The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus Newsletter
Newsletter No. 20. 2011  
May 16, 2011  
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In This Issue


Our two featured articles on Japan's 3.11 earthquake/tsunami examine the historical trajectory of earthquake/tsunami disasters from the Tokugawa forward in Gregory Smits analysis, and David McNeill's latest report from the front lines in the ghost villages of Iitate.
Philip Hirsch examines the impact of a series of Chinese dams and proposed Laotian dams on the ecology and life of Laos. Two articles examine the interface of visual arts and war and peace in the Japanese empire and its aftermath. Andrea Germer introduces the photography of Natori Yonosuke, the premier photographer and photographic entrepreneur of imperial and wartime Japan. H. Byron Earhart examines Mount Fuji as symbol first of wartime Japan, and subsequently of occupied Japan and after.

Many of our most import articles on 3.11  appear in What's hot and they bring a diversity of sources and reports from Ground Zero in Tohoku and Tokyo. "What's hot" present breaking stories and provides information beyond the headlines, to cast them in broader perspective. What's hot is regularly updated, at times on a daily basis, and we invite you to consult it and contribute to it.

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Gregory Smits, Danger in the Lowground: Historical Context for the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami


The March 11, 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and the tsunami it generated was a classic case of natural hazards such as severe ground motion and seismic sea waves coming into contact with human society to produce a multi-dimensional natural disaster. Throughout Japanese history, writers often initially referred to such events as "unprecedented." As time passed, other commentators would point out that in fact such events were "normal" in that they occurred repeatedly in the past. Similarly, this paper seeks to provide historical context for the recent disaster in two broad senses. First, I examine the earthquake and tsunami as part of a long, ongoing sequence of geological events. Then I focus on the human reaction to earthquake-tsunami combinations similar to those of 2011, with particular attention to events that took place in the modern era.

Tsunamigenic earthquakes originating near the Japan Trench have occurred periodically. The edge of the Pacific Plate subductuing under a portion of the North American Plate sometimes called the Okhotsk Plate creates the Japan Trench. Strong earthquakes originating in this offshore region typically generate sequences of seismic sea waves called tsunamis. Tsunamigenic earthquakes originating near the Japan Trench usually, but not always, cause severe ground motion, as was the case on March 11, 2011. This M9 earthquake is the strongest known earthquake to have shaken any part of Japan, and tsunami heights approached 38 meters in some areas. In the absence of knowledge of the seismological history of the Tōhoku region and adjacent offshore areas, the recent disaster may appear unprecedented. Instead, however, it was a recurrence of past seismic events. Waves as high as 38 meters demolished precisely the same coastal areas in 1896, and waves as high as 28 meters caused vast destruction along the Sanriku coast (Pacific coast areas of Aomori, Iwate, and Miyagi prefectures) in 1933.

Gregory Smits is an Associate Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University. He is a social and cultural historian of Japan, whose interests range from the fifteenth through the early twentieth centuries. A specialist in the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, he is the author of Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics and co-editor with Bettina Gramlich-Oka of Economic Thought in Early-Modern Japan.

Recommended citation: Gregory Smits, Danger in the Lowground: Historical Context for the March 11, 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami, The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 20 No 4, May 16, 2011.

 Read more . . .  
David McNeill, 'We've no idea when we'll be back'

Sleepy, idyllic and dangerously irradiated, Iitate is preparing to evacuate. The junior high school is closed, its children bused every day to nearby towns. Tractors sit idle and weeds poke through rice and cabbage in the fields. Half-empty shelves greet customers at the A-Coop supermarket. By the end of this month, this mountainous farming village of 7,000 people, recently voted one of Japan's most beautiful places, will join the Ukrainian ghost town of Pripyat in the planet's short list of nuclear casualties.
"We've no idea when we can come back," says Katsuzo Shoji, who farms rice and cabbages and keeps a small herd of cattle about 2 km from Iitate's village office. Mr. Shoji (75) went from shock to rage, then despair when the government told him he would have to destroy his vegetables, kill his six cows and move with his wife Fumi (73) to an apartment, probably in Koriyama City, about 20 km away. "We've heard five, maybe 10 years but some say that's far too optimistic," he says, crying. "Maybe I'll be able to come home to die."
Iitate has been living on borrowed time since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami knocked out the cooling systems of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, about 40 km away.

 Read more . . . 

Philip Hirsch, China and the Cascading Geopolitics of Lower Mekong Dams

Much has been written on the downstream impact of China's dams on the Lancang-Mekong River, which flows through or along the borders of five other countries after exiting China.   Most of the discussion relates to the hydrological impact of impounding water in the eight dams along the mainstream Lancang Jiang in Yunnan Province.  Particular concern surrounds the recently completed Xiaowan Dam and the recently approved construction of the Nuozhadu Dam, each of which is of a scale to impound quantities of water that can affect river hydrology throughout the basin.  The Lancang Cascade, as it is termed, has caused considerable controversy in downstream countries, most notably during the 2008 floods and the 2010 drought.

