Remembering 2011

It has been five years since the earthquake devastated the Tohoku region of Japan, killing over 20,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands, five years since the world watched in horror as the towering waves of the tsunami swept across the plains, carrying away houses and human figures. Since that day, I have kept up to date with post-disaster reconstruction efforts and read extensively on the meaning of catastrophe. Like many others, I’ve collected narratives about ruinous homes and stranded boats; about towns torn asunder and familial ties severed by tragedy; about spirits that cannot rest and survivors who could no longer continue the work of survival. I never got the chance to visit the Tohoku region, and the disaster project I had worked on so painstakingly could not be continued due to the volatility of the academic market. Over the past years, I have visited Japan five times, but never went anywhere close to Tohoku, in part out of a sense of anxiety that I might be appropriating the tragedy of others for creative and philosophical ends. I did not want to marvel at the sights of devastation, even as I understood their undeniable allure.

But the disaster, even though not experienced directly, seems to have become a part of my consciousness. Suffering at a distance, suffering witnessed through images and reimagined through language, becomes a sort of lens through which life can be reassessed. In some sense, the narratives from Tohoku saved me since the magnitude of what had happened became a constant reminder that the precariousness of daily life could be endured. Many changes have taken place over the past five years, and I can scarcely recognize the self that first watched the footage of the tsunami on the news. The disaster also showed me that the answers to the questions posed by all catastrophes – questions about resilience, community, and collective moral responsibility – cannot be answered by the limited and limiting discourse of academia. To the academics I met who claimed that the Sublime (the ruins, the terrifying force of nature) matters much more than the reconstruction of devastated homelands, I can only say this: A small hut built out of compassion for those in need surpasses a lifetime of scholarly achievement.

As I build my own figurative hut, in a story that is set partly in 2011, I need to remain constantly aware of those who suffer at a distance. Words are all I have to offer.

I love this speech by Kenzaburo Oe, which – though a bit grand for someone like me – is an important reminder of the value of writing:

“As one with a peripheral, marginal and off-centre existence in the world, I would like to seek how – with what I hope is a modest, decent and humanistic contribution – I can be of some use in a cure and reconciliation of mankind.”


A Home for All

The time of reconstruction is the time to see a place anew. The post-disaster reconstruction process is the nexus where politics and society meet to reshape and build a collective future, amidst the rubble of devastation. Following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the Marques of Pombal, with authority given by King Jose I, oversaw the complete transformation of Lisbon. In what could be regarded as the first instance of modern urban planning, Pombal redesigned Lisbon as a reflection of new commercial values, with a distinctive grid system that represents the triumph of human reason over cataclysmic nature. Streets were widened, and buildings were made shorter, in order to circumvent damage in future exogenous shocks. In an unprecedented manner, disaster gave birth to a new city – thanks largely to the unopposed power of Pombal, a power not possessed by Christopher Wren after the 1666 fire in London, nor by Goto Shinpei, who sought to rebuild Tokyo after the 1923 earthquake.

Pombaline_Baixa_Lisbon_map_1756Lisbon, 1756

The absence of a central figure and the inefficiency of the planning body have complicated the fraught – and highly politicized – reconstruction process following the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. Despite the three years that have elapsed, the rebuilding is still ongoing. While much has been accomplished by volunteer groups, non-profits and local governments, much remains to be done. A reconstruction project is always a series of interrelated processes that disclose the undercurrents of society and deepen existing fissures that plague the nation. Complications regarding land ownership, oppositions to planning projects, and continual delays mean that many survivors are still displaced and without a permanent home. As of April this year, there were 22,095 temporary housing units in the Miyagi Prefecture, and 13,984 provisional housing unites in Iwate; almost half of these are built on private land, which might be reclaimed over the next few years, thus placing more pressure on the municipal government to build permanent housing.

Yet amidst all the difficulties, something new emerges. Of particular interest is the ‘Home-for-All’ (Minna no Ie) project, headed by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, with contributions from Riken Yamamoto, Hiroshi Naito, Kengo Kuma, and Kazuyo Sejima. Unlike other building projects in the stricken area, ‘Home-for-All’ focuses on communal space, or the building of a kind of common hearth around which those afflicted by the disaster might gather to share their stories or support one another. In other words, the project is an attempt to embody in architectural form the ‘disaster utopia’. As of February 2014, nine structures have been completed, with more under way, the newest being a multi-purpose fishermen’s pavilion by Yang Zao. Subsisting on mainly private donations and charity organisations, the contributions made by the project are necessarily small and piecemeal, but the team is able to bypass the convoluted bureaucratic infrastructure, and reach out to the communities directly. A non-profit called Archi+Aid, based at the University of Tohoku, helps to mediate the interactions between the architects, the communities and the local government, and has gone some way towards facilitating the recovery process.

Home-for-All02_Worrall_lores-870x539Home-for-All in Rikuzentakata

The first structure built for the ‘Home-for-All’ project is a small timber building (showcased in the Japan Pavilion at the 13th Venice Biennale) in the city of Rikuzentakata, created using saltwater-soaked timber salvaged from the wreckage. The public space created as part of the Home-for-All project nurtures a sense of community, even as that community is united through loss. That something new can be made from detritus is significant, signalling the longed-for renewal that follows limpingly the heels of disaster. Rising above the wreckage, the structure is also a reminder of what endures catastrophe.

