Research Project


Seas of Fire - Earthquakes, Disasters and Japan in the 20th Century

Prof. Dr. Kerry Smith

My research during my stay at the IKGF focused on Japanese scientists’ efforts to translate their uncertain knowledge of the risks and hazards that earthquakes posed to the nation into persuasive narratives and effective polices from the early 20thcentury to the near present. More specifically, my work as a Visiting Fellow explored the emergence of a new lexicon of risk within the discourses surrounding earthquake prediction and forecasting, a category of analysis which includes the arguments, images, and theoretical frameworks scientists used to try to convince policy makers and the public to fear the future. One of the questions I hoped to address at IKGF was this one: How did scientists in Japan in the 60s and 70s convince average citizens and policy makers that something significant had to be done right away about earthquakes that had not yet happened? I developed answers to that question along two parallel lines of analysis this summer. The first explored the role of the scientific community in shaping public discourse about earthquakes and risk, and focused on three events: the Matsushiro Earthquake Cluster (1965-1970), the Tokachioki Earthquake off the coast of Hokkaido (1968), and the announcement in 1976 that the nation should expect a destructive Tōkai Earthquake in the very near future. My analyses of these processes tries to unpack how each was instrumental in creating new sets of expectations about what science might or might not be able to do to protect the nation. I looked at the steps that scientists took to explain each event in the contexts of local histories and experiences, and as conforming to the models and processes that plate tectonics was helping to clarify for Japan. The second line of analysis looked at the emergence of new institutions for earthquake prediction and disaster prevention in the 1960s and 1970s. I traced the history of the Coordinating Committee for Earthquake Prediction (Jishin yochi renrakukai) and its role in the creation of a national earthquake prediction infrastructure in Japan in the late 1960s. I was also able to explore the unprecedented legislative (and to some extent, scientific) response to the threat of the Tōkai Earthquake.

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