HKU Historian becomes First Scholar of Japan to Win Prestigious International Book Prize


Earthquake Children book cover

Earthquake Children book cover

Dr. Janet Borland, Assistant Professor in the Department of Japanese Studies, has won the 2020 Grace Abbott Book Prize for Earthquake Children: Building Resilience from the Ruins of Tokyo (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2020).

The prize is awarded annually by the Society for the History of Children and Youth for the best book published in English on the history of children, childhood, or youth (broadly construed). Dr. Borland received the prize in an online ceremony at the biennial conference in Galway. She is the first scholar of Japan to win this prestigious international book prize.

Dr. Borland’s book challenges the popular idea that Japanese people owe their resilience in the face of disaster to some innate sense of calm. She believes that Japan’s contemporary culture of preparedness is the result of learned and practiced behaviors that began in earnest after the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake that destroyed Tokyo.

“In 1923, children were anything but invisible in the ruins of Tokyo. They returned to makeshift schools within four weeks of the earthquake, where they wrote essays and drew pictures about their experiences of the earthquake, and their hopes for the future,” Dr Borland explained. “Japanese experts recognised that children’s candid voices could play an important role in a society recovering from disaster. As such, children and their creations were valued and used as harbingers of hope, symbols of resilience, and ambassadors of gratitude, for a variety of commemorative, pedagogical, and political purposes.”

“By mining a remarkable archive of materials generated before and after the earthquake, Dr. Borland demonstrates that children played a critical role in the development of Japan’s distinctive approach to disaster-preparedness,” noted the prize committee. “It provides a model for how historians might analyze and incorporate sources produced by children into their scholarship.”

Members of the international prize committee were “particularly impressed” with Dr. Borland’s “expansive and creative archive, and her nuanced analysis of the diverse material children generated about the disaster, including narratives, images, and poems.”

The committee likewise praised the “book’s graceful narrative rendered in clear and accessible prose, along with its helpful methodological discussions.” Both features, they agreed, “will make it valuable to scholars and students in many fields.”

“I am deeply honoured to win the Grace Abbott Book Prize,” Dr. Borland said. “My greatest hope is that Earthquake Children will continue to attract a wide readership and help to highlight the important role that children have played as agents of disaster preparedness in history, and can play in the future.”

Notably, this is the second book prize awarded to Dr. Borland for her first book. In July 2020, Earthquake Children won the Hong Kong Academy of the Humanities First Book Prize.

On July 11-12, Dr. Borland has been invited to showcase Earthquake Children at the 2021 Natural Hazards Workshop, University of Colorado, Boulder. She is the only historian of Japan to present her book in a field largely dominated by eminent social scientists. The workshop will bring together hazards and disaster researchers, alongside federal and state officials from agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the foremost institutions in the United States dedicated to advancing disaster research and preparedness.

Dr. Janet Borland is an award-winning historian of modern Japan whose research focuses on fundamental relationships between people and the natural and built environment. At HKU, Dr. Borland has actively developed synergies between her research, teaching, and knowledge exchange activities. Her research-led teaching philosophy inspired her to pioneer the Young Leaders Tour of Japan, a unique field trip supported by Mitsubishi Corporation and designed to give HKU students firsthand experience of recovery and reconstruction in Miyagi and Fukushima following the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. In recognition of her achievements, Dr. Borland was awarded the 2021 Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award, and the 2018 University of Hong Kong Outstanding Teaching Award (Individual).

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