Crucially, the Home-for-All project is an expression of the architect’s social responsibility. For Ito, disaster calls into question the fundamental meaning of architecture. He explains:

‘In the modern period, architecture has been rated highest for its originality. As a result, the most primal themes—why a building is made and for whom—have been forgotten. A disaster zone, where everything is lost offers the opportunity for us to take a fresh look, from the ground up, at what architecture really is. ‘Home-for-all’ may consist of small buildings, but it calls to the fore the vital question of what form architecture should take in the modern era—even calling into question the most primal themes, the very meaning of architecture.’

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, known for his humanitarian project, the Cardboard Cathedral, expressed a similar sentiment when he remarked that ‘Architects’ solutions can make a huge difference in society. One area in particular – which may seem unusual given the chaos they cause – is when natural disasters occur’. Through the work of ruination, of ‘un-building’, architecture ironically finds a new meaning, or a mode of renewal.

Much of the complication in the post-3.11 rebuilding process revolved around the problems of community – distrust between neighbors; rising levels of depression; and lack of both private and social space. Ito commented on the ‘grim living conditions’ of the temporary housing units, with crammed spaces and insufficient insulation. ‘Yet’, Ito points out, ‘even under such conditions, people try to smile and make do…. They gather to share and communicate in extreme circumstances – a moving vision of community at its most basic. Likewise, what we see here are very origins of architecture, the minimal shaping of communal spaces’ (Toyo Ito – Forces of Nature published by Princeton Architectural Press). The community, and not the architect’s ambition, is thus the driving force behind the project.

Children's Home for AllChildren’s Home-for-All, in Higashimatsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, designed by Ito, with Maki Onishi

The ‘Home-for-All’ project – like other similar projects such as the Tohoku Rebuilding Program of Architecture for Humanity – reiterates the humanistic claims of sociologist Lewis Mumford, whose writings on architecture and urban life deserve to be re-read, particularly in our era of disasters. Speaking of the idea of ‘architecture as a home for man’, Mumford repeatedly mentions the centrality of the human element in architecture, the primary purpose of which is to improve the human condition. Architecture has a social responsibility, above and beyond fleeting stylistic trends and the demands of the architect’s ego. In a 1968 essay, Mumford writes:

‘This, then, is the task for today and tomorrow: to restore and eventually to elevate even higher than ever before the organic and human components that are now missing in our compulsively dynamic and over-mechanized culture. The time has come for architecture to come back to earth and make a new home for man.’

19Home-for-All-TIA-6530Photos courtesy of Iwan Baan

Of course, the time of disaster is not only the time to reevaluate architecture, but also to reevaluate the community that the architecture houses. Perhaps it is only in the experience of shared loss following calamitous change that the isolated individuals of our world can gather by the hearth of humanity, to sow the seeds for an emergent, more resilient community composed of mutually-accepting selves. But let us not wait until it is too late – for loss has already occurred, and while our cities become populated by shards of glass and symbols of capitalistic prowess, somewhere in a desolate landscape by a wrecked shore, there is a reminder that rebuilding, with its infinite potential, needs to begin now.


Of Tsunamis and Sea-Change

‘We live tranquilly on a ground whose solid foundations are sometimes shaken. We build without care on vaults whose columns now and then waver and threaten to collapse.’ Kant, ‘On the Causes of the Tremors of the Earth’

‘Perhaps this is a place where belonging now takes place in and through a common sense of loss’ (Judith Butler, Afterword to Loss: The Politics of Mourning, 2003).

We all remember the images. The towering wall of menacing seawater crashing upon the shore; the fragile houses broken into bits or transported by the flood waters far into the land; the debris of cars, trees and broken walls piled up against the ruins; the thousand fragments that could never again be reassembled into a whole. 2011 was a year of great catastrophe, but the images of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami taught me the true meaning of devastation. In that instant when nature claimed tens of thousands of lives, Japan – and the world – became marked, seared, a mark that is ineffaceable, insuperable. That site of ruination is the point from which arise questions about survival and continuity, shadowed as they are by the irreversibility of loss and the fear of further desolation.


A new kind of thinking and being emerges from annihilation. Or at least we would like to believe so. In the aftermath of 3.11, western media was inundated with stories about Japanese stoicism and collective resilience, stories about heroism and sacrifice, much like those disseminated in the aftermath of the Great Kanto earthquake. The moment of loss was also to be a moment of great change, of rebirth. As in previous disaster narratives, society harbored hopes that from the ruins would spring a more resilient nation. The local community, established in preindustrial society, was strengthened once again in the face of shared suffering, and an image of a ‘disaster utopia’ was projected, superimposed upon the phrase ‘Ganbaro Nippon’ (‘Let’s do our best’), the ubiquitous expression that articulated fortitude and the will to regenerate the nation. As illustrated in the namazue prints produced after the Ansei earthquake, destruction was followed by the yearning for renewal.

