Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Reynolds Collection on the Great Kanto Earthquake

Brown University's Dana and Vera Reynolds collection on the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake is a great resource, making available some excellent images of the disaster on the web. One caveat: I would urge anybody using it to be a bit careful of the captioning of some of the photographs. I am almost certain, for instance, that the photograph below is not, as the collection says: "One of a series of photographs taken during a boat trip around Yokohama Bay. Sheltered barges with large bags of relief supplies are visible."

Before I go on with this, can I just say what a wonderful image it is. If it were of post-earthquake Yokohama, it might be telling a tragic story. If it is of somewhere else, it may be telling us all sorts of other things about families, men, work and child rearing. Or maybe just another story of a particular family? Take another look at it. It is not just a picture of two tough watermen at work. There are two children on the deck (you can zoom in if you follow the link to the Reynolds original). A previous photo of the same boat shows a third man, who must be out of shot at the front of the boat in this one, but there is no mummy. Was there no mummy? Did the earthquake account for her and leave these men alone? Or is this an illustration of "new man as boatman" in some other harbour?

The earthquake theory is more romantic and tragic but, as I say, I would actually be very surprised if this was a post-earthquake image of Yokohama. There seems to be no damage on the street in the background whereas, in fact, almost all of Yokohama's waterfront was completely destroyed in the holocaust. I am not an expert on Yokohama`s architecture but I have half a suspicion that the street in the background may be a bit Shanghai-ish. I have discussed a number of the Yokohama boat images in the Reynolds collection with an expert on Japanese traditional boats and he felt the rowing styles depicted and some of the boats seemed more typical of China. I have sent a query to the collection and I think they will be looking into it.

Anyway, that is not my main point. My research into the Kanto earthquake has made me look at numerous horrific images of human suffering in the disaster. Actually, human suffering is not the right description. The images are not of human suffering but of people reduced to garbage. If they were of real suffering caused by the earthquake we could not bear them but there is something about images of piles of human shaped ash that is neutered, demeaning, powerless. The Reynolds Collection houses some such images, most of which seem not to have been taken by the Reynolds but bought as postcards during their visit. This is by no means the most horrific image but I warn you it is pretty horrible: a black and white picture purporting to be of dead Yoshiwara prostitutes in Tokyo. I think it is right for Brown University to make such images available on the web but it is a difficult moral issue. When is it right to show a stranger dead? When they bought these images, the Reynolds were doing something that was controversial even at the time:
The Japan Weekly Chronicle
November 8 1923, page 638
"A pedlar name Kaibara Shotaro (39) of Kawanishi-dori, 4-chome, Kobe, sold a lot of prohibited picture cards connected with the great disaster in Tokyo and Yokohama aboard the St. Albans on the afternoon of the 25th ultimo while the ship was alongside No. 2 pier and he was arrested by the Water Police on that charge. The cards are said to have shown the scenes of the holocaust at the Honjo Military Clothing Depot and the corpses of the Yoshiwara brothel girls. Seeing that these pictures were published in the Japanese newspapers circulating millions, it seems absurd to prosecute pedlars at this time of day."
The Chronicle, perhaps the most respected English language journal in Japan at the time, was commenting on the hypocrisy of the Japanese authorities but this short news article does raise the fact that the distribution of such images was seen for various reasons as problematic by some Japanese contemporaries.

However, perhaps the most shocking image in the collection is this one:

It is captioned, "Two men from Taiyo Maru, (one older in white and a younger in darker suit, hats off, younger man holding wine bottle) bridge in background, standing lamppost/electrical pole." The Taiyo Maru was the liner the Reynolds arrived on and they seem to have been part of the same landing party.

I think there must be moral questions about a group from a liner landing themselves, with a bottle of wine for refreshment, in the aftermath of some other people's apocalypse. I understand why the men would want to have witnessed what happened (though I am sure I would not have taken the wine. Let's hope it was just a wine bottle with water in it) but I would also understand a local feeling great anger at that white suited gentleman. Here is some contemporary reaction to such disaster tourists, from the Japan Chronicle again:
The Japan Weekly Chronicle
September 13 1923, page 354
"A little straight talk is sometimes refreshing. The Metropolitan Police Board have warned visitors to the capital as follows:
1. The longer you stay in Tokyo the more you will embarrass the citizens, so please get away as early as you can.
2. Your special attention is called to the undesirability of roaming about in the debris out of curiosity, and bothering the citizens in their work of removing their belongings.
That is the way to talk. The citizens of Tokyo are too polite, even in their distress, to say "For goodness sake get out!" So the police are saying it for them.

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