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Masatoshi Ishii

Masatoshi Ishii [Profile]

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Information History

Masatoshi Ishii
Professor of Japanese History, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

I would like to offer my heartfelt sympathy to everyone affected by the recent devastating earthquake.

I specialize in Japanese history and conduct research on the theme of international relations in ancient and medieval times. A major focus of my research is exchange that occurred with the Sui, Tang and Sung dynasties in China, the Silla and Goryeo dynasties in Korea and Bohai dynasty. One of the key words of my research is information, particularly overseas information. I am extremely interested in how overseas information was transmitted to and received by the island country of Japan. My interest also extends to what kind of information Japan sent overseas, as well as the method used to send that information.

Joint research on the theme of information history

Acting upon my interest in the historical meaning contained by information, I cooperated with my peers in Japanese history and oriental history to establish the joint research team of Information History at the Institute of Cultural Science, Chuo University. The team was established in April 2001. The research results gathered over 2 periods (or 10 years) were recently published (dated March 20th) as a single collection of research papers by Chuo University Publishing. Borrowing the research team's name, the collection was published under the title of Information History.

Within the collection of essays, I examined how ambassador ships sent to the Tang dynasty were stopped in 894. This is a famous event within Japanese history, and everyone taking school examinations memorizes the stoppage of ships using mnemonics concerning Sugawara-no-Michizane and the ships. However, I argue that there is no historical basis for stating that the ships were stopped and the ships were actually not stopped. I had already announced the framework of this argument in a 1990 bulletin published by the Faculty of Letters, and textbooks have been rewritten. In the collection of essays, I added an examination of proposals issued by Sugawara-no-Michizane. These proposals are famous fundamental historical materials. The reason that I included this essay in the Information History collection is that overseas information played a large role in the formulation of plans for ambassador ships in the Kampyo Period. More specifically, this information on the Tang dynasty was obtained from Japanese studying abroad in Tang China. Therefore, this topic is truly appropriate when examining the concept of information history.

In the foreword to the collection of essays, I addressed the current advance of communication technology and the globalization of information. I raised several examples in my discussion of how information travels around the world instantaneously in the current age. I concluded the foreword with the following statement: "Today, the mass media is constantly buzzing about private information, information leaks, WikiLeaks and specialized language concerning information. Within this context, I believe that much can be learned about the meaning of information by examining the history associated with past information. I hope that this volume will contribute to the consideration of today's information society."

The March 11th earthquake and information

I had finished all editing and was awaiting publishing of the volume when an event occurred which caused me to reconsider information and the current information society. That event was the East Japan Earthquake that occurred on March 11th. After the earthquake occurred, I attempted to return from the university to my home by taking the monorail to Tama Center and then waiting for train service to be restored. However, I was ultimately forced to spend the night in a shelter that had been established in Parthenon Tama. I was finally able to return home the following day. While waiting at the Tama Center, I thought about the lack of information. Although I wanted to contact my family, mobile phone service was temporarily unavailable. Furthermore, train station staff simply repeated that they were working to restore train service, and it was impossible to obtain any precise information. The sole source of precious information was a television which could be seen through the glass inside of the station building. The television showed scenes of the tsunami swallowing buildings and cars. The images were even more discomforting since the volume had been turned off. I watched the television intently, realizing that something extraordinary had happened.

The Jogan Earthquake of 869

Approximately 1 month has passed since the East Japan Earthquake. My experiences during that time have once again given me reason to believe that much can be learned from past history. Since the recent earthquake, attention has been focused on the large earthquake and tsunami which struck the Mutsu-no-Kuni area in 869. This disaster occurred during the Jogan Period, and is therefore referred to as the Jogan Earthquake and the Jogan Tsunami. The disaster is well known among specialists and has received particular attention as an event which predicted the recent East Japan Earthquake. The Jogan Earthquake is realistically depicted in a May 26th, 869 entry in The True History of Three Reigns of Japan (Nihon-Sandai-Jituroku) , which is the final section of The Six Official Histories of Japan. This heart-wrenching entry overlaps with the scenes of the recent tsunami shown on television.

A severe earthquake occurred in Mutsu-no-Kuni. The violent tremors appeared like a flash of light. People screamed and were unable to stand. Some people were buried under collapsed buildings and other people were swallowed into crevices. Frightened cattle and horses trampled each other as they fled. An uncountable number of castle buildings, storehouses, gate turrets and walls crumbled. A thunderous roar was heard from the ocean and the salt water swelled forth, running backwards along rivers and creating a long tsunami. With lightening speed, the tidal wave reached the castle town. Areas many kilometers from the shore were covered with water. Fields and roads were transformed into oceans. People were unable to flee by boat or seek shelter in the mountains, and approximately 1,000 people died by drowning. Furthermore, farmlands and personal assets were almost completely destroyed.

