Japanese photographs, art display cultural importance

David Leffler

Over the past century, Japanese photographers and artists have captured the devastation caused by earthquakes to their country and the responses elicited by its people.

Gennifer Weisenfeld, an associate professor at Duke University, spoke about the earthquake that struck Tokyo in 1923 and the resulting depictions in Japanese artwork and mass media in a lecture on campus Friday called “Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923.”

Weisenfeld said she believes images of the earthquake in 1923 do not only depict the disaster, but they communicate the demeanor of Japan and its people at the time.

“In examining artwork illustrating the earthquake you can see physical damage and psychological trauma, but also moments of reflection and renewal,” Weisenfeld said.

Weisenfeld said artwork and imagery are highly representative of a culture, especially in times of crisis.

“The images of the earthquake’s aftermath had a chillingly conflicting effect,” Weisenfeld said. “They simultaneously represented feelings of tragedy and thrill. Many [images] displayed many peoples’ doubt in modernity after seeing almost half of Tokyo decimated, while others celebrated the solidarity [of the country].”

When the images were transmitted around the world, they spurred a worldwide response,
Weisenfeld said.

“People throughout the nation and the world were able to live out vicariously the plight of Japan’s catastrophe,” she said.

This spurred relief organizations globally, including in the United States, to mobilize and provide aid, Weisenfeld said. Images of individuals had similar effects too, she said.

“Many photographs depicted the heroism and resilience of earthquake survivors and the nation,”
she said.

According to Weisenfeld, images served a similar role in depicting the earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011.

“In examining past images, their effects are very relevant to the recent events that took place,” she said.

Tamami Motoike, marketing senior and secretary of the Japanese Association at UT, said she agrees with Weisenfeld’s analysis of the images.

“Artwork has definitely been a big part of the Japanese culture,” Motoike said. “It is one of the ways we learn about our history.”

Motoike said her family was directly affected by last year’s earthquake, although they fortunately lived far away from where the majority of the damage occurred. However, she said her father was close to where the earthquake struck while on a business trip.

Motoike said she found out about the earthquake through images and posts on Facebook.

“My initial reaction was, ‘no way,’” Motoike said. “I didn’t want to believe the posts I saw but of course they were all true.”

Advertising sophomore Rebecca Neu said she agreed with Weisenfield’s view on the power of images and believes they can deeply touch people and say things that cannot be said otherwise.

“If someone is watching the news and is informed of an unfortunate event in the world, it’s easy for them to disregard it as not having a personal bearing,” she said. “However, if you see a picture of a mother and her child running from danger, it changes things completely.”