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Japanese Studies Spotlight: Earthquake Children Image Archive: A Window into Disaster and Humanity

by Paula Curtis on 2024-03-11T10:24:35-04:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Janet Borland, Assistant Professor, Department of History, International Christian University, Tokyo


“How can you teach a whole course on the Great Kantō Earthquake?!” This is a common question I am often asked by curious and slightly skeptical students and colleagues.

Over the last decade I have devised and taught courses on earthquakes and disasters in modern Japanese history, ranging in size and style from small capstone seminars to large lectures. In my quest to teach students about earthquakes as well as to share my passion and experiences conducting research as a historian, I have actively incorporated into my classes the rich visual and material culture associated with the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake and reconstruction of Tokyo.

Figure 1. 關東震災全地域鳥瞰圖繪 Bird’s-eye view of the entire Kantō region affected by the earthquake and fire. By artist and cartographer Yoshida Hatsusaburō, published by the Ōsaka Asahi newspaper, 1924.

While researching and writing my book Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo (Harvard University Asia Center, 2020), I collected a vast range of rare images, objects, and materials related to the earthquake, fires, children, schools, relief, reconstruction, and daily life in 1920s Tokyo. I have always enjoyed utilizing visual material on PowerPoint slides or bringing original items into the classroom for students to examine in what I call “mini-museum” classes. But there are limits to how much I can share in a classroom, not to mention practical concerns associated with displaying rare and fragile items. I also wanted to make my collection available to audiences beyond the classroom. Therefore, I decided to create a digital image archive and material culture repository to serve both as a companion to my book and also as a teaching and learning tool for undergraduate courses I teach at International Christian University (ICU) in Tokyo. I launched the website Earthquake Children on September 1, 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Great Kantō Earthquake.

The Earthquake Children Image Archive contains over 500 images that visually document children’s experiences of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake and daily life in 1920s Tokyo. Items range from postcards, photographs, posters, lithograph prints and children’s drawings, to maps, textbooks, architectural drawings, music scores and memorabilia. In addition to images of and by children, the collection depicts teachers, imperial family members, government officials, policemen, doctors, nurses, foreign tourists, and other adults involved in providing relief, education and care of children in the aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake.

Figure 2. Screencap of the Image Archive subsections on the Earthquake Children website

Beginning from the eve of the earthquake, the images are organized into eight categories: Epicenter of Vulnerability; Earthquake & Fires; Objects of Concern; Agents of Recovery; Back to School; Earthquake Lessons; New Schools & Parks; and, Remembrance & Commemoration (Fig. 2). Each section includes questions intended for further discussion alongside the corresponding chapters in my book Earthquake Children.

Here at ICU, I teach a diverse mix of students with experiences living in all parts of the world, including many exchange students. Irrespective of their background, there is one fact that every student brings to the classroom: Japan is an earthquake nation. Everyone knows something about Japan’s contemporary history of devastating earthquakes. The majority have experienced a tremor somewhere in this seismic archipelago. Some even have firsthand experience of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. Students also recognize and appreciate that Japan is one of the best prepared nations in the world when it comes to earthquake-related infrastructure, technology, education and preparedness. But few have ever stopped to think about how, when and why Japan became one of the best prepared nations in the world. I would like to highlight a few items from the Earthquake Children Image Archive to demonstrate how I engage students as historians in an interactive classroom.

Why study earthquakes? Igniting curiosity and engaging students

I begin my first lecture with the panoramic image featured at the top of this article (Fig. 1). I conceal the text and ask students if they know what event the image depicts. Roughly ten percent raise their hand. Before revealing the answer, I then invite students to list all the questions that we could ask as curious historians in order to learn more: Who? Why? What? Where? When? How? So what?! They start off with the big picture: What does the print depict? Where is it? When was it published? Who is the artist? Who published this print? Why was it published? Who was the audience? How was it circulated? The more they look, the more details students notice such as the ripples in the water, the ships, and the smaller plumes of smoke. What caused the fire? Who is flying the airplane? What was it like for people who experienced this event? This activity introduces students to important practices and skills of working as a historian and piques their curiosity about using the Great Kantō Earthquake as a window into Japan’s history, culture and society.

A “modern” Imperial Capital on the eve of the earthquake

In order to understand why a magnitude 7.9 earthquake caused so much death and destruction on September 1, 1923, we explore Tokyo on the eve of the disaster. What did the city look like? Who lived there? Using chapter 1 of the archive “Epicenter of Vulnerability,” I ask students to examine Tokyo from the ground up and identify all the different examples of vulnerability—social, physical, environmental.

Figure 3. Map of Tokyo Before the Earthquake

They consider the densely crowded wooden buildings, the open sewers, and the daily life of school children. Using the “Map of Tokyo Before the Earthquake” (Fig. 3), I ask students to imagine that they are a resident of Honjo ward, east of the Sumida River. Where would they seek refuge from a firestorm? What information does the map tell us about the city? Students notice features such as the scarcity of parks and open spaces, the high density of roads in the eastern half, the train lines, and the Sumida River. Some observant students are surprised to see that Shinjuku is an outer suburb sitting on the western-most boundary of Tokyo, while others ask when was the map published and why is it in English? Students gain an intimate understanding of demographics, yamanote versus shitamachi, rich versus poor, health and hygiene, buildings and infrastructure, transport and technology, communication, and Tokyo’s past history of land reclamation, earthquakes and fire. All possess a vivid picture of Tokyo before the earthquake, and all agree that the city was a disaster waiting to happen.


