1858 Edo Period Japanese Kawaraban Map of Edo (Tokyo) Fire Damage

燒場方角繪圖 / [Directional Map of the Burned Areas]. - Main View

1858 Edo Period Japanese Kawaraban Map of Edo (Tokyo) Fire Damage


19th Century Japanese Infotainment.


燒場方角繪圖 / [Directional Map of the Burned Areas].
  1858 (undated)     12 x 22 in (30.48 x 55.88 cm)


This is a scarce 1858 (Ansei 5) Japanese kawaraban illustrating damage caused by a fire that occurred in Edo (Tokyo) on the 15th day of the 11th month of the traditional soli-lunar calendar (December 12, 1858).
A Closer Look
Oriented to the east, the map depicts the parts of Edo (Tokyo) which were damaged, with unshaded white space being the burned districts and the dark shaded areas remaining undamaged, and is surrounded by descriptive text narrating the spread of the fire. The conflagration began in Shitaya (下谷) near today's Ueno Park (the body of water at bottom is the Shinobazu Pond, which was larger in the Edo period than today) and spread throughout the northern and western outskirts of the city, driven by a strong northwesterly wind. Notably, aside from wind, the text also discusses the impact of the forces of yin-yang (陰陽, inyō in Japanese). Although far from the most destructive fire in Edo / Tokyo's history, the 1858 blaze consumed nearly 3,000 structures and injured 760 people.
Historical Context
Devastating fires were a common occurrence in the Tokugawa period, both due to Japan's high level of seismic activity (many fires began as a result of earthquakes) and because Japanese cities were primarily built of flammable materials. Edo, being the largest and most densely packed city in Japan, was especially susceptible. The fire referred to here was relatively small, but it came on the heels of the devastating 1855 Edo earthquake, the third of a series of 'Great Earthquakes' during the Ansei Era (1854 - 1860).

In traditional East Asian cosmography, the frequent occurrence of natural disasters, famines, and outbreaks of disease indicated the displeasure of heaven and a loss of legitimacy on the part of the ruling dynasty. The Ansei Era was marked by the arrival of foreign gunboats and traders, which, along with existing problems, caused a full-scale economic, social, and cultural crisis. Unrest and rebellions spread, and the Tokugawa appeared incapable of responding to the challenges it faced. Though the regime did attempt some 11th-hour reforms (and launched a massive political purge just before the fire seen here), it had already been fatally weakened, lending credence to the portents indicated by the fires and earthquakes of the 1850s.
Kawaraban and Tokugawa Censorship
The Tokugawa Shogunate was highly sensitive to potential sedition or unrest, having unified Japan following decades of warfare and never fully gaining the acceptance of daimyo and samurai in the southern domains. As publications were heavily censored, the Japanese general populace, curious about major events, turned to illicit kawaraban (瓦版, literally 'tile plates') for information. Kawaraban, as here, were broadside or handbill publications quickly printed (usually anonymously) in response to major news events and distributed for a small fee. As with similar contemporary publications in the West, readers sought entertainment and sensationalism more than rigorous journalism. The overwhelming prevalence of kana versus kanji in the present example further indicates that the intended audience was the masses rather than the elite. As most kawaraban were produced cheaply and intended to be read and discarded, few survive, and those that do are invaluable historical resources.
Publication History and Census
This kawaraban was published in 1858 (Ansei 5) in the immediate aftermath of the fire that occurred near the end of that year. We are unaware of any other examples of this print, though the Iwase Bunko Library in Nishio holds a contemporary kawaraban print (titled '焼場方角附') discussing the same event. The present example was reinforced on the verso with later paper from the Taisho or early Showa era.


Average. Toning, repaired loss, wormholing, creasing. As shown.