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Report on the talk ‘Dealing with Disasters through Art: Japanese Artists and Their Strategies’

Image: ‘Oh, for the Blessings of Tranquility’. With the permission of the National Museum of Japanese History, Sakura, Japan

In this time of the climate crisis, war in Ukraine, and economic instability, Professor Hans Bjarne Thomsen’s Third Thursday Lecture on November 17 looked at the visual representation and lessons from one single historical disaster—the 1855 Ansei-Edo Earthquake. The case study is part of a broader project by Prof. Thomsen that looks at the long and diverse histories of natural and human-made disasters in Japan that have occurred over the past few centuries up to the recent Fukushima nuclear disaster. This critical study encompasses the representations of such disasters as well as their impact ranging from trauma to forms of affective reparation, as well as how art can potentially prepare future generations for catastrophes.

Prof. Thomsen situates the Ansei-Edo Earthquake, which badly damaged what is today called Tokyo causing fires and a death toll in the thousands, within a calamitous two-year period for Japan and the shogunate that consisted of two other large-scale earthquakes and Commodore William Perry’s return voyage in 1855 to conclude the Japan-U.S. Trade Treaty. Popular belief at the time saw these events as intertwined and in a causal relationship with the corruption in the shogunate government and of broader economic shifts such as increasing social inequality. Via an in depth reading of Namazu-e or “catfish prints,” Prof. Thomsen highlights the anxieties and complexities in the visual responses to the disaster at this important threshold moment on the cusp of what would become the Meiji era. These unique series of anonymous Namazu-e prints were produced in the turmoil of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, and thus could circulate widely within a two-month period before the Edocho Magistrate’s Office was able to re-establish its strict censorship regime. Within this short fertile period of unbridled expression, Prof. Thomsen unpacked a number of these Namazu-e in his talk including one example of a scene of figures in a scrum entitled Oh, for the Blessings of Tranquility. In the center of the woodblock print is depicted a melee of citizens, who presumably lost their homes and/or loved ones in the earthquake, who are ganging up and attacking an anthropomorphic catfish who symbolizes the tectonic event. Prof. Thomsen’s research highlights the dual significance of an unconscious and likely drunk monkey adjacent to the catfish. Prof. Thomsen showed examples of other prints that detail the mythological understanding of the role of the monkey in keeping the catfish (and hence the ground) stable. Prof. Thomsen reminded the group of another important significance—that the shogun Iesada was also born in the year of the monkey—forming a double entendre wherein the inebriated primate also signals the shogun’s poor administration leading to the calamity which would have been widely understood at the time. This reading highlights the print’s role as a thinly veiled allegory depicting as a scathing critique of the government of the period and in particular the shogun. Prof. Thomsen further demonstrated how this critique was not limited just to the shogunate but also extended into the social field, particularly focusing on those who profited from the disaster.

Also in the woodblock print, amidst the chaos a few figures attempt to stop their fellow citizens from attacking the fallen catfish. Prof. Thomsen pointed out the individual accouterment of these figures in order to define their social station. These figures attempting to halt the attack on the earthquake’s protagonist included printmakers who would have busy churning out replacement manuscripts lost in the fires or restaurateurs profiting off feeding the workforce preoccupied with re-building the city. In the case of those profiting off the disaster, it perhaps foreshadows a type of “disaster capitalism” akin to the socio-economic dynamics in such recent disasters such as in Fukushima. 

Highlighting these different responses to the disaster depicted in the scene, Prof. Thomsen underscored that the response to the disaster was not singular. His reading of this dense scene argues that an uncensored artistic response to the disaster can act as an important diagnostic of the social unrest, depict these underlying causes, as well as detail the diverse attitudes and responses to a disaster. Thus the artist is at once a chronicler of the contemporary moment and also provides a salient analysis of the root injustices of the period.

Anonymous, Building Dance of ‘Taira’ (Taira no tatemai), 1855-1856, 寄別2-9-1-13, National Diet Library, Tokyo.

Highlighting the fluidity of thinking around this post-disaster moment, Prof. Thomsen showed a further series of prints including Building Dance of ‘Taira’ that re-casts the catfish as protagonist who brings forth a new more equitable world. In the print, anthropomorphic catfish are at work constructing the character taira in the guise of a building. At the bottom of the scene another catfish disperses gold on the ground which echoes the inscription on the print that reads “The catfish will take care of wealth and poverty, building a world of peace.” As such the catfish—or earthquake—is understood as not only causing the destruction of buildings and infrastructure, but the potential destruction of the underlying inequitable order in society itself. Unlike Oh, for the Blessings of Tranquility that frames the catfish as a nefarious presence, Building Dance of ‘Taira’ recasts the catfish as a merry builder, whose efforts are constructive rather detrimental to society. In this state of joy and possibility in the face of such a drastic event, it would be interesting to see these prints in contrast with the subsequent period of post-Meiji reveling. In particular, the anarchic tendencies in the “ee ja nai ka” collectivism that was at once a celebration, performance, and enactment of an alternative-lifestyle similar to forms of societal leveling at carnival celebrations in the Catholic world.

Prof. Thomsen in his analysis highlights how the print reflects on the common desire for the redistribution of the period’s wealth. This was perhaps happening in that period from the leveling force of the earthquake destroying rich citizens’ possessions and property, potentially casting them to the same level as the pauper. Yet Prof. Thomsen highlights a different form of redistribution going on in the period via the programs of charity alms and government spending that unleashed a generous monetary policy that funded a broad “recovery economy.” Perhaps parallels of this can be seen in the economic destruction after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami in Tohoku and the now decade-long influx of funds into the area.

Prof. Thomsen’s careful reading of the Namazu-e underscores the important role of the artist in relation to large societal events as being able to share both the complexity of the moment and articulate the underlying causes of social foment around such disasters. Moreover Prof. Thomsen shows how artists are able to communicate these understandings through scenes replete with the affect, tragedy, wit, and even humor that can co-constitute the salience and power of the art. The presentation portends the important work that Prof. Thomsen is undertaking at the University of Zurich, and whose research has the potential to highlight both the historically important role of artists depicting a response to catastrophe and its aftereffects. This, coupled with a careful analysis of the lessons contained within these responses, has the potential to impact a future response to disasters or possibly even prevent future calamity.

Dr. Jason Waite has recently completed a doctoral degree at University of Oxford focused on contemporary artists responding to cultural, political, and environmental issues underpinning the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

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