In one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history, a huge earthquake rocked the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama at 11:58 a.m. on September 1, 1923. The Great Kanto Earthquake, at a magnitude of 7.9, violently shook the neighboring cities and sparked massive fires that tore through their urban fabric. One of several cyclonic firestorms that whipped through Tokyo exploded at a uniform depot, incinerating 40,000 people who had sought shelter in its courtyard. An estimated 140,000 people lost their lives in the disaster, and nearly two million were left homeless (Hanes 2000, 123–137).
Design and Disaster: Kon Wajiro’s Modernologio, cocurated by Jilly Traganou (Parsons The New School for Design, New York) and Kuroishi Izumi (Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo) and exhibited in the Aronson Gallery of the Johnson Design Center at Parsons, explores the profound impact this unprecedented urban disaster had on modern Japan.
It is focused on the quirky drawings of the Japanese architect, ethnographer, and Waseda University professor Kon Wajiro (1888–1973), whose work is shown here for the first time to a North American audience. This historical exhibition is framed, both implicitly and explicitly, to compel viewers to cast forward to a more contemporary disaster: the 2011 Tôhoku earthquake and tsunami, whose long- and short-term impact on postmodern Japan are coming under increasing scrutiny.
The main venue for the exhibition, which features the sketches of Kon Wajiro, is a rectangular gallery space adjacent to the main entrance of the Johnson Design Center. Along with a few photographs, Kon Wajiro’s drawings are mounted on long hollow-frame boxes extended delicately from the ceiling by thin wires. The fragility of these boxes and their placement echoes that of the scenes depicted in many of the drawings themselves: that is, the makeshift structures erected by Kanto Earthquake survivors in parks and open spaces all across the wrecked national capital of Tokyo (Figures 1–4).
The object of Kon Wajiro’s scholarly attention in 1923—that is, the temporary housing skillfully assembled out of scavenged debris by survivors of a massive urban disaster—was soon transformed into the subject of a new design practice. Retooling the techniques that he had previously applied to rural life, making detailed sketches of minka (old farm houses) and inventories of the material culture they contained, Kon no longer found himself passively eliciting the ethos of enduring social traditions but instead actively identifying the life force behind cultural ingenuity. No sooner did Kon and his colleagues venture out into the disaster-struck capital of Tokyo with sketchbooks and camera in hand than they were compelled by the subject matter to inject something more than social scientific empiricism into their observations and investigations. The makeshift structures that Kon dutifully documented in Ueno, Hibiya, Asakusa, and elsewhere—“homes” craftily cobbled together from scraps of lumber, tin, canvas, cloth, rope, and so on—represented the indomitable spirit of the Japanese people. To Kon, as the exhibit’s curators aptly note in their catalog, these structures were “material expressions of the large societal changes that occurred in Japan after the Tokyo earthquake” (Traganou and Kuroishi 2014, 3).
Sections 1 and 2 of the exhibit feature photographs and sketches of the makeshift housing erected by the homeless multitudes (Figures 5 and 6). One such temporary structure, cobbled together from scrap materials and anchored by saplings, looks like nothing so much as a multiroom tent condo.
Here and elsewhere in Tokyo, as surviving residents reopened local businesses in temporary “barrack” structures, Kon was inspired to move from observation to participation. Forming the Barrack Decoration Company, Kon and his colleague Yoshida Kenkichi (a stage designer) initiated a collaboration with the artists’ collective Forefront Company to paint the exteriors and interiors of reopened commercial establishments. “We have become the avant garde of the imperial reconstruction,” read the company’s manifesto. “In an effort to create beautiful buildings distinct from convention, we have taken to working in the streets. We believe that Tokyo in the age of barracks has afforded a good opportunity to experiment with our art” (quoted in Weisenfeld 1998, 230). Only photographs remain of these art-in-action interventions, and none could be included in the exhibition, but the activity attests to Kon’s growing passion for urban ethnography.
