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The Great Kantō Earthquake

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Great Kantō Earthquake. It struck southwest of Tokyo at lunchtime, and the strong shaking and subsequent fires are estimated to have killed over 100,000 people, and destroyed about 290,000 buildings. September 1st is now Disaster Prevention Day in Japan.

To mark this, Jinja Shinpō had a special two-page article in the August 21st issue, reporting a dialogue between two academics who have studied the role of jinja (and other religious groups) in disaster relief: Professor Inaba of Osaka University and Professor Fujimoto of Kokugakuin University.

They started, naturally, by discussing the response to the Great Kantō Earthquake. Important jinja, such as Meiji Jingū and Yasukuni Jinja, were the site of major complexes of temporary accommodation, and certain priests played important roles in coordinating aid. However, this experience is of purely historical interest for two reasons. First, jinja were part of the state at that point, but are not today. Second, the state did not have plans for disaster response then, but it certainly does now. Thus, the role that jinja should play at present is completely different from the role they played a hundred years ago.

Most of the article was taken up with a discussion of that role, both the role that jinja actually played after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, and what they could do in the future. I can’t cover all that they said, but there were a few points that struck me.

One was that the people running evacuation centres should not try to do too much, whether they are local government employees or the priests at a jinja. If they try to do everything for the evacuees, the stress of the disaster can easily make the evacuees discontent and demanding, creating trouble. Instead, they should emphasise from the beginning that everyone there is a victim of the disaster, and get everyone to work together to maintain the centre. This gives people a sense of agency, and also reminds them that the people sheltering them were also affected by the disaster, and may also have lost their homes and people close to them.

At least for me, that was one of those things that are obvious — once someone has pointed them out.

A second interesting discussion was about the safety of evacuation centres. Apparently, a surprisingly high proportion of evacuation centres are vulnerable to disasters. This happens because local authorities are legally required to have enough places in evacuation centres for their population (or at least some determined fraction of it), and they do not always have enough facilities in safe locations. This applies more to flooding than earthquakes, but flooding kills many more Japanese people than earthquakes do in most years.

In that context, jinja are a useful backup, because they are often built on high ground. Indeed, in recent years more local authorities have started concluding agreements with jinja to designate them as local evacuation centres. This is a trend that both professors want to encourage.

Finally, they made an important point about religious networks. Mainstream religious organisations already have people in every part of Japan, and have well established networks that reach across regions. After a disaster, people who have been affected are often suspicious of outsiders whom they don’t know offering help, partly as a natural human thing, and partly because some people do take advantage of the chaos for criminal gain. This makes it harder for specialised NGOs to start working in an area.

Religious groups, however, can immediately put their existing connections to work, find out what is needed, and have assistance provided by people already known to locals, or by people introduced by them. The Shinto world has been working to strengthen and formalise such links, particularly since the Great East Japan Earthquake, and this is another trend that should be encouraged.

The death toll from disasters can be substantially reduced by preparation and appropriate reaction, as Japan’s history shows. I think it is an exaggeration to describe events like the Great East Japan Earthquake as human-made disasters, but it is certainly true that the human reaction can make an enormous difference. It is entirely appropriate for jinja to be working to mitigate the damage.

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1 thought on “The Great Kantō Earthquake”

  1. The point about taking advantage of existing local networks involving religious organisations is something Caritas Internationalis uses very widely, and effectively, across the globe. Good to know the same idea is recognised in Japan.

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