Disasters of the Past as Powerful Lessons for Today
I thought to myself, there is a real need for contemporary policy-makers to engage with what has happened before.
The adage that the past informs the present came to life for historian Professor J. Charles Schencking on March 11, 2011. At that time he was putting finishing touches to his highly-regarded study of the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake for Columbia University Press. On that day, Japan was struck by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami. Historical issues he had been writing about suddenly became current again.
As the disaster unfolded, people wondered what it would mean for Japan’s future. “People asked, ‘should we rebuild destroyed communities? If so, how should we rebuild them? Should it be a government-led, top-down exercise or a series of bottom-up community inspired initiatives?’ Officials also debated how best to deploy humanitarian assistance,” he said. These questions were not unique to 2011. Many similar questions had been asked in 1923. “I thought to myself, there is a real need for contemporary policy-makers to engage with what has happened before.”
While his scholarly book provided historical perspective, he was also aware of the need to engage with people in other ways to promote broader understanding.
His first step in that direction was to upload images of his own materials, including more than 500 photographs, artefacts and maps from the 1923 earthquake, to a specially-created website that was accessible to the public.
“Disasters,” he said, “generate powerful and emotive images and that really motivated me to build the website.” The site has received more than 250,000 visits since its launch in December 2013.Following on from that, a public exhibition of the artefacts and images was held at the University of Melbourne, where Professor Schencking worked before coming to HKU. It garnered English and Japanese-language press coverage and attracted thousands of visitors. He gave a keynote address at the opening.
After a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Kumamoto Prefecture in April 2016, the Discovery Channel contacted Professor Schencking and Dr Janet Borland, an HKU assistant professor in Japanese Studies researching the impact of disasters on children and local communities. They were asked to assist with a documentary on disaster preparedness in Japan. Its initial broadcast attracted more than 2.5 million viewers.
“Japan today is one of the great leaders in disaster mitigation and preparedness,” he said. “It wasn’t always the case, but from 1923 the government began taking clear policy decisions to make society better prepared for the next earthquake. We can learn a lot by looking at the long history of disaster preparedness measures, both successes and failures.”
Professor Schencking said his research has been positively affected by his engagement work on the Kantō earthquake because he now always thinks of how to reach a wider audience. “The humanities can have real life impact today, as well as contribute to understanding the past,” he added.
Professor John Charles Schencking of the School of Humanities (History) received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2017 of the Faculty of Arts for the project ‘The Great Kantō Earthquake and a new understanding of responses to natural disasters’.