But the history of disasters is also the history of fraught reconstruction processes, and socio-political maelstroms follow closely on the heels of natural catastrophe. In the words of scholar Noguchi Takehiko, ‘Natural disaster often serves as a catalyst, accelerating and bringing to the fore problems, contradictions, and tensions below the apparently calm surface of societies.’ 3.11 ignited debates in Japan about the political ineptitude of the central government, the failures of modern society and the dangers of unchecked technological progress. While the Self-Defense Forces were praised for their efficiency in disaster management, the central government was relentlessly denigrated by the press and the public. Even prior to the tsunami, a loss of faith in government was already detectable, exacerbated by ongoing problems such as public debt, low GDP growth, income inequality, unemployment and the rise of poverty (see Samuels). The rural community of Tohoku was further affected by depopulation and the advanced age of citizens. Faced with the catastrophic consequences of the earthquake and tsunami, the bureaucratic system revealed itself to be crippled by convolutedness and inefficiency. Different groups and factions sought to seize the opportunity to shift paradigms, to change the course of the nation, for disasters create moments of ‘punctuated equilibria’ (Samuels), when pre-existing constraints are relaxed temporarily in the face of exogenous factors such as war or natural disaster. The choices made at such a time are consequential and likely irreversible.

Fukushima stands at the centre of all the debates. TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company), with its long history of falsifying safety reports and underestimating risk, became villainized in the public eye. Despite the fact that vulnerabilities were highlighted years before the disaster, not much has been done to address issues in the reactor designs and management system. Lack of transparency regarding these issues, and the prioritization of capital over security, has created a wide rift between the government and the people. The Kurokawa Commission Report, published in July 2012, critiqued the collusion between business and government, and identified 3.11 as a man-made disaster, not entirely unforeseeable (Samuels). As water and soil become contaminated, the ‘human-engineered calamity’ (Huet) has therefore superseded the natural disaster, and through human failings, the event has become destructive in the most totalizing sense.

While the nuclear situation imploded at Fukushima, elsewhere in Tohoku the survivors struggle with the work of rebuilding. Despite the passing of several laws after the 1995 Kobe earthquake to enable more effective disaster response, no national agency has been established. 7 months after March 2011, less than 2/3 of temporary housing had been constructed; nearly a full year later, most of the wreckage was still strewn across the land ravaged by the tsunami (Samuels). The funds allocated for rebuilding were stuck behind a seemingly impermeable barrier of bureaucratic procedures. In spite of the generous outpouring of the international community, the volunteerism and donations, much remains unfinished. Three years on, there is an incremental rise of stress-related deaths amongst the survivors, and escalating rates of suicide and depression. With the unrelenting housing crisis, it is hardly shocking that those who evaded death have found it difficult to live a life fraught with instability, homelessness and bereavement. As the major of Rikuzentakata noted, ‘Disaster victims are disaster victims 24 hours a day’. The persistence of catastrophe means that suffering bleeds beyond the temporal and physical boundaries of the actual seismic shocks and tsunami.


The ideal of community has also been undercut by reports of distrust among new neighbors in the temporary shelters, and amidst talks of tsunagu (‘connection’) political dissatisfaction continued unabated, shown when victim groups sued local authorities for misconduct during the crisis. Social solidarity is thus rent by deep fissures much like the land itself. In other words, not much has changed in the aftermath of 3.11.

Disasters raise questions about leadership, community and the potential for change. We cannot know how great a shock is needed in order to instigate structural and institutional transformation, but we hold onto hope that natural disasters, wars and other cataclysms, by puncturing the stability or stagnancy of normal operations, would be harbingers of a new order. But the state in Japan and the painful process of reconstruction have suggested that change is slow and unclear. According to scholars such as Richard J. Samuels and David Pilling, 3.11 was not a game-changer as many had hoped. Incremental change will occur as a result of myriad small steps and long drawn-out calculations, debates and revisions. Japanese culture, as Pilling argues, is one of evolution, not revolution.

Yet against the political backdrop, in the face of possible nuclear disaster, and amidst ruined hopes for change, groups of people are undertaking the immense work of survival. Theirs is the narrative that holds a politics of possibility, which suggests renewal and a coming-to-terms with what has been lost. People tend to gardens planted where their homes had once been; animals lost amidst the wreckage are being cared for; local monks founded a Café du Monk, to help survivors deal with the aftermath; a stream of volunteer groups still enter the region to assist with reconstruction; Japanese architects have designed new homes for those robbed of their former homes; arts exhibitions and music events are set up to rejuvenate public life; and spiritual guides provide support to thousands of souls lost upon the waves. Such acts exemplify kizuna (‘bond’; 2011 word of the year). If the Fukushima crisis can be controlled, then the reconstruction process can generate social renewal. Or else the only change we can expect is a catastrophic one. Ours is an age where threats of annihilation are omnipresent and disaster seems to be always just around the corner. As the debris from the tsunami travels across the Pacific and reach the shores of North America, we need to stand on the other side of the three-year span and reflect on the meaning of disaster and of community. Much remains to be changed – in Japan and elsewhere – and much can be made of the fragments that we shore against our collective ruin.



