Hakuseki's earthquake

I considered using my blog to spread useful information for those in dangerous areas, or updates on the Fukushima situation, but the great thing about 2011 is that there's just no need for me to do that. There are hundreds of bi-, tri- and multilingual people in Japan who have more free time to keep their information current. Why try to fragment the audience?

In any case, as regular readers have surely observed, breaking news isn't my thing. In times of danger, my animal instincts hurl me towards the nearest bookshelf, there to read records of similar dangers observed centuries before. So, today, I'm presenting Edo scholar Arai Hakuseki 新井白石 (1657-1725) on the 1703 Genroku Earthquake.

Around the time I first moved to Yushima, in the year of the Yin Water Sheep [癸未, i.e. 1703], on the twenty-second day of the eleventh month, just past midnight, the earth began to shake violently. I woke up, grabbed my sword-belt and left the room to see doors and paper screens collapsing all around, and when I went to where my family slept, I found them already up and out of the room. The rear of the house was near the base of a high cliff, so I took everyone out to the eastern courtyard and arranged some fallen doors to sit on, as I was afraid that the earth was split. After this, I threw on a kamishimo and dōfuku over that. "I must go to my lord [Tokugawa Ienobu 徳川家宣, then daimyō of Kōfu and still a half-decade away from being Shōgun]," I told my household. "Two or three servants, come with me. The rest of you, stay at the house," and hurried off. Thinking that I might be in danger on the road, I had gone inside the house while it was moving like a small boat on a wave and found the medicine box, which I then fastened to my belt; but when I had changed clothes I had completely forgotten about the medicine and so, shameful to recall, I left without it.

As I reached the east gate of the Myōjin shrine in Kanda, the earth shook violently again. The merchants' houses in this area were all flung open and many people had gathered in the streets, but, seeing light in their houses, I shouted to them as I passed: "If those houses collapse, they'll catch fire. Put out the lights!"

On the near side of Shōhei Bridge, I met Kagehira 景衡 [Hakuseki's brother-in-law] coming the other way, told him "I leave things in your hands" [あとの事、よきにはからひ給へ] and hurried on. I crossed the bridge and went south, then veered west, then was about to head south again when I saw someone on a motionless horse in the moonlight; it was Lord Fujieda of Wakasa. He had been brought to a stop by water of unknown depth and width which had come out when the earth had split. "Onward, men!" he said, and leapt over more than a of flowing water, after which his men followed suit. I wet my feet crossing the water, which made my sandals heavy and hard to walk in, so I put on new ones and hurried on.

As I reached Kanda Bridge, the earth shook violently again and I heard something like a mass of chopsticks being broken and a gathering of mosquitos buzzing: this was the sound of houses collapsing and people screaming. Rocks went flying as stone walls fell; dust rose and covered the sky. "Surely this has brought down the bridge," I thought, and indeed a gap three or four shaku wide yawned between the bridge and its platform. I leapt across the gap and ran through the gate to see the wooden panels spring loose from houses to lie in the street, like cloth fluttering in the wind.

I arrived at Tatsu Gate and, far in the distance, saw that flames were rising from my lord's mansion. As the light was quite low, I surmised that the inner rooms had collapsed and caught fire, which was deeply worrying. I remember feeling as if my soul had raced ahead of me while my feet remained in one place.

Four or five blocks ahead, I heard the sound of hoofbeats from behind and turned to see Fujieda rushing towards me. I had come this far but was not sure what lay ahead, so I said "My lord Fujieda of Wakasa, I worry about the nature of those flames." "Indeed," he said, "Forgive me for not dismounting," and hurried on. Finally I arrived at Hibiya Gate, where the guard box had fallen and I could hear the voice of some crushed and dying within. I saw a man who had dismounted from his horse there; it was Fujieda. Tiles had fallen from the northern and southern eaves of the tower gate to pile up in the street like a mountain, rendering it impassible to him on horseback. "Come on," I said, and we climbed over the tiles together to go through the lesser gate to see that a dormitory to the north of the mansion had collapsed and was now burning, and I was relieved to see that it was well separated from the mansion itself.

