Education About Asia: Online Archives

Catfish, Super Frog, and the End of the World: Earthquakes (and Natural Disasters) in the Japanese Cultural Imagination

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One of the earliest written records of Japan, the Nihon shoki or Chronicles of Japan, includes a poem about an earthquake written during the reign of Emperor Buretsu (about 500 CE).1 The poem is not particularly memorable, but this early reference to earthquakes through a creative medium is the beginning of a long history of disasters represented within the cultural imagination. To take a more recent example, the eighties era sci-fi anime series Bubblegum Crisis is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape shaped not by nuclear war or some other human intervention, but by an earthquake. A few years ago, I taught a class covering representations of disaster in Japanese literature, art, and film. In this article, I draw on that experience to trace the connections and divergences among cultural interpretations of natural disasters, primarily earthquakes, through time. These representations of catastrophe provide unique insight into both the calamities themselves and the historical eras in which they occur. The examples I focus on—from a Buddhist monk’s philosophical exploration of the end of the world to a postmodern writer’s look at an earthquake after the collapse of the bubble economy—show a range of responses that each link the disaster to its particular social and political context.