Natural Disasters as History Markers in Edo Era Japan

Marion William Steele (International Christian University)
Phillip Brown
Bloco 1, Piso 0, Sala 0.05
Start time:
1 September, 2017 at 11:00
Session slots:

Short abstract:

This panel seeks to recover ways in which Edo period commoners and samurai used natural disasters to create narratives of their past. Papers focus on the Genroku Earthquake of 1703, the Great Flood of 1742, and a series of natural disasters preceding the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Long abstract:

This panel examines ways in which natural disasters were used as historical markers during the Edo era. Historians of Japan often rely on political, military and economic events, including the reigns of shoguns and emperors, to indicate major breaks with the past and/or new beginnings. In addition to such national events, Edo era contemporaries commonly used natural disasters, often local or regional in scale, to punctuate their history. This panel seeks to recover some of the ways in which Edo period people, commoners as well as the samurai elite, used the adverse and capricious events that marked their lives to create narratives of their past. Moreover, the panel encourages historians today to pay greater attention to environmental events when constructing chronologies of the past. Beatrice Bodart-Bailey investigates the natural disasters that marred the final years of the fifth shogun's government, with particular attention to the Genroku Earthquake of 1703, one of the strongest and most destructive earthquakes to strike the Japanese archipelago. Although stone markers still today record the inundations of the resulting tsunami across the Chiba peninsula, this earthquake-tsunami calamity finds little mention in history books. Patricia Sippel examines the importance of floods in the creation of social memory in the Edo era. Special attention will be given to the stone markers and literary accounts that recorded the massive Honshu flood of 1742. M. William Steele introduces a woodblock print issued in late 1868 that chronicles Japanese history from 1853 to 1868. His analysis demonstrates the ways in which a confluence of earthquakes, floods, fires and epidemics in the 1850s and 1860s were used to mark the "natural death" of the Tokugawa regime. Philip Brown will invite the audience to discuss the ways in which environmental considerations can be used to construct a more balanced view of historical change in the Edo period.