Remembering Tohoku - and a forgotten disaster in eighteenth-century Ezo....
Project Hyakumeizan recently received a courteous invitation from the Japanese Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, to a photo exhibition on relief and recovery efforts in north-east Japan.
At the same time, I was reading Herbert Plutschow’s A Reader on Edo Period Travel - where I stumbled across an account of an eighteenth-century tsunami disaster by the Edo-period physician and author, Tachibana Nankei (see Old masters of Meizan). In the light of last year’s tragedy, the story is especially poignant. I hope Professor Plutschow will excuse me for quoting his translation of Tachibana’s account below.
"Nankei heard from the old people with whom he was staying at Minmaya, that, twenty or thirty years before, Matsumae [in southern Hokkaido] had been flooded by a tsunami. The old people told him that the deities and Buddhas had sent warnings but that the foolish people did not heed them and that all those who lived near the beach died.
The wind was still at that time and the rain clouds had moved away into the distance, but for no apparent reason the sky clouded over again. Now and then a light appeared at night, flitting from east to west in the empty sky. As time passed, this light grew brighter and, four or five days before the tsunami, the gods flew over the empty sky even in daytime.
One god rode on a dragon, which was flying on a cloud. Still another god, dressed completely in white, rode on an animal like an elephant or a rhinocerous. Some were very large and appeared in red, some in blue, but there were also small ones. The sky was filled with these strange-looking Buddhas and deities and they all flew from east to west. We all went out to watch them. Thankful for their appearance, we prayed to them every day. It was strange to be praying to visible gods.
Four or five days passed like this and, one evening, when I looked out towards the open sea, there was something white like a snow mountain. I said: “Look out! There is something mysterious in the middle of the ocean.” This thing came nearer and nearer until it seemed as if it would flood over the whole island. Then a huge wave came. This was the tsunami. “Run for it!” Old and young, men and women, all struggling to be first, ran in utter confusion.
But in no time at all it came, swallowing all the houses, the fields, the trees and plants, as well as the animals. No one living in villages along the shore survived. I saw this from a distance. This wave came in over thousands of ri over the ocean. It was high as a cloud and, until it came near the shore, it did not even look like a wave. It came in once and it retreated once.
No one could tell what caused this. All the people said to each other in fear that the reason why the gods were flying in the clouds at the beginning was to tell people that something terrible was afoot.
Nankei was unable to explain such phenomena rationally and ended his report simply by warning later generations that something like this could happen again …"
Herbert Plutschow, A reader in Edo period travel.
Woodprint illustrations by courtesy of University of Tokyo.