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Searching for Japan’s Covid-19 Transformations

SNA (New Haven) — Immediately after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, many began to imagine a physically and conceptually transformed Tokyo. While we may be nowhere near the end of the slow-motion train wreck that is Covid-19, imagining a post-pandemic Japanese society that can benefit citizens is the beginning of revitalization, and hopefully, a more substantial set of transformations.

The 1923 disaster took more than 100,000 lives over the course of about 48 hours. Fires erupted around the city and, according to historian Masahiko Yasuda, the shifting winds of a typhoon’s remnants created unpredictable firestorms.

Sites of refuge became unexpected spaces of danger. The Honjo Clothing Depot, formerly located in today’s Sumida Ward, saw more than 20,000 die. As soon as reporters could reach the city, they frequently described what they saw as “unprecedented.”

Despite the loss of many major publishing facilities, there was a nearly immediate outpouring of media in Tokyo. The country’s media producers focused on interpreting the disaster through special newspaper editions, expanded magazines, disaster publications, and photographs of the destruction. In the process, media producers profited greatly from an engaged audience.

Tokyo also witnessed the spread of destructive misinformation. Rumors spread that ethnic Koreans were planning to attack Japanese residents, had started fires, or poisoned wells around the city. Historians estimate that somewhere from 6,000 to 20,000 ethnic Koreans and Chinese were murdered by the thousands of vigilante groups that popped up across the chaotic city.

The wealthy of Tokyo’s Yamanote area suffered little, while the poor and industrial Shitamachi became a venue of horrors. Historian Alex Bates writes that even the geology was different. Yamanote was mostly built on bedrock while Shitamachi was largely a floodplain, far more susceptible to the effects of the earthquake. Shitamachi’s cramped, Edo Era, wooden housing only worsened the damage. The entertainers and sex workers of the so-called Yoshiwara pleasure quarters (in today’s Taito Ward) were simply trapped by the compound’s gates as fires spread, forced to either burn or jump into the water where they would drown.

Many of these elements from Tokyo’s disaster of a century ago have their echoes in contemporary events.

For example, the media today is hyper-focused on interpreting and relaying information about the current pandemic. Social media platforms are alight with those working through their emotions about the moment.

Along with the absurd conspiracy theories about Covid-19’s origins, a smattering of anti-Asian and anti-Chinese sentiment has cropped up in the United States.

Similarly, those in precarious forms of employment today, whether contract workers, in a volatile industry, or considered a part of indispensable services, are more liable to be exposed to financial insecurity and Covid-19 itself. In places such as the United States and Singapore, it is undeniable that Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting minority groups and the socially vulnerable.

When the city’s revitalization was declared complete in 1930, many citizens were left unsatisfied with improvements. Today we stand at an opportunity to imagine a post-Covid transformation for Japan.

However, most existing disaster theories are pessimistic. Theorists Anthony Oliver-Smith and Susana Hoffman argue that disaster tends to expose and emphasize already existing trends. Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism likewise points to disaster as an opportunity to institute neoliberal policies. Even scholars of the 1923 disaster argue that many trends of 1920s Japan were merely enhanced.

Today, Japan’s ¥100,000 cash payment and the United States’ US$1,200 cash payment are both welcome, despite the myriad of issues that come with them. The debate on providing direct government financial relief has clearly changed, and perhaps the dial on national welfare policy overall has now shifted.

There has also been a rethinking of workplaces. The Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), Japan’s largest business lobby, recently suggested a four-day work week to stem the risk of infection. As a mechanism to prevent contagion, it is obviously an absurd suggestion, but similar workplace policies are worth redeploying as remedies to other problems in toxic workplaces.

In that vein, the new emphasis on voicing support for essential workers like grocery store employees, however vacuous it can be, is the start of a larger conversation about the value of labor.

As the pandemic brings inequality into sharper focus, perhaps especially in Japan and the United States, there is an opportunity to agitate for lasting transformations.

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