Homes are wrecked and a ship is swept ashore. The images resemble Japan’s 2011 quake and tsunami, but the survivors’ clothes are from another age.
These photographs, on display for the first time in a Tokyo museum, show what happened when a magnitude-8.2 earthquake struck off the coast of northeastern Japan on June 15, 1896.
The Meiji-Sanriku quake triggered a tsunami which destroyed nearly 10,000 homes and left around 22,000 people dead.
“Back then, daily newspapers and magazines carried stories and photos of the disaster,” says Keisho Ishiguro, 70, who inherited the collection from his father. “But none of the original photos have been shown in public before. I think some of them must have been lost in the war.”
The earthquake struck at 7:32 p.m. beneath the ocean off Iwate Prefecture. Along the coast the tremor seemed only moderate and local residents did not immediatly evacuate, according to Ritsuko Matsuura, a researcher at the Association for the Development of Earthquake Prediction.
About 35 minutes later, a tsunami swept inland. In Ofunato city, the wave exceeded 30 meters in height.
The pictures were the property of a photographer of that time, Matsuchi Nakajima. In 1956, eight of his albums and cameras were sold to Ishiguro's father, Keishichi.
The albums contained 48 prints showing the aftermath of the tsunami.
Ishiguro initially supposed Nakajima had taken the photos. But after doing some research he came to believe that they were probably the work of a relative.
Nakajima’s nephew was Kotaro Miyauchi, who served as the photographer’s student and assistant. There is evidence Miyauchi traveled to the disaster area less than a month later.
The images are compelling. Wrecked homes imply a terrible human cost; survivors stand around with stunned expressions; and workers at a makeshift hospital administer first aid.
The photos can be seen at the Suginami Historial Museum in western Tokyo, in an exhibition entitled “Hakkensareta Meiji-Sanriku Tsunami no Koshashin” (Discovered old photos of the Meiji-Sanriku tsunami).
Forty-five images are on display. Three were withheld for reasons that they include the graphic depiction of bodies.
The locations can be identified because photographs were annotated. They depict coastal communities from Kamaishi to Ofunato in Iwate Prefecture.
“At first I hesitated to release the photos, as they show a disaster,” said Ishiguro. “But then I decided to, because I want central and local governments to see what happened and to develop better tsunami preparations in future.”
The 45 photos will shortly travel to Germany, where they are scheduled to go on display at an international photo exhibition in Cologne.
Meanwhile, as Japan continues to count the cost of the 2011 quake and tsunami, the Suginami Historical Museum is also showing video images of that more recent disaster.
The film shows the tsunami as it engulfs a neighborhood of Kamaishi on March 11, the day of what is now known in Japan as the Great East Japan Earthquake.
It was shot in Ryoishicho district by Hajime Seto, 67, who heads a local community association. He also leads a circle known as the “Kamaishishi no Ryoishicho Tsunami wo Kataru Kai” (Kamaishi's Ryoishicho tsunami discussion group).
Seto is one of those credited with helping to save dozens of lives in what is known locally as the Kamaishi Miracle: Most of the local elementary and junior high school students who felt the quake fled for higher ground; they then survived the wave.
Earlier, Seto had addressed school students on the dangers of tsunami.
“A tsunami had hit our town every 60 years or so. Predicting that would continue, I had installed a video camera at the entrance (of my house),” Seto said.
“I want people in Tokyo and areas that have been seldom affected by tsunami to see the video footage and think about preparing for disaster.”
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