How children experienced the disaster

Turning to the fateful events of early September 1923, the chapter “Hell on Earth” invites students to consider the earthquake and fires from the perspective of children. What did Tokyo’s youngest and most vulnerable residents see and think and do and feel as the disaster unfolded? We can find answers in the many precious records left by children and preserved by teachers and city officials.

Figure 4. Poem and drawing by Nakamura Kuni, “My Little Sister”

The following excerpts from four student reflections demonstrate the powerful effect of children’s essays and drawings on the viewer.

“Witnessing the expressions of these children through their words and artworks evoked deep emotions within me. Colors, as carriers of emotions, were vividly depicted in their drawings, with extensive use of red and black in stark contrast to the blue symbolizing water, and the black representing stone bridges. Various buildings and people were depicted in a spectrum of colors. While I may not comprehend the emotions they experienced while drawing, one thing is clear: the prevalence of red in their artwork signifies the harsh realization that these young children had about the world, encompassing their fear, numbness, and despair.”

“The two things that have been burned into my memory are the poem and crayon drawing by Nakamura Kuni and the account of Kitamura Sachiko’s survival. Starting with the poem, reading the explanation of it before the picture showed up didn’t really affect me, but when I saw the picture along with the original writing, I felt my stomach drop a little bit. The illustration, which was clearly drawn by a child, and the poorly written characters hit me in a place I didn’t expect. For some reason, reading the poem in Japanese made me so much more emotional than when I read it in English.”

“In the multiple scenarios… I would try to imagine what it would be like if I were in the shoes of the children… It really makes me realize how nonchalantly I have been living with disaster under my feet. Coming from California, I’ve always been educated on the potential disaster that is an earthquake, and have been exposed to various sources of media such as movies that attempted to capture what a potential deadly earthquake would look like for society. Reading the accounts really made me realize how much more there is to an earthquake than just the initial shaking, and how much death and destruction that can be brought by the aftereffects as well such as fire, aftershocks, and public chaos.”

“Reading these children’s accounts remind me to live my life fully and take advantage of every opportunity.”

How Japanese children and youth expressed gratitude and said, “thank you”

To convey the thrill, challenges, and rewards of working as a historian, I share details of how I discovered some of my visual and material treasures in places ranging from secondhand book stores to online auction sites. One example is nine postcards purchased from a UK-based seller on eBay (an example appears below, Fig. 5). On one side, the postcards contain children’s drawings and on the reverse a message that reads: “We, the Sunday School children of Japan, send you our hearty gratitude for your deep sympathy shown at the time of the terrible disaster last autumn.” I immediately wanted to find out when and why these postcards were produced, how they were used, and why they were in the UK almost a hundred years after the earthquake.

Figure 5. Drawing of Mt Fuji on a postcard by Okada Yukiko (age 12), and the reverse side

I take students on my research journey from online searching and shopping to typing keywords into catalogs and databases. I eventually found the answer to my questions in the Tōkyō Asahi Shinbun: children drew pictures on postcards as a way to express gratitude for the gifts and donations of relief sent from abroad. After a public exhibition of these cards at the Sunday School headquarters in Kanda, Japanese delegates traveled to Scotland in June 1924 for the 6th Sunday School Association convention in Glasgow and distributed the postcards as gifts.

Beyond the 1923 Earthquake

I frequently use the Earthquake Children Image Archive as an online tool in the classroom, integrating it into small group activities, and also encouraging students to independently explore the images alongside assigned readings from my book. Building on the knowledge and research skills acquired in the first half of the course, I invite students to engage with other online resources and media such as film. We examine footage from the National Film Archive of Japan, for example, and view documentaries about recent earthquakes in Japan by NHK. Our course concludes with an excursion to the Tokyo Metropolitan Memorial Hall and Museum in Yokoamichō Park.

Thanks to newly digitized collections released by libraries, museums and archives in Tokyo, there is a wealth of material now available on the Great Kantō Earthquake, in both English and Japanese. My hope is that the Earthquake Children Image Archive will be used by scholars and students interested broadly in the history of Japan, earthquakes and children. I hope that it will inspire colleagues to also think about the tangible benefits associated with creating digital archives as companions to our research monographs and for use in research-led teaching.

Leading an entire class on the Great Kantō Earthquake has provided students with far more than merely an opportunity to better understand Japan’s most consequential natural disaster of the twentieth century. Students discover that by studying the Great Kantō Earthquake they also learn about international relations, education, politics, science, seismology, technology, art, architecture, and emotion: it’s a window into humanity. In the words of one student, “I not only learned about the earthquake but about Japan as a whole and humanity. I appreciate history far more now than I ever had before.”

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