Further Readings

Parry, Richard Lloyd, ‘Ghosts of the Tsunami’, 6 February 2014, London Review of Books.

Pilling, David. Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival. Penguin Press, 2014.

Samuels, Richard J. 3.11: Disaster Response and Change in Japan. Cornell University Press, 2013.

Sand, Jordan, ‘In Tokyo’, 28 April 2011, London Review of Books.

Solnit, Rebecca, ‘In Fukushima’, 10 May 2012, London Review of Books.


Of Catfish and Catastrophe

Namazu-e-Earthquake-catfish-Japan6The defeated catfish outstretched on the table divides post-disaster Edo into two distinct groups – those in the upper half of the picture, including builders, who benefit from the disaster; and those in the lower half, including wealthy merchants, who suffered greater losses.

The long catalogue of disasters that have struck Japan’s capital has long daunted those unaccustomed to the tremors of the earth. On 11 November 1855, a 6.9-7.1-magnitude earthquake destroyed most of Edo (precursor to modern Tokyo). Estimates of death ranged from 7000 to 10,000. Eighty aftershocks per day continued to shake the city for nine days after the initial tremor.

Although there were no newspapers published in the city (since the shogunate forbade public comments on the regime), within a few weeks of the disaster, hundreds of earthquake-related woodblock prints appeared, many of which featured a giant catfish, namazu. These fascinating prints, called namazu-e, offer a window on the socio-political consciousness of Edo in the final decades of the Tokugawa period, and bring to the fore disaster’s capacity as an agent of social change.

Japanese folk explanations attributed earthquakes variously to the movement of a giant creature that supported the earth (usually a dragon/snake, ox or fish); the movement of a deity or giant supporting the earth; the shaking of a subterranean, load-bearing pillar; or the careless movement of human ancestors. There was also the notion, derived from Chinese philosophy, that earthquakes result from the temporary imbalance of the forces of yin and yang that are embedded in the earth. However, from the late seventeenth century onward, the notion that a giant subterranean catfish is the true cause of earthquakes gained more currency. While pre-Lisbon theodicy placed responsibility in God’s hands, the Japanese placed it in the hands of namazu, the catfish. It was said that the catfish lay under a stone at Kashima shrine, at the easternmost point of Honshu; when the god of the shrine neglected his duty of holding down the catfish, the creature would awaken, thus causing tremors.

Around the time of the Ansei earthquake, the god of Kashima might have been particularly negligent, for the earthquake hit at a time of seismic instability throughout Japan – in 1853, an earthquake destroyed a castle in 1853, another struck near the imperial shrine in Ise in 1854, and two tsunamis in 1854 caused thousands of deaths along the Pacific coast. Was all this the work of the giant catfish and of divine negligence? The people of Edo rejected the idea of pure contingency, and viewed the 1855 catastrophe in the context of drastic political change; in other words, human agency played a significant role in the coming of the disaster. For the Japanese, it was telling that the disaster followed so closely the visits of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and 1854 (a period that had seen its fair share of natural disasters); the opening of the ports suddenly destabilized the shogunate system that had ruled in Japan for 250 years, and the expansion of foreign relations was resented by some. Social and political order was weakening (later to be replaced by the centralized state in 1868), and the Tokugawa shogunate was on the decline. Assigning blame to the divine authorities was in some ways a veiled criticism of the authorities governing the nation, who were increasingly unable to take care of the people, and as a result of the government’s negligence, cataclysmic events have occurred.

Namazu-e_-_Kashima_absent-mindedThis print interprets the disaster as resulting from the negligence of Ebisu (the god of fishing and commerce, asleep in the foreground), in whose care Kashima had left the city, seen burning in the upper half of the picture, as Kashima on a white horse rushes back in a panic. Namazu is depicted as a terrifying force of destruction, yet from its cavernous mouth falls golden coins, signaling the post-disaster redistribution of wealth.

Society was equally shaken by the other events that occurred in a period of great volatility, including crop failures; epidemics; the Tempo famine of 1833-1837; riots and popular revolts. The severe fractures in Japanese society were becoming more apparent. The namazue prints, which emerged in the aftermath of the Ansei earthquake, in part responded to the general atmosphere of instability. The catfish depicted in the prints were not punitive, but were more frequently sympathetic. One of the major themes portrayed by the namazue was the redistribution of wealth and the rebalancing of society. Common among the prints were depictions of the catfish forcing wealthy men to spew out coins, thus contributing to the charity funds that would help rebuild the city. According to Kitahara Itoko (Japanese historian on disasters), public registers listed the names of all donors, with the wealthy contributing more. While prosperous tycoons hoarded goods and wealth during the Tokugawa regime, society became imbalanced. Namazu restores the free circulation of money, so that the economy, like the vital forces of nature, would flow freely, thus avoiding stagnation and the festering of greed. In other words, disaster restored social health by correcting an imbalance. The subversiveness of this message meant that the shogunate soon banned the printing and distributing of namazue prints.

