HIEA 1501 Disasters Syllabus

Course Description: This course is an introduction to historical study and the history of disasters in modern Japan. Topics included will be the 1923 Kanto earthquake, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, environmental diseases such as Minamata disease (methyl mercury poisoning) in the 1950-80s, economic collapse, terrorist attacks, and finally the recent Fukushima tsunami and reactor meltdowns in March 2011.

Course Goals: This course has three goals. One, to introduce you to the historical record of disasters in Japanese history. Two, to introduce you to the emerging field of disaster studies. Three, to get you to start reading texts of all kinds for the categories and concepts that a given text uses to think through a “disaster.”

By the end of the course you not only be familiar with major disasters, and the responses to major disasters, in modern Japanese history. You will also be able to discuss and add to the growing discipline of disaster studies, including the cultural, historical, social, economic, scientific, and even existential nature of what we call a “disaster.”

Required Texts

  1. Kai Erikson, A New Species of Trouble
  2. Brett Walker, Toxic Archipelago
  3. Murakami Haruki, Underground

NOTE: There is in fact one more required text but it is not sold at the bookstore–that would have been much too expensive. There are many copies available on bookfinder.com and Amazon for very little. We will need this book by mid-October so make sure to order one in time for that.

Oiwa Keibo, Rowing the Eternal Sea: The Story of a Minamata Fisherman (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001). ISBN: 0742500217.


The focus of this and any seminar is discussion. It will count for 25% of your grade. In addition to a class participation grade, at the start of several of our sessions you will be asked to write (150-300 words) based on some aspect of the reading or our issues. Occasionally there will also be short (250-500 words) papers to be written out of class and submitted to collab. Dates and topics for these will be announced in class and on Collab/website. Beyond these assessments there will be a review paper (1000-1500 words), a film paper (1500 words), and a final project. This project will be decided in consultation with me and will include due dates for planning, outlines, and final turn in. See the website for these dates.

The breakdown for your final grade will be as follows below:

  1. Class participation     25%
  2. In-class writing           15%
  3. Short writing               10%
  4. Review paper              10%
  5. Film paper                   15%
  6. Final Project                25%