In such uncertain times, it is important to remember the things that keep us human, keep us who we are, and allow us to persevere.
My book, Yumeji Modern: Designing the Everyday in Twentieth-Century Japan, has a chapter on the artistic reception and visualization of the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 (Chapter 5). As tempting as it is to focus on the disaster and suffering, I want to introduce one newspaper illustration and accompanying text that focuses on a moment of serenity, beauty, and humanity amidst the chaos and wreckage.
The modern Japanese artist and main subject of the book, Takehisa Yumeji (1884-1934), wrote and illustrated a newspaper series called Tōkyō sainan gashin (“Sketches of the Tokyo Disaster”), which was published daily in the newspaper Miyako shinbun. Comprising both texts and images, Yumeji’s series records his reactions to the catastrophe and its aftermath and participate in a collective making of memory in modern Japanese history. His visual and literary observations showcase feelings of empathy and shock, as well as disappointment due to the inaction on the part the Japanese government in helping its citizens. Tokyo Disaster began its serialized, daily release merely thirteen days after the earthquake struck, running from September 14 to October 4, and the series presented some of the earliest responses to reach the public.
Out of the twenty-one issues in the series, one stood out: the twelfth issue from September 25, Chūshū no meigetsu (Moon-viewing; fig. 5.09, p. 161). It is a tranquil night scene with a mother and her two children, seen from behind, sitting in a field and looking up at the moon. It is a poignant scene and all the more so with Yumeji’s sensitive portrayal of the woman, as his interest in the female image made him popular with his iconic “Yumeji-style beauty.” The romanticized natural setting and the figures communicate a beautiful moment even within a series that dwells on the theme of destruction.
The text recounts how people had to spend many nights in the open due to a lack of shelter and then describes the mother:
I saw a woman pulling pampas grass in the field at Aoyama. I passed by casually, then realized that tonight was “moon-viewing” (chūshū no meigetsu). Some do not forget the offerings to the full moon even in such destitute times when people are living in shacks. Tonight there must be people gazing at the bright moon from the eaves of the galvanized iron roofs, grateful for their survival . . . (pp. 160-161)
Moon-viewing festivities celebrated the beauty of the autumnal moon and prayed for an abundant harvest. The appreciation of mother nature, which had just struck against humanity is nonetheless breathtaking. By homing in on the attempts of one woman to preserve the tradition of moon-viewing for her children despite the tragedy, the image and text also reflect Yumeji’s focus on the experience of the individual in the face of a cataclysmic natural disaster.
The desire for people to recreate and preserve normalcy even during a time of trauma touched Yumeji.
Serialization also allowed Yumeji’s reactions to the earthquake to reach a broad audience every day for three weeks, and the series became a platform that expanded and built upon itself, enabling a kind of memoristic journey that the artist and his audience experienced together.
The series finds its source in Yumeji’s artistic beginnings as an illustrator for socialist bulletins during the time of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and demonstrates on a more personal level his concern for the place of the common people, of the voiceless within a climate of mounting government oppression and militarism. In addition, his keen observation and focus on the figure and its interiority was germane to his development in the portrayal of the female figure, one that evolved from his prolific production of bijinga (beautiful women) imagery, mostly for publications targeting a female audience.
Tokyo Disaster is an important series in the examination of the artist Yumeji and his role in the early twentieth-century mediascape. But it also holds a more personal meaning.
While doing research for this book in Japan, the Tōhoku Earthquake struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, followed by countless aftershocks and a massive tsunami. It was in the aftermath of this event and during Japan’s collective efforts to restore, reconcile, and narrate this disaster that led me to Yumeji’s responses to the Great Kantō Earthquake, the greatest natural disaster during his lifetime. This experience permitted me to approach this series with a better understanding of and insight into Yumeji’s heartfelt reactions to the 1923 earthquake, and I decided to devote my last chapter of the book on this series and include the entire series translation in the appendix. I completed the translations and analysis of this series with the 2011 disaster in mind, which even years later affects the many people who are still unable to return to their homes.
In our current circumstance in 2020, I now feel that the many reactions and critiques seen in this series are ever more relevant, and I hope that in our times today each and every one of us is able to find our own “moon-viewing” moment.
Nozomi Naoi is assistant professor of humanities (art history) at Yale-NUS College and author of Yumeji Modern.