TOKYO – Three pictures depicting an Indian elephant being led to safety through a chaotic scene following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake have been discovered at Japan’s oldest amusement park.
The lithographs, found at Asakusa Hanayashiki in Tokyo’s former entertainment district, focus on the elephant, named Johnny, in the wake of the devastating quake that hit Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures. They portray the distressed animal being led through a crowd of people against a backdrop of flames and black smoke.
A man in a hat carrying a stick appears to be guiding the elephant away from danger as people flee amid the confusion.
Discovered in storage at the park last year, the artworks date back nearly 100 years and measure approximately 40 centimeters in height and 55 cm in width.
The Great Kanto Earthquake occurred shortly before noon on Sept. 1, 1923, causing extensive fires in a number of cities. Many of the animals kept by the amusement park, called Hanayashiki at that time, died in the catastrophe. In the absence of surviving historical documentation at the park, there is little detail known about the elephant.
According to Yuichi Mizoi, a professor of Western cultural history at Kansai University and an expert on the history of zoos, it was reasonably easy for private companies to procure elephants at that time as foreign companies caught many wild animals for export and sale.
One month after the disaster, it was reported in a collection of news pictorials by a cultural studies group that the 11-year-old Johnny had been rescued by Torizo Fukui, a gardener at Hanayashiki.
In the article, Fukui described the urgency of fleeing the chaos as blazes raged out of control. “There were fires everywhere I looked. I was completely absorbed in just dragging him (to safety),” Fukui is quoted as saying.
Two 62-year-old elephants died in the blaze. “There was no way to save them,” he lamented.
That year, the then-Tokyo Asahi Shimbun newspaper carried a report in its Oct. 6 edition featuring the rescued elephant eating potatoes and other food in a cage. The “Centennial History” of Ueno Zoo, located next to Hanayashiki, published in 1982, suggested the elephant was likely Johnny, who was popular for his ability to perform tricks.
According to Yusuke Morita, curator at the Great Kanto Earthquake Memorial Museum, the lithographs were published by two Tokyo-based printing companies between September and October 1923.
Presenting scenes in intense colors to capture the devastating fires, they are believed to have been sold as souvenirs to visitors of the quake-stricken areas.
Morita said the prints discovered “convey these tense scenes that are of high documentary value because there are few photographs elsewhere of fires and fleeing people” from the quake.
The lithographed prints of the rescued elephant were possibly done to “provide hope in absence of positive news,” he added.
The amusement park map used by Hanayashiki between 1925 and 1935 shows a large and small elephant at the facility, suggesting that Johnny was later placed with an elderly elephant that was transferred from Ueno Zoo in December 1923.
Hanayashiki went bust in 1935 and was taken over by a new owner. All the park’s animals were sold to the Sendai municipal government’s zoo in Miyagi Prefecture, now called Sendai Yagiyama Zoological Park.
A record kept by the Sendai city office at that time lists one Indian elephant as living at the park.