Namazu_01The merchants in the upper right-hand corner can be seen holding an abacus, and dividing their wealth to aid the impoverished masses, or to assist with the reconstruction project

The prints also showed how some social groups, such as builders, had benefited from the cataclysm, since their skills were rendered indispensable by the devastation. Thus destruction was followed by renewal, and in the collective sharing of loss and the communal efforts of reconstruction, a ‘disaster utopia’ (Kitahara) was created – akin to the rustic paradise depicted in von Kleist’s ‘Earthquake in Chile’. In stark contrast to the brutality that followed the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Ansei earthquake facilitated the utopian dream of restoration and restructuring. Namazu, as depicted in these prints, was not so much the cause of the earthquake as its visual manifestation of social change – a reminder that the question of community lies at the heart of disaster.


Further Readings

Bates, Alex, ‘Catfish, Super Frog and the End of the World: Earthquakes (and natural disasters) in the Japanese Cultural Imagination’, Education about Asia, vol. 12, no. 2, (Fall 2007).

Sand, Jordan, ‘Diary’, London Review of Books, 28 April 2011, <;

Smits, Gregory, ‘Shaking Up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints, Journal of Social History, vol. 39, no. 4 (summer 2006), 1045-1078.

Smits, Gregory, ‘Conduits of Power: What the Origins of Japan’s Earthquake Catfish Reveal about Religious Geography’, Japan Review 24 (2012), 41-65.


To be content with the world…is to find within oneself the strength to face up to everything that is abominable, to find within oneself the strength to resist the abominable when it happens. In other terms, self-enjoyment means: to be worthy of the event…be it a catastrophe or a great love…This is a theme that runs across philosophy. – Gilles Deleuze, Lecture on Leibniz, 1987


On 17 January 1995, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale hit the city of Kobe, the largest earthquake to have devastated the region since 1923. In merely 20 seconds, the disaster killed more than 5000 people, injured tens of thousands, and rendered more than 300,000 homeless. The house that belonged to the parents of writer Haruki Murakami were among those destroyed by the Kobe earthquake (also known as the Great Hanshin earthquake). At the time of the event, Murakami himself was not in Japan. But in the aftermath of the disaster, he returned to his homeland after years of self-imposed exile. After the Quake, a series of short stories, was the result of Murakami’s return and his attempt to come to terms with the catastrophe. Like the author, the characters in these poignant stories were absent from the scene of the disaster; the catastrophe exists on the periphery of their consciousness, even as it continually haunts them.


All six stories are set roughly one month after the Kobe earthquake, and the characters reflect on the disaster in their individual ways, mostly through their losses and the vacuity of their daily lives. As with his other works, Murakami seems fascinated by characters who experience existential emptiness. In ‘Landscape with Iron’, a runaway girl befriends a painter who had abandoned his wife and children in Kobe; next to the bonfire she experiences a sudden realization: ‘There’s really nothing at all in here […] I’m cleaned out. Empty’. The first story in the series, ‘UFO in Kushiro’, follows the journey of a man whose wife leaves him suddenly in the aftermath of the earthquake; she leaves a note reading ‘You have nothing inside you that you can give me. You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air’. The abandoned husband, Komura, then goes on a strange voyage to Hokkaido where, watching images of ‘tilted buildings, buckled streets, old women weeping, confusion and aimless anger’, he tries to figure out the state of his own life. In a conversation with a companion he met in Hokkaido, Komura denies that his wife’s departure had anything to do with the earthquake, to which his companion replies, ‘I wonder if things like that aren’t connected somehow’. That is precisely the idea that Murakami is suggesting subtly with these stories of loss, betrayal, confusion and regret – that all these things are connected somehow, and that the human heart is linked to seismic activity.

Beneath the complacent surface of life, tremendous subterranean forces are threating to disrupt the calm, to change the world irrevocably. In that sense, disaster is always just around the corner. As Murakami writes in ‘All God’s Children Can Dance’:

‘And then it struck him what lay buried far down under the earth on which his feet were so firmly planted: the ominous rumbling of the deepest darkness, secret rivers that transported desire, slimy creatures writhing, the lair of earthquakes ready to transform whole cities into mounds of rubble.’

Disasters are reminders not only of the physical fragility of our cities, but also the fragility of love, of human connections. Murakami’s characters are concerned about connections, even if they remain isolated and their lives are continually fraught by the difficulties associated with those connections. In the beautifully written ‘Honey Pie’, short-story writer Junpei is caught in a love triangle involving his two best friends. Like the painter in ‘Landscape with Iron’, Junpei has family in Kobe, whom he failed to contact after the earthquake; he tried to resume life as if nothing happened, and avoided news about Kobe. But denial does not work. Junpei is forced to admit that

‘Whenever anyone mentioned the earthquake, he would clam up […] He hadn’t set foot on those streets since his graduation, but still, the sight of the destruction laid bare raw wounds hidden somewhere deep inside him. The lethal, gigantic catastrophe seemed to change certain aspects of his life – quietly, but from the ground up. Junpei felt an entirely new sense of isolation. I have no roots, he thought, I am not connected to anything.’

