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


J. Charles Schencking

ISBN : 978-988-8208-01-2


September 2013

400 pages, 6″ x 9″, 61 b&w illus.

For sale in Asia (except Japan) and Australia only

  • HK$320.00

In September 1923, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake devastated eastern Japan, killing more than 120,000 people and leaving two million homeless. Using a rich array of source material, J. Charles Schencking tells for the first time the graphic tale of Tokyo’s destruction and rebirth. In emotive prose, he documents how the citizens of Tokyo experienced this unprecedented calamity and explores the ways in which it rattled people’s deep-seated anxieties about modernity. While explaining how and why the disaster compelled people to reflect on Japanese society, he also examines how reconstruction encouraged the capital’s inhabitants to entertain new types of urbanism as they rebuilt their world.

Some residents hoped that a grandiose metropolis, reflecting new values, would rise from the ashes of disaster-ravaged Tokyo. Many, however, desired a quick return of the city they once called home. Opportunistic elites advocated innovative state infrastructure to better manage the daily lives of Tokyo residents. Others focused on rejuvenating society—morally, economically, and spiritually—to combat the perceived degeneration of Japan. Schencking explores the inspiration behind these dreams and the extent to which they were realized. He investigates why Japanese citizens from all walks of life responded to overtures for renewal with varying degrees of acceptance, ambivalence, and resistance. His research not only sheds light on Japan’s experience with and interpretation of the earthquake but also challenges widespread assumptions that disasters unite stricken societies, creating a “blank slate” for radical transformation. National reconstruction in the wake of the Great Kantō Earthquake, Schencking demonstrates, proved to be illusive.

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

“In vivid detail, this timely book explores the many ways the Japanese responded to the earthquake of 1923—from debates about the meaning of the disaster through representations of the event in popular culture and the rough-and-tumble politics of reconstruction. Deeply researched and well written, it is a major contribution to the urban history of modern Japan as well as to the burgeoning field of disaster studies.” —Peter Duus, Stanford University

“This fascinating, original book is the first work in English to offer a comprehensive account of the Kantō earthquake. The book could not be timelier. J. Charles Schencking crafts an enticing lead-in, illuminating the uncanny resemblances in how the Japanese talked about both the Kantō earthquake and the 2011 earthquake/tsunami as opportunities to revitalize the nation.” —Sheldon Garon, Princeton University

“A gracefully written and searching analysis that places Japan’s deadliest earthquake in historical context. An important contribution to the literature on natural disaster that moves beyond the clichés often told about reconstruction.” —Ted Steinberg, Case Western Reserve University