,” writes Hadfield. 

As I emphasize throughout my study, elites interpreted, constructed, and attempted to use this disaster to transform Japan. Many saw post-earthquake Tokyo as a blank slate, a landscape upon which a new city could be built that would reflect and could reinforce new values. Numerous others believed that the disaster created a golden opportunity for Japan to be reconstructed politically, ideologically, and economically. The construction and interpretation of this catastrophe as well the opportunistic dreams for transformation it inspired are detailed in chapters three, four, and five of my study, which Robinson fails to mention let alone reflect on.

However much optimism the disaster triggered, the process of rebuilding Tokyo and reconstructing the nation met with varying degrees of ambivalence, resistance, and outright contestation from competing elites and, importantly, citizens. This is detailed in chapters six, seven, and eight of my study. Clearly this does not sit comfortably with Hadfield’s hypothesis of the earthquake as catalyst for the military’s takeover of government in the years following the 1923 catastrophe. Indeed, I point out in my introduction that “responses to the Great Kantō Earthquake stand in stark contrast to the policies employed in the late 1930s and early 1940s” in response to the manmade crisis of the war with China.

In the aftermath of the 1923 disaster, some elites advocated greater authoritarianism, while others championed expanded participatory democracy and increased social and political freedoms. Did either side win out during the reconstruction project or in the decade following the earthquake as a result of this disaster? No. Japan became both more democratic as evidenced by the passage of universal male suffrage in 1925, yet less free and open as evidenced by the enactment of the Peace Preservation Law in 1925. Military leaders challenged elected political elites and implemented policies on their own accord as witnessed by the Manchuria Incident of 1931, yet also accepted unpopular (within much of the military) limits to military spending and armaments expansion as witnessed by the 1930 London Naval Armaments Limitation Treaty. Radical military officers assassinated liberal-minded political elites in the early 1930s, but a far more sophisticated, well planned, and broadly supported coup within the military was stymied in 1936. 

Following Japan’s experience in 1923, what virtually every commentator and elite agreed upon, however, was that society needed to be better prepared to deal with a future crisis or a national emergency. As I wrote in my conclusion, “individuals saw the potential for manifold rewards if government could harness technocratic modernity and tap into the ample reservoir of personal resilience exhibited by countless Tokyoites at the neighborhood level during reconstruction.” How did they do so? Across the political spectrum, people supported the proliferation of neighborhood associations in urban Japan. Neighborhood associations served as conduits of authority downward and local-level advocacy and participation upward. Did these organizations originate with the earthquake? Of course not. Were these associations symptomatic of authoritarianism? Not entirely. But, they certainly became a useful apparatus of the government when participation became mandatory in 1940 and they were incorporated into the Home Ministry bureaucracy. 

From the 1950s onward, historians have looked backward from the Second World War and sought to answer the question “what went wrong” in interwar Japan and to pinpoint the beginning of Japan’s “dark valley” of militarism. This has jaundiced our understanding of key events and processes in interwar Japan. Moreover, it has robbed many events of their importance if they do not support an etiological understanding of wartime Japan. The catastrophic earthquake and fires and responses to both reveal much about perceptions of 1920s Japan and the state of the nation as its people dealt not only with an unprecedented urban calamity, but also with the challenges and opportunities of modernity and the emergence of a more cosmopolitan, diverse, urban consumer culture. Were the tensions this disaster amplified and the fissures it exposed resolved? Did reconstruction herald a “new Japan” as many hoped? No, and as I conclude, the calls for renewal and regeneration that the disaster amplified continued throughout the following 20 years. The attainment of national reconstruction, however, “remained as illusive and illusory as a mythical chimera.”  



A Response to J. Charles Schencking 

By Andrew Robinson


ON THE WHOLE, my review of J. Charles Schencking’s The Great Kanto Earthquake was appreciative, so I am not sure why he has chosen to reply at a length similar to that of the original review. In order not to try the reader’s patience, I shall restrict myself to only four points in response.

Schencking tries to justify his omission of Akira Kurosawa’s long, detailed and haunting description of his experience of the earthquake in his memoir, translated as Something Like An Autobiography (1982), on the grounds that Kurosawa’s memoir was written long after the seismic events of 1923. This is absurd. The brilliance of Kurosawa’s writing, and the importance of Kurosawa as a cultural figure, more than justify the memoir’s inclusion in any book on the Great Kanto earthquake — alongside all the other eyewitness accounts covered by Schencking. Ditto, the stories about the earthquake written by the leading literary writers Akutagawa and the Nobel laureate Kawabata in the 1920s — also omitted by Schencking for no apparent reason.

Schencking takes me to task for dealing insufficiently with the actual process of reconstruction in the 1920s. No doubt I could have written more on it, but then my review would have been twice the length it was. Inter alia, I wrote: “The book’s forte is the contested period of reconstruction, although regrettably it offers almost no comparison with the earlier reconstruction of the city following its destruction by the Great Ansei Earthquake in 1855.” I note that Schencking avoids mentioning his surprising omission of the 1855 earthquake in his reply. Readers interested in the 1855 earthquake may refer to Gregory Smits’s recent book, Seismic Japan: The Long History and Continuing Legacy of the Ansei Edo Earthquake (2013).

Schencking defends his surprising omission of any discussion of the possible legacy of the Great Kanto earthquake in pushing Japan towards militarization in the 1930s, and then war. Two books by journalists have forcefully argued this point of view: Sixty Seconds That Will Change the World: The Coming Tokyo Earthquake (1995) by Peter Hadfield and Yokohama Burning: The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and Fire that Helped Forge the Path to World War II by Joshua Hammer (2006). On the other hand, the literary academic Edward Seidensticker is more circumspect in Tokyo Rising: The City since the Great Earthquake (1990). I refer to both Hadfield and Seidensticker in my review, whereas Schencking quotes only my comments on Hadfield. The answer to this crucial question can never be certain, but surely the issue needs airing in the final stages of any lengthy study of the 1923 earthquake. Yet Schencking does not, following his interesting musings on 1920s reconstruction.

Finally, Schencking quotes a few sentences from my review and some similar sentences from my own book, Earthquake: Nature and Culture (2012), as if to say that reusing phrases from one’s own writing in a book review is somehow wrong. What nonsense. I agree with an ironic remark attributed to Arthur C. Clarke: “If a writer cannot plagiarize himself, who can he plagiarize?”

In light of the above, I stand by the final comment in my review: The Great Kanto Earthquake is indeed a “significant” book, but it is also “patchy.”


J. Charles Schencking is a professor and chairperson of the Department of History at the University of Hong Kong.

Andrew Robinson is a British writer and former newspaper editor.