Internal upheavals, not unlike earthquakes, cannot be averted, and require tremendous time and effort to recover from. In many ways, the emptiness and isolation experienced by Murakami’s characters are a result of their own frailties, their lack of social responsibility towards others, particularly those whom they love. As with Kleist’s ‘Earthquake in Chile’, there is much here about the possibility or impossibility of human community, about what people do to one another, and the emotional or social catastrophes that wreak havoc upon our mental lives. (It is of interest that a European story and one set in Asia should both ask questions about community and disaster.)

The connection between the heart and the earthquake is made even more explicit in ‘Thailand’, in which the main character, a pathologist, vacations in Thailand and through conversations with her driver, reflects on her past. When asked about the Kobe earthquake, she recalls how the man who had abandoned her lived in Kobe:

‘She had spent thirty years hating one man. She had hoped that he would die in agony. In order to bring that about, she had gone so far as to wish in the depths of her heart for an earthquake. In a sense, she told herself, I am the one who caused that earthquake. He turned my heart into a stone…’

The suggestion that a single thought could cause an earthquake is compelling, if not terrifying. The mind is responsible for much. And the psychological and the geological are inextricably intertwined. But if the mind can cause earthquakes then, theoretically, it can also avert disaster. This is one of the suggestions behind ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’, the most surreal and fantastical story in the collection, featuring a giant frog who enlists the help of Katagiri to save Tokyo from a devastating earthquake by battling a giant worm that lives underground. Absurdity aside, the fact that Worm could be stopped suggests that disasters can always be averted, even if nature itself cannot be controlled. After Tokyo is saved, Frog tells Katagiri something that could be seen as the kernel of the collection: ‘The whole terrible fight occurred in the area of imagination. That is the precise location of our battlefield. It is there that we experience our victories and our defeats.’ The fight – and the disaster – is entirely internal, a psychomachia, and without defeating ‘the me inside me’ – what Frog calls the enemy – then there can be no hope for community, for the ‘intensive collectivity known as “city”’.

After the Quake ends with an affirmation of the possibility of change. Junpei, the writer, decides at the end that change is needed, that responsibility needs to be taken in the aftermath of catastrophe, and from the ruins something new can emerge. In Junpei’s words, ‘I want to write stories that are different from the ones I’ve written so far […] I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.’ Of course, such change is never easy, and the problems of human community continue unabated, as Murakami discovered. Two months after the Kobe earthquake, Japan faced another catastrophe: the gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, which claimed the lives of fifteen people and injured thousands of others. In Underground, which resulted from interviews with survivors and members of the Aum cult, Murakami sought to analyse the Japanese psyche, and what he found were multiple fractures in Japanese society. The gas attacks, like the Kobe earthquake, are indications of the precariousness and violence that will continue to complicate processes of building communities and forging connections. Like the reconstruction work that takes places after earthquakes, such processes are always painstakingly drawn out. But at least we know that in these instances of difficulty, human beings – not God, and not the stars – are largely to blame.


The Seismicity of the Heart

In the novel Strong Motion, Jonathan Franzen uses earthquakes to describe love – the love that moves us, uproots us, that always carries with it the potential for destruction. As Franzen says in an interview, ‘the phenomenon of humanly induced seismicity’ is enticing literarily, and a novelist can make effective use of the elusiveness of earthquakes. Franzen had, in fact, worked in a seismology lab, so he understood that earthquakes are still relatively enigmatic phenomena – to this day, the ways in which earthquakes interact with other disturbances are shrouded in mystery, as are the exact causes of tremors. No one knows for certain what sets earthquakes off and why. Franzen, along with others, situates this mysterious cause inside the human heart. In the same interview, Franzen mentions the ‘bridges between the geologic scale and the human scale, between the large forces of nature and the small forces of the heart.’ While poor construction and ineffective management are socio-political instances of human responsibility for disasters, there are subtler, more incalculable ways in which human society is linked to seismic movement.


Such metaphoric readings of earthquakes, while not necessarily scientific, do provide fecund soil for literary invention. One of the most famous stories set in the aftermath of an earthquake makes precisely this nebulous link between the human heart and catastrophe. Heinrich von Kleist’s short narrative, ‘Earthquake in Chile’ (1807), is set against the background of the earthquake that devastated Santiago on 13 May 1647 (though Kleist most likely had in mind the Lisbon earthquake that challenged the optimistic theodicy of the Enlightenment). The story follows the fate of the lovers Jeronimo and Josefa, who were condemned for fornication and sacrilege (Josefa refused to give up her lover even after she was forced into a convent, and henceforth became pregnant). Prior to the earthquake, Josefa was on the verge of being executed, and Jeronimo was prepared to hang himself in prison. But the earthquake toppled church and prison, thus freeing the lovers, who reunited in the forest outside the city, along with their infant son. The disaster destroyed both the just and the unjust, and was initially seen to be a social leveler. Survivors who met in the forest showed each other great kindness regardless of social rank; great acts of compassion were witnessed, and the air was filled with the ‘spirit of reconciliation’. In the idyllic woods, the survivors experienced human sociality at its purest, freed from the institutional obstacles that were leveled by the earthquake. After the seismic activity subsided, some of the survivors decided to return to the city and pray in the only church left standing. Jeronimo and Josefa joined the congregation, only to be recognized by someone in the crowd, who condemned the lovers for having caused the disaster with their sin. The furious mob descended on Jeronimo and Josefa, and clubbed them to death; their son was, fortunately, saved by a companion.

