In 1923, a major earthquake and conflagration devastated Japan’s capital Tokyo and surrounding areas in the Kantō region. Photographs documenting the event, many circulated in the form of postcards, produced a rich and multilayered visual history of the city’s destruction. Imaging Kantō was created as a digital complement to Gennifer Weisenfeld’s Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923 (University of California Press, 2012) to archive, crowd-source, and exhibit images of the Great Kantō Earthquake and its Tokyo urban context in conjunction with important historical visualizations of data from the disaster and reconstruction process. A collection of postcards acquired by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University serves as the core of the catalog. The postcards are combined with a series of historical maps of the disaster and subsequent rebuilding published in 1931 right as the process of reconstruction was being completed. The inclusion of georeferenced and rectified maps will continue to expand our understanding of the profound impact of disaster and reconstruction on social and urban space over time. And as the archive grows, it will enable more in-depth study of the ethical dimensions of disaster, hopefully facilitating the curation of new interpretative narratives.
Imaging Kantō is one component of the interdisciplinary project “Dimensions of Disaster: Decisions, Representations, Ethics,” generously supported by the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. The larger project explores decisions and policies related to what is deemed “salvageable,” how reinvestment is targeted, and how urban and social space is reordered, creating a framework for interpreting the ethical dimensions of disaster. The approach is retrospective and prospective, thinking through events that have long been inscribed in collective memory such as the Great Kantō Earthquake and thinking forward about more recent events that are still unfolding and still being mitigated such as the triple mega disaster of Fukushima in northern Japan in 2011 or disasters closer to home such as hurricanes in North Carolina. Earthquakes in Japan provide a point of comparison to other disasters that similarly exceeded what jurisdictions had planned for, but differ in the leadership roles assumed in the context of recovery and reinvestment. The voluminous representation of modern disasters offers an unprecedented opportunity to examine these questions in terms of the ethics of commercial mass media, and of looking and seeing.