At this point, family issues forced me to break off the translation (and, indeed, I have no time to check it over properly), but here's the rest of the story. Fujieda and Hakuseki eventually make their way in through a delivery entrance and find affairs being conducted in a garden outside, the mansion itself being too dangerous. Ienobu eventually turns up, decides to go to work, later returns and makes a joke about how he hasn't seen so many people together in a garden since Ueno flower-viewing season when he was young ("我いとけなき時に上野の花見しものどものむれゐしをみしに似つかるかな"), and then has a talk with Hakuseki about work-life balance:

"Have you heard anything about your wife and children since the earthquake?" he asked me.

"I came here during the night and have been here since then, my lord. I know nothing of what has happened there."

"I remember hearing once on the way to my residence at Yanaka that your house was at the base of a high cliff."

"That is so, my lord."

"That is quite worrisome," he said. "These earthquakes will probably continue for days. You need not present yourself at work every time one occurs, if it is not as severe as the first. Now return home with all speed."

Hakuseki finally leaves the office to find servants still waiting for him (and sounds a bit surprised: "Have you been here all this time?" But no, they have been relieved, had breakfast, etc.)

Back at home, concerned for his books, Hakuseki decides to take his books out of his nurigome and bury them between layers of tatami mats instead, to keep them safe — but then returns home from work the next day to find that a neighboring house has fallen on his secret bookhole and somehow set it on fire, while the nurigome is completely unharmed. "What a waste of effort it was to dig that hole and bury my books!" he says to his servants once the fire is out, and everybody laughs. Freeze frame, roll credits.

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You can see a huge difference between how earthquakes were handled in the Hōjōki and how they're handled by this guy, who seems close to the modern, Stoic attitude.


Sorry, Avery, but Kamo no Chomei is a crap source for what people actually did during that earthquake. You'll have to check the diaries instead. (And then the court was back in business the same day, and receiving divination reports and planning Buddhist rituals and worrying about the dead littering the place.)


At the risk of making an overly heavy-handed comparison, "receiving divination reports and planning Buddhist rituals and worrying about the dead littering the place" seems to be more or less the situation we find ourselves in now. Lighter on the Buddhist rituals, perhaps.


A very sharp point, Msr. Aragoto. Which is why I only compare the present and the past in depth when I want to make a point about how the past wasn't that primitive, and never when I want to feel better about the present....

(At least we don't put the emperor on a boat in a pond during earthquakes anymore?)


Actually, yesterday having been Higan and all, I think the Buddhism is covered in 2012 as well.

It's not really fair to compare Kamo no Chomei and private diaries, though. Obviously KC isn't going to say "All is vanity! One time there was an earthquake and it made everyone late for work," and similarly private diaries aren't going to be all "I was terrified and ran around screaming in the yard" (I assume). In the same way, Hakuseki's account also has to serve as evidence for the validity of his values -- the unshakeability of the virtuous, duty and responsibility, etc. That's not to say that he and Ienobu weren't the stoic figures of legend, of course, but it's not like any of the accounts we have today come viewpoint-free...


I'd been looking for an explanation for the emperor's rather tardy appearance on the scene this time around; to my list of conspiracy theories I shall now add "kept in hiding by Imperial Household Agency on boat in pond".


Vrai, Matt, although we also need to note that the diarists were writing at the time, and Kamo's going retrospective.

There is some running around. Was it Kanezane who ran out of his house, then in to pray, then out again? I haven't gone back to those entries for a while.

But you'd be wrong to say the diarists don't moan. They moan a *lot*, about how there's nothing righteous people can do but look up and despair (Kanezane on the move to Fukuhara) and that the world's coming to an end (everyone--about the most positive thing I run across in diaries is "Even though the world is ending, the power of the Buddha is evident/the gods still favor us/people live on.").

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