The approximately 1,000 people who died in the Jogan Earthquake may seem like a small number. However, when considering the size of the population at that time, this is an astoundingly high number. Furthermore, since villages were scattered over a wide area, it can be inferred that the tsunami engulfed an extremely broad range. This Jogan Tsunami is being researched not only from the perspective of disaster history, but also from the perspective of disaster prevention. The Active Fault and Earthquake Research Center (AFERC) at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology has located traces of sea water from soil in areas located a fair distance inland from the shoreline in Miyagi, Fukushima and Ibaraki Prefectures. The center has conducted exhaustive detailed research on how far the tsunami traveled inland. This research has shown that sea water flowed as far as 3 to 4 kilometers inland in some areas. The center has concluded that the tsunami damage was caused by an earthquake of around magnitude 8.4. Based on their survey results, the center has issued warnings and called for measures to be taken by the national and municipal governments. The government had planned to summarize disaster prevention measures this spring; however, the earthquake occurred before the summary was finalized.

Information regarding the Jogan Earthquake

Of course, I am interested in the Jogan Earthquake from the perspective of information. Around what time was information conveyed to the Imperial Court in Kyoto (Heiankyo) about the earthquake in Mutsu-no-Kuni? What kinds of recovery measures were taken? These questions are interesting because the recent East Japan Earthquake severed roads and made it impossible to assess accurate information. As a result, aid and recovery measures were delayed and harm was caused by chain emails and unfounded rumors. An ancient administrative law known as the Imperial Decrees for Certain Occasions was used during the Jogan Period. This law stated that reporting shall be performed via rapid mail during times of disaster. However, during a severe earthquake like the Jogan Earthquake, how was information conveyed and when did the Imperial Court (the national government) assess the disaster conditions? On September 7th, the Imperial Court appointed a special envoy to survey conditions in Mutsu-no-Kuni. Therefore, it can be inferred that Kyoto's Imperial Court had received information on the Mutsu-no-Kuni earthquake on a prior date. The special envoy departed Kyoto one month later on October 13th. According to official documents from that time, the envoy surveyed local areas together with the provincial governor. Depending on the situation, the envoy issued orders for measures such as aid for survivors, generous burial for the dead, and exemption of taxes. The Imperial Court first learned of the situation in Mutsu-no-Kuni once the envoy had toured local areas and issued a report. It can be estimated that an extremely long period of time was required for the Imperial Court to assess the whole situation. Of course, when examining why such a long time was required, it is necessary to comprehensively consider the transportation routes and transportation methods which existed at that time.

869 and the present

Actually, disasters in the year 869 were not limited to the earthquake in Mutsu-no-Kuni. A drought had continued before the earthquake and aftershocks continued throughout the country after the earthquake. An earthquake and tsunami rivaling the quake in Mutsu-no-Kuni occurred in Higo-no-Kuni (Kumamoto Prefecture) in July. Furthermore, in May of the same year, pirates from the neighboring country, Silla, invaded Hakata and fled after stealing tax money. Officials of the Dazaifu government who had failed to capture the pirates were reprimanded for causing great harm to national prestige. The shock caused to the imperial court by this incident was on par with the Jogan Earthquake. Therefore, the Imperial Court sent an envoy to Ise Jingu Shrine in December. The messenger reported to the deities regarding the Silla pirate attack and the earthquakes in Mutsu-no-Kuni and Higo-no-Kuni, asking for divine protection. Imperial edicts from that time contained the phrases such as the land of the gods. Attention has been given to how an ideology to deify Japan suddenly became prevalent.

869 was truly a year of pressing domestic and international issues for the national government of Japan. I believe that conditions in 869 overlap with the present conditions faced by Japan. In addition to recognizing the importance of information, I hope to conduct further detailed review of what occurred across the Japanese archipelago in 869 and to compare those past conditions with the present. On a side note, the AFERC survey report and a great amount of other information regarding the Jogan Earthquake is available on the internet for those who are interested.

I couldn't sleep a wink at the shelter in Parthenon Tama. Still, I only had to spend a night at the shelter. The room was heated, I was issued a blanket and water, and I had a home to return to. I can only imagine the suffering of the many people who were forced to stay in cold, crowded shelters for a long period of time. I sincerely hope that survivors of the earthquake will soon be able to lead a tranquil lifestyle.

Masatoshi Ishii
Professor of Japanese History, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Born in Yokohama City in 1947. In 1969, graduated from the Department of History of the Faculty of Letters, Hosei University. In 1975, acquired all necessary credits for the Doctoral Program in the Graduate School of Letters, Chuo University. Holds a PhD in history (Kokugakuin University). Served as Research Associate and Assistant Professor at the Historiographical Institute, the University of Tokyo, and as Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University. Has served as Professor in the Faculty of Letters, Chuo University, since 1990. From 2002 to 2005, served as a member (1st term) of the Japan-Korea History Joint Research Council. Currently serves as Director of the Chuo University Institute of Cultural Science and Chairperson of the Chuo University History Association.
His major written works include Research in Historical Relations between Japan and the Bohai Dynasty (Yoshikawa Kobunkan Publishing, 2001), The East Asian World and Ancient Japan (Japanese History Leaflet No. 14, Yamakawa Publishing, 2003), Dictionary of External Relations History (co-edited, Yoshikawa Kobunkan Publishing, 2009), External Relations of Japan (co-edited, Yoshikawa Kobunkan Publishing, currently being published since 2010).