Kleist, as always, maintains a neutral tone throughout the story, but to a certain extent he invites the readers to sympathize with the lovers. While the first part of the story deals with the destruction wrought by nature, the second part deals with the destructiveness of human society. Jeronimo and Josefa survive the earthquake only to perish in the social catastrophe of the church. Thus it is society, not nature, which is placed under scrutiny; or rather, it is the moral limits of society that are being examined. In the words of Isak Winkel Holm, ‘What is at stake is the weakness not of a society’s institutional but of its moral infrastructure. When vulnerable houses and institutions collapse, it is still up in the air whether the ties of the human community are fragile or robust.’ Although Kleist does not offer unambiguous answers, the tragic ending of the story suggests the moral frailty of a society unable to look beyond its need to condemn. The sociability established in the woods was only temporary, and physical devastation did not impart lasting lessons about right and wrong. It is perhaps not so much Jeronimo and Josefa’s affair that caused the earthquake as the cruelty of the Santiago society itself. Disasters thus have much to do with the possibility or impossibility of community. In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, French Jansenist Laurent-Etienne Rondet rightly remarked that ‘Earthquakes are a symbol of disturbance among peoples’. The disharmony already inherent in Santiago society was writ large in the cataclysmic collapse of its buildings and institutions. If catastrophe is a wake-up call that jolts the survivors out of everyday complacency, it is also a challenge to human morality, and demands a reexamination of the limits of sociability.

The Fault in Our Stars

In the aftermath of catastrophe, the inescapable question arises: Who is responsible? The term ‘disaster’ has its roots in the French word désastré (‘disastered’), which was in turn derived from the Italian dis-astrato, signaling the state of being abandoned by the protective stars (literally de-starred). So to be in disaster is to be left to one’s miserable fate by the cosmic agencies that are ultimately responsible for earthly calamities; in this interpretation of disaster, human beings are not responsible for the destruction. As Edmund in King Lear remarks, ‘When we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit/ Of our own behavior, we make guilty of our/ Disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars’.

However, since the emergence of the modern discourse on disaster, following the Lisbon earthquake, the idea of disaster willed by God or controlled by cosmic forces was replaced by one of ‘human-engineered calamity’ (Marie-Hélène Huet). Disaster became politicized, and could only be understood outside theological terms. As Chateaubriand writes of the 1832 cholera:This plague without imagination has encountered no cloisters, no monks, no graves or gothic crypts; like the terror in 1793, it has strolled mockingly in broad daylight, in a brand new world’ (translated by Huet). This brand new world is a world of risk, in which humans are capable of manufacturing great hazards that harm the very communities that civilization has worked so hard to construct. Some disaster sociologists would even go so far as to argue that there is no such a thing as a natural disaster, for all calamities are channeled, enabled or amplified by human systems.

In the philosophical debate that followed the Lisbon earthquake, Rousseau unrelentingly placed responsibility for the disaster in the hands of humans. In a letter to Voltaire, Rousseau writes that, ‘The majority of our physical misfortunes are also our work…If the residents of [Lisbon] had been more evenly dispersed and less densely housed, the losses would have been fewer and perhaps none at all. Everyone would have fled at the first shock’. From Rousseau’s perspective, it was poor construction that claimed the lives of the citizens; the catastrophe is therefore a social matter. The residents also perished because they refused to leave their possessions, and were therefore buried in the rubble along with their treasures (NB: Before the earthquake, the city of Lisbon was known for its wealth). As Rousseau states in the Second Discourse, the new man, perfected and thus corrupted, have built far from Eden an unstable city that he prizes above his own well-being. His subsequent downfall is thus a result of his own greed.

This shifting of focus from God’s wrath to man’s own corruption brings forth a new understanding of disasters that is still valid today. We only have to look at the poorly constructed levees in New Orleans and the decisions to build nuclear plants in earthquake-prone regions to grasp the full extent of the role that humanity plays in catastrophes. Disaster prevention and reconstruction remain fraught processes due to mismanagement, financial obstacles, social inequality, and inefficient bureaucracy, all of which fracture the precarious sense of solidarity built in the aftermath of destruction (Fukushima is a case in point – a topic for another post).

There are also other instances in which human activity directly causes disaster. It has long been suspected that industrial drilling, or hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as fracking) causes tremors in regions otherwise not known for earthquakes. Fracking is a process by which highly-pressurized fluids are pumped into the earth to shatter rocks and release natural gas; the waste liquid is then injected back underground. While the research results remain inconclusive, it is almost guaranteed that companies will continue to drill even if fracking does cause earthquakes. The absence of ethics in this case could lead to the death of thousands. And when that occurs, it would no longer be possible to blame ‘the sun, the moon, and the stars’.

[To Be Continued]

On the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755


“Come, ye philosophers, who cry, ‘All’s well,’
And contemplate this ruin of a world.
Behold these shreds and cinders of your race[…]

Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?”