In Section 3 of the exhibit, the curators carry the story of Kon’s engagement with material culture and social change into the postdisaster phase of permanent reconstruction of the Japanese capital. Kon and Yoshida literally took to the streets of Tokyo during the late 1920s, as the residents seized the opportunity to place Tokyo on a progressive historical trajectory. Their detailed ethnographic accounts of Tokyo’s rebirth at the ostensible “epicenter of modernity of early Showa [1926–1989] Japan” in the Ginza district are extraordinary not only for their ethnographic detail, captured in sketches and statistics, but for the passionate ideology that animated them (Traganou and Kuroishi 2014, 5). The drawings included in Section 3 of the exhibition, as well as Sections 4 and 5, are from Kon’s masterwork, Modernologio: Kogengaku (Modernology), a 350-page compilation of the extensive fieldwork that Kon and his team conducted across Tokyo in the late 1920s. Born of the conviction that modernity was a universal phenomenon that transcended East and West—and whose social identity was embedded in the ordinary objects that animated daily life—Kon’s masterwork was meant to serve as a record of the rapid, modern evolution that postdisaster Japanese society had achieved (Kon and Yoshida 1930, 353–361).
On exhibit at Parsons, among other things, is the iconic “Index of the Report of Ginza Fashion Survey, 1925” (Figure 4), the best-known of Kon’s sketches. This drawing, which ingeniously illustrates the arrival and diffusion of modern fashions, is displayed in the exhibition with other, equally graphic sketches designed to represent the different stylistic changes that Kon observed on the streets—of kimonos, shoes, hairstyles, eyeglasses, and so on. Ever the social scientist, Kon counted while he drew: most of his sketches, which typically display all the different styles he has seen, also offer a statistical accounting of the number of sightings recorded for each.
Section 4, also drawn from Modernologio,is composed of sketches that capture the material culture of ordinary urbanites from the outlying districts of Honjo and Fukagawa. These include an evocative graphic that provides us with a scalar representation of Fukagawa’s social composition: the larger the size of a social group, as depicted in Kon’s graphic, the greater its proportional representation among passersby observed on the streets (Figure 7). For Section 5, the curators have selected a quirky set of images depicting the “public realm” that include a map of the “trail” taken by a “modern girl” (modan garu) in her meanderings in modernistic Marunouchi—a poignant example of the kind of social scientific stalking that produced the social data central to Kon’s ethnographic efforts. These two sections of the exhibition also neatly bridge the connection to Kon’s increasing interest in two emergent social sciences: lifetime studies (seikatsu-gaku) and clothing research (fukuso-kenkyu). On the social significance of this sort of research, Kon compellingly writes, “By examining the records of material culture, we should be able to see social customs and fashionable tendencies, as well as the differences between individuals in society. Then, individuals should be able to distinguish society’s diverse personae, and the trends of material culture, in order to prepare for their own way of living, unhampered by compulsions to imitate” (quoted in Traganou and Kuroishi 2014, 12–13).
Section 6 consists of a film documenting a rural storage house—an example of Kon’s enduring interest in traditional village life—but it is Section 7 that really tops off the exhibition by giving it an intriguing and ingenious contemporary significance. Posted along the long hallway outside the main gallery, and on DVDs played on a screen at the end of it, are student projects conducted separately and jointly by Parsons and Aoyama under the direction of the exhibit’s cocurators (Figure 8). Among other things, these include “memory maps” of Kesennuma before and after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, in northern Japan and design work related to the Hurricane Sandy disaster that befell New Yorkers in October 2012.
The unusual subject matter of this exhibition and its evocative presentation draw us into the fascinatingly exotic world of early twentieth-century Japan. The instructive catalog serves as a welcome guide to exhibits that represent a nice cross-section of Kon Wajiro’s expansive body of ethnographic work from the 1920s. In the final analysis, this exhibition offers a wonderful introduction to the alternate modernity that Japan constructed in the early twentieth century—following an urban disaster that could have thrown the nation into confusion but instead saw it rise with conviction to the twin challenges of urban reconstruction and social change.
Hanes, Jeffrey E. “Urban Planning as an Urban Problem: The Reconstruction of Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake.” Seisaku kagaku (Policy Science) 7, no. 3 (March 2000): 123–137.
Kon Wajiro and Yoshida Kenkichi. Modernologio: Kogengaku(Modernology). Tokyo: Shunyodo, 1930.
Traganou, Jilly, and Kuroishi Izumi, eds. Design and Disaster: Kon Wajiro’s Modernologio. New York: Parsons The New School for Design, 2014.
Weisenfeld, Gennifer. “Designing after Disaster: Barrack Decoration and the Great Kanto Earthquake.” Japanese Studies 18, no. 3 (1998): 229–246.