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Interpreting Disasters in Medieval Japan: The Great Kyoto Earthquake of 1185

Speaker: Haruko Wakabayashi (Princeton University)

09.07.2012, 6 pm to 8 pm

Darmstadt: Technische Universität, Robert Piloty-Gebäude, Hochschulstraße 10, Raum S2-02 C 205.

The period between 1177 and 1185 is marked with several momentous social and political events, beginning with the coup d’état of the warrior Taira no Kiyomori, followed by a five-year civil war, which resulted in the decline of the imperial court and the establishment of the first warrior government in Japanese history by Minamoto no Yoritomo. This is also a period when the capital city of Heian (present-day Kyoto) experienced an unusual number of disasters—a major fire that burned a third of the capital, famines and epidemics that lasted for years, a whirlwind that destroyed hundreds of homes, and countless earthquakes including a major one in 1185.  Naturally, the people who lived through this catastrophic decade sought for explanations. A variety of explanations was provided by monks, astrologists, and fortune-tellers, to whom the people turned for explanations and countermeasures. 
This paper will focus on one of the many disasters that occurred during this period:  the great earthquake of 1185 that shook the capital city, which is described in contemporary sources as having been of an intensity not known before. A number of sources that survive from this period provide information about the earthquake. The first are the diaries of court nobles, which help us understand how the people of the aristocracy perceived the various “natural” disasters that occurred in the midst of a politically and socially chaotic period.  Then we have the essay, “An Account of My Hut,” written by Kamo no Chōmei, who explains the disasters in the context of the Buddhist concepts of transience and impermanence. In the historical chronicles, the earthquake was among other events that were chosen as historically significant in recounting the history of the newly established warrior government. Finally, the Tale of the Heike, a war epic written some years later, we see the role natural disasters played in a narrative tradition. These sources reveal a wide range of explanations that were given to the fire of 1177: as the wrath of the gods, working of vengeful spirits of those who died in the wars, and as Heaven’s punishment. The Buddhist understanding that the world was coming to the “Final Age” was a prevalent ideology at the time, and the fire was also perceived as a sign of the Final Age. While these sources reveal the diversity of images that people had of the disaster, they also demonstrate that causes of a disaster were identified not only to understand the dynamics of nature, but often to assign responsibility to a person, things, or phenomena and justify the performance of another. An interesting question, therefore, would be who chose which cause from among a wide range of possible causes, and what were the expected or unexpected consequences of such causal reasoning.  Through analyses of contemporary sources that describe the fire of 1177, the paper will examine how disasters were perceived in medieval Japan, and how these interpretations were shaped by the social and political interests of certain individuals or groups.

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