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The Writing of Disaster - Literary Representations of War, Trauma and Earthquakes in Modern Japan


Leith Morton

This book analyzes the literature that emerged from World War II. It also examines the literature that resulted from the two major earthquakes that have struck Japan over the course of over the last hundred years. The small number of volumes previously published examining the literature of war and earthquakes in Japan have almost always focused exclusively on fiction while this volume focuses mainly on poetry. This volume breaks new ground in its attempt to draw together and analyze the literature produced by these tragedies as a single phenomenon. It provides a new template for the literature of trauma produced by such events as the earthquake that accompanied the tsunami and nuclear meltdown in northeast Japan in 2011.

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1.“Amid the Frenzied Sea of Fire”: The Great Tokyo Earthquake and Literature

Chapter One


The massive earthquake that struck the Tokyo-Yokohama area and surrounding regions on 1 September 1923 was the deadliest natural disaster ever recorded in Japanese history, with well over 100,000 documented deaths. The devastation this calamity wrought on Tokyo alone was without precedent. Following in the wake of the earthquake, much of the city—and its environs— were engulfed by an intense firestorm that lasted two days and destroyed large sections of the metropolis. Over half a million dwellings were totally destroyed by fire.2 Out of a total population of just over two million in the capital, nearly one and half million people were made homeless.3 In various genres of literature, writers recorded their reactions to the event, and documented the tragedy, with both prose and modern and traditional forms of poetry being prominent: primarily shi, tanka and haiku.

This chapter will focus firstly on the reactions of free verse (shi) poets as documented in a number of collections of free verse poetry published within two months after the earthquake. The free verse poets examined here include the famous Kawaji Ryūko (1885–1959) and Satō Sōnosuke (1890–1942), among others. Free verse poets were much affected by the tragedy; for example, the distinguished poet Nishiwaki Junzaburō (1894–1982) composed a number of poems on the earthquake in his celebrated 1933 poetry collection Ambarvalia, but Nishiwaki’s volume demands a more detailed examination than is possible here4. In addition, I will also translate a prose poem by the...

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