Voltaire, On the Lisbon Disaster (1755)

On 1 November 1755, an earthquake devastated the city of Lisbon, killing approximately 30,000 people, and causing extensive damage throughout Portugal, southern Spain and northern Africa; the seismic waves were felt as far away as Britain, Holland and Germany. A tsunami and raging fire followed, and the conflagration swept through the Portuguese capital for almost a week. Scholars estimate that 17,000 out of the 20,000 houses in Lisbon were destroyed by either the tremors or the fires, plus half of all churches, and several palaces that contained collections of precious art. Eyewitness accounts describe ‘a Spectacle of Terror and Amazement, as well as the Desolation of the Beholders, as perhaps has not been equaled since the Foundation of the World’. This catastrophe – one of the worst to have struck Europe in the eighteenth century – marks what is known as the beginning of the modern discourse on disaster. The following is a brief summary of my readings on this subject.

It is frequently claimed that the Lisbon earthquake prompted western philosophy to turn away from the idea of God as the origin of rationality. If God is just and almighty, how can we explain devastating, unpredictable events such as an earthquake? What is the source of all this evil? On one side of the debate, theist philosophers such as Leibniz argued that providential order lay behind the seemingly disorderly event. On the other side of the debate, Voltaire asserted that nothing lay behind the destruction, no meaningful order or rational explanation, only the contingencies of a violent universe; the world is therefore not the ‘best of all possible worlds’. Voltaire’s line of argument marked a turning point in philosophical discourse, and sought to overthrow the optimism that had previously informed visions of a harmonious millennial state. In the words of Gilles Deleuze, from a lecture on Leibniz, ‘After the Lisbon earthquake: how is it possible to maintain the least faith in a rationalism originating in God?’

In the poem ‘On the Lisbon Disaster’, Voltaire criticizes Leibniz’s theodicy, and asks the ‘bloodless thinker[s]’ to gaze upon the ‘appalling spectacle of woe’ that has befallen Lisbon. If God is indifferent, then these philosophers are equally unsympathetic towards the ‘quivering mass of flesh’ that strewn the streets of Lisbon, nor are they moved by the ‘scattered limbs beneath the marble shafts’. Voltaire’s use of such visceral images brings attention to the human element in the scene of disaster, the fragile flesh that lies upon the ruins. While the philosophical debate precipitated by the Lisbon earthquake cannot be said to have answered questions about God’s justice, or about good and evil, it did push the idea of disaster and human suffering to the centre of western culture. In the aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake, disaster appeared in art, literature, popular prints, and operas; this tradition is followed in our own era by depictions of mass destruction in film and other media. In other words, the Lisbon earthquake fueled ‘the spectacle of woe’. As Marie-Hélène Huet writes, ‘our culture thinks through disasters […] [which] mediate philosophical inquiry and shape our creative imagination’.

Through fictional and cinematic representations of catastrophe, we form a collective imagining of disaster, which in turn shapes how we act or think when confronted with real calamities. It is partly the understanding of human suffering that drives the rescue and reconstruction processes that follow catastrophic events; for the culture of disaster focuses as much on the catastrophe itself as on the fragility or strength of the human society when dealing with devastation. Each disaster shatters anew the system or order that we have imposed on chaos. We know this is not the best of all possible worlds, yet the wrecks and fragments still need to be reassembled into renewed wholes.

There is also the need to deal with the possibility of future disasters, which returns us to the age-old question raised by the Lisbon earthquake: Who is responsible? If God is not responsible, then who (or what) is? What is the origin of all this senseless suffering?

Contemplating Disaster

Disasters linger in cultural memory. Recent years have brought a long list of natural catastrophes, notably the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, typhoons in the Philippines, and the hurricane and tornadoes in the US. Reports of disaster circulated, and call attention to the cultural representations (photographs, narratives, eyewitness accounts) that record for posterity the personal losses and collective traumas suffered. And in the wake of drastic climate changes that threaten our world with further cataclysms, now is the time to speak of disaster. For a new research project, I am looking at the culture of disaster and the human capacity for reconstruction. The main goal is to undertake a comparative study between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourse on disaster and the current approach to catastrophe, particularly in the context of urban destruction.

The formidable forces of water, earth, wind and fire have brought some of humankind’s greatest cities to their knees – one only has to think of examples such as Pompeii and Herculaneum to be reminded that destruction was never far from human civilization. Disasters bring into question the durability of all human constructions, and starkly reveal the fragility of our cities. But aside from toppling buildings, disasters also disperse communities, and the reconstruction process is as much architectural as it is socio-political. When the grounds have stopped shaking and the fires have been put out, what then? Where do we start? How do survivors regain a sense of normality? What role does the international community play? And more importantly, how do we deal with the possibility of further devastation?  Philosophers and urban planners would like to see the ruined site as the locus of resilience. But the work of reconstruction is, in fact, much more complicated than this, as attested by the post-disaster rebuilding in Japan where, despite the three years that have elapsed, reconstruction remains a fraught process.

Over the next little while, I will explore various aspects of this topic. Any feedback or suggestion is very welcome!

John-Martins-The-Destruct-001John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, 1822

Create a free website or blog at