Saturday University: Fires and Renewal in Edo Period Japan

Watch SAM’s popular Saturday University series focused on Art and Renewal in Times of Crisis in Asia. Through five lectures we’re asking how art and creative activity have contributed to confronting crises in Asia? While we face the current pandemic, along with deep social, political, and economic challenges, perhaps we can take heart in artists’ creative responses to violent conflict, environmental change, and panic. We’ll cover understanding, recovery, and reform in Japan, China, Armenia, Bangladesh, and Java, Indonesia.

Fires and Renewal in Edo Period Japan
Timon Screech, University of London
Japanese architecture is traditionally built from wood, as this volcanic archipelago has no stone suitable for building. Besides, masonry construction was not safe in this earthquake-prone environment anyway, as falling stones would be fatal to anyone inside. Its wooden architecture falls in such a way that survival can be possible. Some very old buildings built with extremely durable timber still exist, with sections replaced in their original forms when necessary. But the great enemy is fire: when earthquakes overturn stoves and braziers, fires follow and at times destroyed entire cities.

The calamity of fires in Japan’s early-modern Edo Period (1603-1868) led to large-scale rebuilding afterwards. This talk will present examples of artworks intended to retard fire, survivors of fires, or items made after conflagrations, as well as looking at fire prevention in urban planning. Obliteration and rebirth were horrendous, but they became cycles in Japanese culture and consciousness.

About the Presenter

Timon Screech is Professor of the History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He completed his PH.D in Art History at Harvard University, and has been at SOAS since graduation. His major study of the arts of the early-modern period, Obtaining Images, Art, Production and Display in Edo Japan, was published in 2012. His book Tokyo before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun’s City of Edo was published in 2020.

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