On Sept. 1, 1923, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 struck the Kantō region of eastern Japan, claiming the lives of more than 105,000 people. The natural disaster, which is known as the Great Kantō Earthquake (Kantō daishinsai), was documented by a small group of artists who survived the incident, produced sketches of the aftermath, and later published those images in the form of woodblock prints.

Opening in the Japanese print gallery this Tuesday is Amidst the Rubble: Images of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, a commemorative exhibition of prints documenting the chaotic conditions that followed the Great Kantō Earthquake, along with earlier prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) depicting the Great Ansei Earthquake, which struck the city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) in 1855.

“There is a great deal that our society can learn in the wake of tragedies such as war and natural disaster,” says Stephen Salel, Robert F. Lange Foundation assistant curator of Japanese art. “I believe that it is healthy for us to occasionally meditate upon those incidents.”

We asked Salel what it means to present this rotation of prints now, and about his response to one print in particular.

“In late 2012, the Honolulu Museum of Art presented A Prayer for the New Birth of Japan, a display of paintings by Mayumi Oda (b. 1941) that reflected upon the terrible earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan one year earlier. In a similar way, this rotation of Japanese woodblock prints, which commemorates the 92nd anniversary of the 1923 quake, reminds us of the fragility of life.
Some images in the rotation have a profound emotional resonance. One is an image of a scorched landscape by Kawasaki Shōko (1886-1977). Far in the distance, we see the remains of a large warehouse that was used as a shelter by thousands of refugees after the earthquake began. Curiously, however, Kawasaki depicts this site of comfort and solace in ominous silhouette. The reason for the print’s somber tone is because the Great Kantō Earthquake initiated a cascade of secondary calamities, and in a stunningly ironic turn of events, the greatest loss of life occurred several days later at that very shelter.

Kawasaki Shōko (1886–1977)
The Ruins of the Military Clothing Depot and the Yasuda Mansion after the Great Earthquake Disaster
From the series Collection of Woodblock Prints of the Taishō Earthquake
Japan, 1924
Woodblock print; ink and color on paper
Gift of Mrs. William B. Eastman, 1995 (25861)

The author Franz Kafka once wrote, ‘I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? …we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply… A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’ In the same way as Kafka regards literature, these works of visual art indeed wake us up to our own mortality.”

Amidst the Rubble: Images of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake is on view through September 27.