Book review: The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan, by J. Charles Schencking

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 5:57pm

The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan
by J. Charles Schencking
Columbia U Press
3.5 stars

Julian Ryall

It is, in many ways, frightening how history keeps repeating itself and how we fail to learn from the past.

On September 1, 1923, a magnitude-7.9 earthquake struck eastern Japan, followed by a tsunami, causing about 120,000 deaths and massive destruction in Tokyo and Yokohama. On March 11, 2011, a magnitude-9 tremor hit northeast Japan and, combined with the tsunami it spawned, killed about 20,000 people.

After the 1923 disaster, there was widespread anger at the authorities' lack of preparedness - and so it was again, after the Great East Japan earthquake 80 years later.

Next came the debate over how Tokyo should be reconstructed. In 1923, the forward-thinkers wanted a radical redesign, with the compulsory purchase of land to make broad avenues and better transportation links in order to turn the capital into a city comparable with London, Berlin or New York. Eventually, however, the old guard prevailed and the reconstruction schemes fell by the wayside.

Similar debate has gone back and forth since the Tohoku tragedy, with suggestions that many of the coastal communities savaged by the quake and tsunami should simply be abandoned - and again, there is the question of money.

J. Charles Schencking started the research for this book long before the most recent tragedy to strike a nation infamously susceptible to natural disasters, but in his preface he points to the parallels between the two incidents.

Schencking's book is the first to provide a comprehensive account of what happened in 1923 in English. The early chapters describe, in often harrowing detail, the events of a day that is still marked in Japan every year - of the initial shock waves making the ground ripple, of buildings crumbling, of the first flickers that quickly grow into firestorms, of burning people leaping into the city's rivers.

Schencking has artfully combined first-person narratives with media reports and statistics provided later on the scale of the conflagrations, the areas hardest hit and the death tolls.

The human tragedy is soon overshadowed by the bickering between rival agencies, ministries and individuals looking to protect their personal fiefdoms when it comes to discussions on how to rebuild Tokyo. Schencking reports that early on in the debate, a delegation from the education ministry confronted Shinpei Goto, the former mayor of Tokyo and the most vocal advocate of a dramatic overhaul of the city in the wake of the disaster, demanding he leave all issues concerning schools to them.

The 2011 disaster has seen similar disagreement and waffling on policy in the highest levels of government - most worryingly in the handling of the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

It is a certainty that another major earthquake will strike Japan in the future. Hopefully, lessons learned in 1923 and 2011 will positively affect the authorities' reactions and resolve.