The Lancang Dams have major implications for downstream hydrology, with the potential to exacerbate or ameliorate both floods and droughts and to impact on fisheries and other bases for the livelihoods of downstream users of the river.  Cumulatively, they have the potential to increase dry season flows by 30 to 50 per cent in the reach of the Mekong River above the Lao capital Vientiane.  However, there are also more indirect implications of the Lancang dams that receive less attention despite having a bearing on highly controversial current projects such as the proposed Xayabouri Dam in Laos.

Currently there are proposals for up to 11 dams on the lower Mekong mainstream, meaning the section of the river below China.  These dams include sections of the river bordering or inside three of the four countries that are member states of the Mekong River Commission (MRC).  Dams have been planned for the Lower Mekong since the 1950s, but the Cold War put development on hold in the 1960s through to the 1980s.  By the time mainstream dams came back onto the agenda in the early 1990s, environmental concerns over large dams had grown to the extent that the dusting off of these megaprojects designed a generation earlier was simply unpalatable, and it was mostly assumed until recently that mainstream dams were off the agenda. 

Several factors help explain the revival of Mekong mainstream dams, and China is implicated in a number of ways.

Philip Hirsch is Director, Australian Mekong Resource Centre, University of Sydney, He is the co-editor with C. Warren of The Politics of Environment in Southeast Asia: resources and resistance, Routledge 1998, and co-author with Derek Hall and Tania Murray Li of Powers of Exclusion: land dilemmas in Southeast Asia, Singapore University Press and Hawaii University Press 2011.

Recommended citation: Philip Hirsch, China and the Cascading Geopolitics of Lower Mekong Dams, The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 20 No 2, May 16, 201

  Read more . . .


Andrea Germer,Visual Propaganda in Wartime East Asia - The Case of Natori Yōnosuke

Visual propaganda that targeted the home-front in wartime Japan has recently been examined by scholars who have drawn attention to such aspects of material culture as clothing and textiles, postcards and ephemera and propagandistic photo magazines that normalize and popularize colonial and militarist policies by way of aesthetic artefacts of everyday use and consumption. Others have examined underlying developments in political infrastructure and mass media as channels of propaganda transmission. Still other scholars have focussed on visual and other propaganda that targeted Western and later Asian audiences by way of cultural diplomacy by the Kokusai Bunka Shinkōkai (Society for International Cultural Relations) affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and thereby highlighted the State's efforts to distribute an alternative image to the militaristic state portrayed in the West, as well as to enhance its image in the occupied territories.

Propaganda in each of the countries that participated in the Second World War varied with its own political structures, cultural roots, creative agents and targeted audiences. While propaganda reception is a generally much understudied subject, it becomes even more difficult to approach in the case of a dispersed and undifferentiated 'foreign' (taigai), 'Western' or 'Asian' audience. In order to successfully sway a foreign audience, however, the creative agent must be versed in the mentalities and cultural expectations of the receiving side.

One of these creative agents in wartime Japan was Natori Yōnosuke (1910-1962), who can be said to have started his career proper with the Manchurian invasion of 1931.

I focus on Natori the photographer and editor-cum-artist from an angle that interrogates his political agency as seen in his creative work and his visual strategies, as well as in his management of the various magazines he edited during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945). Moreover, I discuss the extent to which Natori's legacy of Japanese wartime propaganda has been critically reflected or obscured in his own postwar writings.

Andrea Germer is Associate Professor at Kyushu University. She has been conducting research in gender studies, history, visual and cultural studies.

Recommended citation: Andrea Germer, Visual Propaganda in Wartime East Asia - The Case of Natori Yōnosuke, The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 20 No 3, May 16, 2011.

Read more . . .

H. Byron Earhart,

Mount Fuji: Shield of War, Badge of Peace

The exquisite shape of Fuji, its symmetrical triangle dominating a broad plain, has delighted the Japanese for two millennia, and pleased Western eyes for several centuries. Unlike the man made symbols of other countries--the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, and the pyramids of Egypt--this universally recognized sign for Japan is a natural landmark.

Mount Fuji-the serene and lofty peak praised by generations of poets and artists, the sublime and sacred mountain that had inspired centuries of religious devotion--was, in effect, a ready-made symbol effective for unifying, motivating, and mobilizing the Japanese citizenry by 1931, when the Japanese army seized Manchuria and established Manchukuo, setting in motion a series of military advances into China and eventually plunging the Asia-Pacific region into a global war. In 1938, when the government began publishing its own news magazines, Fuji was a stock feature both for the Japanese homefront and the colonies and occupied areas.

This article explores the uses of Fuji in Japanese and American war propaganda, and its postwar metamorphoses.

H. Byron Earhart, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University, author of textbooks and monographs on Japanese religion, now resides in San Diego. His book, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan is forthcoming at the University of South Carolina Press. His next book is a comparative study of amulets, talismans, and fetishes.


Recommended citation: H. Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Shield of War, Badge of Peace, The Asia-Pacific Journal Vol 9, Issue 20 No 1, May 16, 2011.

 Read more . . .