The Final Chapter

Since leaving Williamsburg, I have been adding the finishing touches to my book and I am proud to say it looks just like I imagined it would. Seven weeks of work has created a book that is 201 pages long and explores the disaster cultures of Japan and Hawai’i. The book is at the printers now and hopefully I’ll get the final product before the August 29th deadline. Now that my summer of research has come to an end, I can reflect back on all that I’ve learned.

My foray into research and writing has led me to the conclusion that volcanic eruptions and earthquakes can act as triggers for cultural change. When analyzing natural phenomena as cultural phenomena the issue of correlation versus causation arises. Correlation refers to when a catastrophic natural event just happened to occur around the same time as an observed cultural change, whereas causation refers to when the observed cultural change stemmed directly from the natural event. This makes assessing whether natural disasters act as agents of cultural change difficult. For example, in Japan during the late nineteenth century, the series of earthquakes and natural disasters that plagued the shogunate could have just been a coincident but were interpreted as a sign of divine disfavor. The 1855 Ansei-Edo Earthquake in particular seemed to bring these connections into focus and triggered a cultural and political discussion that would help generate the appropriate political milieu for the Meiji Restoration. The connection between the 1855 earthquake and the Meiji Restoration twelve years later seems tenuous at best. The time gap between the two events imply that they are mostly unrelated yet if one looks deeper, a clear thread of discourse binds the two events.

On the other hand, sometimes too much emphasis is placed on individual disruptive natural events. Trying to find direct correlations between particular natural disasters and observed cultural change can obscure broader cultural themes. One can’t see the forest for the trees. While specific events can act as a catalyst for cultural change, larger trends in an environmental setting of an area can also shape larger cultural developments. Areas with a proclivity for certain natural phenomena, like Japan and Hawai’i, develop cultures that hinge on the instability of their natural surroundings. This is in part why I explored specific natural events in the case studies as well as larger environmental circumstances for both Japan and Hawaii. The chapter on Mount Fuji approached the volcano as a symbol of Japan. No specific eruption was linked to any specific cultural occurrence. Rather the entire volcano was explored in is relationship to the development of art and mythology in Japan. The 1855 earthquake case study on the other hand looked at the affect that a specific event had on the cultural landscape of Japan. In essence it looked at an individual “tree.” Although the affect of the general frequency of earthquakes had on the development of Japanese culture, aka the “forest” was also explored later in my book.
In Part III: Hawai’i, the volcanic landscape’s impact on the endogenous culture was investigated. The ever-changing nature of the fiery landscape of Hawai’i leads to the fusion of creation and destruction into one deity, Pele. This connection between the procreative powers of nature with the destructive creates a unique culture that lives in concert with natural forces. The destructive forces of nature are thus perceived as an overall positive power that can create new land as it destroys old land. Volcanoes are therefore seen as the source of life—for from their fiery maws lava spews out to form the Hawaiian Island chain—as well as the source of death as its glowing lava smothers forests beneath its flowing black skirts.

The Great Ka’u Earthquake of 1868 and the 1880-81 eruption of Mauna Loa are individual trees in the larger forest of natural events that shape the culture of Hawaii. The western reports that dominate the coverage of these events view them as terrifying catastrophes that upset the otherwise paradisiacal island life. Yet to the Hawaiians they are just another occurrence in a long string of eruptions and earthquakes that reach back to the beginning of life on the islands. Pele must be appeased but otherwise life continues on. The destruction caused by the 1868 earthquake is portrayed as an act of retribution by the beautiful yet hot-tempered Pele, rather than a unpredictable act of nature. These events can also highlight tipping points for cultural change. For instance, the account of Kapi’olani’s defiance of Pele set the stage for the expansion of Christianity throughout the islands. Christian missionaries also took credit for the sparing of Hilo during the later 1880 eruption even though a stronger case can be made for Princess Ruth.

Interestingly, both cultures associate female deities with volcanoes. These deities are also closely linked to short-lived flowers. The Japanese Shinto goddess Konohana Sakuya Hime is the goddess of flowering trees and volcanoes. Her sacred flower is the cherry blossom, a symbol of delicate earthly life. Likewise, Pele is associated with several flowering trees and berry bushes that thrive in the harsh conditions of fresh lava fields. In Japan, the eternal nature of Mount Fuji is juxtaposed against the ephemeral beauty of the flowering cherry blossom tree. Similarly in Hawai’i, the desolate lava fields are linked to several flowering pioneer species. The ability of nature to destroy, as embodied by the destructive power of fiery volcanoes, is integrally linked with nature’s ability for growth and change, as symbolized by the impermanence of flowering plants and the procreative energy of female deities. This discovery has led me to conclude that Nature is inherently impermanent. Thus it can be argued that both disaster cultures in Japan and Hawai’i value the ephemeral and view the destruction caused by natural disasters as an opportunity for regrowth.


  1. What an awesome project! It is so cool that you are now a published author 🙂 It is inspiring that both cultures seek out the positive in the disaster and look for the opportunities of regrowth.

  2. jmsequeira says:

    The link between female deities and volcanoes is fascinating (gives a quick peek into preconceived notions about women in each culture). Is their a corresponding link to male deities and different geological formations?