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  Towards a Diverse Research Environment

  Proteomic Study on
Nuclear Reprogramming During Cell Differentiation

  Molecular and Cellular Mechanisms of Hypoxia/HIFα Pathway in Regulating Biological Behaviour of
Mesenchymal Stem Cells

  The Link between Adult Stem Cells and Chimerism of Liver Transplantation

  Chungking Mansions as a 'Global Building'

  The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Political and Ideological Use of Catastrophe in Japan

  Historical Frontiers:
A Study of the May Fourth Spiritual Interpretation and
Development in the Context of Hong Kong

  RGC Collaborative Research Fund - Layman Summaries of Projects Funded in 2011/12 Exercise

Ningyo-cho, a once bustling street in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, days after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Overview: On 1 September 1923, Japan suffered one of the most destructive, deadly, and dislocating natural disasters of the 20th century. The Great Kanto Earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed 45% of Tokyo and 90% of Yokohama. Its human and economic costs were likewise staggering: 120,000 killed, 1.5 million people rendered homeless, and monetary damage equating to nearly four times Japan's national budget. As moral philosopher Shimamoto Ainosuke concluded, it was an event that 'overturned Japan's culture from its very foundation'. This project has resulted in the first study in English or Japanese to explore how people interpreted and attempted to use this catastrophe for larger political, ideological, and economic ends. Moreover, it also documents and analyses how citizens in Tokyo and across the nation responded to such overtures for reconstruction and renewal between 1923 and 1930. One anonymous reader of my forthcoming book from Columbia University Press described it as a study destined to become 'the seminal book' on Japan's unprecedented 1923 catastrophe. 

Significant Finding 1: The Earthquake as Heavenly Punishment. My research uncovered that a broad cross section of political elites and social commentators from divergent class and professional backgrounds described Japan's 1923 calamity as an act of heavenly warning (tenkei 天警) and heavenly punishment (tenbatsu 天罰 or tenken 天譴). Why did they do so? I suggest to admonish society, particularly Tokyoites, for becoming too consumer oriented, materialistic, hedonistic, frivolous, luxury-minded and decadent. Many commentators saw 1920s urban society as an anathema to the values upon which the modern, successful nation state of Japan had been built, such as sacrifice, diligence, frugality, and sincerity. Published in newspapers, academic and popular journals, in music, literature, and print, concerned commentators employed divine-punishment arguments to legitimate calls for significant social and ideological reforms in society. They hoped that the shock of the earthquake would wake people from their path of spiritual decline and that the post-earthquake reforms would reorient Japan on a proper trajectory.

Dr J. Charles Schencking




Significant Finding 2: Opportunity in the Ashes. Amidst the ruins, numerous elites believed that a golden opportunity (kōki 好機) existed to construct a new Tokyo that would not only reflect, but also reinforce new values and enable the state to better manage its people on a daily basis. Drawing on progressive and high modernist social policy and urban planning practices, bureaucrats devised intricate plans for a new capital which they hoped would also illustrate their country's burgeoning stature as a regional imperial power. New Tokyo would not only be replete with infrastructure, but also be comprised of wide imperial avenues, parks and open green spaces, and modern transportation networks that would make Tokyo not only more liveable, rational, and beautiful, but also more disaster resilient. My archival-based study documented the intricate plans posited for a new imperial capital, and also analysed the intellectual and ideological foundations upon which these plans were devised. 

Significant Finding 3: Contestation over Reconstruction and Renewal. Was a new Tokyo constructed and did the earthquake disaster prove to be the turning point that changed the spiritual or moral trajectory of Japan? In a word: no. Importantly, my project illustrated that post-earthquake dreams for physical reconstruction became stuck in contentious political, economic, and ideological debates that defined the contours of Japan's interwar political landscape. People from rural Japan and the politicians who represented them challenged plans to spend large amounts of money on the reconstruction of one city. Other pro-democratic elites suggested that radical reconstruction would disenfranchise property owners and challenge Japan's constitutional and democratic precedents. Plans for moral regeneration proved even more difficult to implement. Campaigns that aimed to restrict the consumption of luxuries or ones that advocated sacrifice, thrift, and diligence rarely secured the type of lasting results as proponents hoped. One commentator who championed moral rejuvenation, Miyake Setsurei, lamented that the 'earthquake came too suddenly' and  the earthquake mindset 'went very quickly' leaving the opportunist who desired fundamental change with only a 'dream like impression'.

My findings—published in a forthcoming book from Columbia University Press, delivered in two keynote addresses, three conference presentations, and within a new first year course entitled 'Catastrophes, Cultures, and the Angry Earth'—illustrate how elites have attempted to use disasters for larger objectives and why grand plans for reconstruction are limited by contestation and popular resistance. They will undoubtedly prove useful today as Japan again attempts to recover from another extraordinary catastrophe.

Department of History
The University of Hong Kong