The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 was a disaster for Japan in its own right. In the aftermath, disinformation – particularly targeting ethnic Koreans – stoked confusion, hate, and fear.
The uncounted victims
Victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake–––a total of 105,385 of them. They are who the Japanese remember.
The government designates September 1st as Disaster Prevention Day. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio takes part in central government drills and mock emergency meetings. 130 Japanese including the families of victims, Crown Prince Akishino and Crown Princess Kiko, and Deputy Governor of Tokyo Nakamura Rinji attend a memorial service at Yokoamicho Park in Sumida Ward where 38,000 people died.
“As we arrive at the 100-year milestone since the Great Kanto Earthquake, each and every one of us must once again raise our awareness about preventing disaster,” said Deputy Governor Nakamura, as he read a statement by Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko.
Victims of the massacre of Koreans in the Great Kanto Earthquake’s aftermath––––an unknown number. People can’t remember what they don’t know.
“All I can say is that we don’t know the exact number of victims,” explains Tokyo University Professor Tonomura Masaru who specializes in the history of resident Koreans in Japan. “The reason why we don’t know is because nobody looked into it at the time.”
Nobody in the Japanese government has looked into it either, according to Mastuno Hirokazu, Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan.
Secretary Matsuno repeated what the Japanese government has been insisting on for the past century at a press conference on August 31st.
“We cannot find records that can confirm facts,” said Secretary Mastuno.
The government shows no intention of launching future investigations. And is now disowning the only official investigation it had.
“(The report) is not an indication of the government’s understanding (of the massacre),” said Secretary Mastuno.
The report Secretary Matsuno mentions is from the 2009 investigation, which the Cabinet Office is now distancing itself from. According to the Cabinet Office, university researchers serving as committee members of an investigations team compiled the 2009 report–––not government officials.
The elusive death count
Somewhere between 1,000 to several thousand people died in the massacre, according to the Japanese government.
A memorial stone in Yokoamicho Park–––where the service for mourning victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake also took place–––is engraved with a casualty count of 6,000.
“In the chaos of the Great Kanto Earthquake that occurred in September of 1923, due to wrongful scheming and rumoring, the valuable lives of more than 6,000 Chōsen* were stolen.”
*Chōsen is a term that encompasses people from the entire Korean peninsula, which did not separate between North and South Korea until 1948.
The death count of 6,000 is written in stone. Its credibility is not.
“There is a perspective that undermines the 6,000 deaths theory,” says Professor Tonomura. But there is also no scholarly explanation that disproves it either. At present, 6,000 is only a number that the Committee for Memorial Services for the Chōsen Victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake decided on in 1973 when it installed the memorial stone.
While the death count is elusive, the motive for killing thousands of Koreans is not.
Racist rumors that killed
Chōsen are committing arson. Chōsen poisoned the wells. 3000 Chōsen are on their way to attack.
Such baseless rumors spread across Kanto in the following days of the quake according to Professor Tanaka Masataka, a researcher of Chōsen modern history at Senshū University. In response, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued official orders to nationwide law enforcement to crack down on rumored crimes by Chōsen.
Many in Japan required no convincing evidence to punish Chōsen. Many viewed them as colonial subjects of Japan who had been enemies long before September 1923.
The Japanese military and police unleashed their authority as well as hate against Chōsen. Citizens formed paramilitary forces and joined the hunt.
In Utsunomiya, rumors of Chōsen poisoning the water pipes spread. In response, Shimonotsuke Junior High School (Sakushin Gakuin High School today) sent students on patrol with guns between 2-3 AM.
The other victims
Although the target was Chōsen, Chinese and Japanese who were mistaken for Chōsen also died at the hands of Japanese law enforcement and vigilante groups.
Killings extended to Japanese communists, socialists, and anarchists who were abetting many Chōsen and Chinese according to rumors.
Buraku (部落) communities where descendants of feudal-era outcasts live at the lowest level of society as untouchables were also subject to killings.
The crackdown on crime turned into a massacre not even a week after 105,395 people died or went missing in the Great Kanto Earthquake. The 1923 quake (magnitude 7.9) and massacre combined killed seven times the number of people who died in the 2011 quake (magnitude 9.1) and tsunami in Japan’s Tohoku region. Just as many people died in the devastating firebombing of Tokyo by the United States Army Air Forces in 1945.
So many people died in the massacre that Prime Minister Yamamoto Gonnohyōe himself issued a statement. His recognition of the risk of a massacre garnered international scrutiny.
We know that the death toll rose to a number that alarmed the Prime Minister of Japan’s reputation. But that number is likely to remain a mystery. The Governor-General of Chōsen kept reports that depict Japanese people disposing of corpses and concealing victims’ identities.
The Fukuda Village Massacre
The capital burned for the first two days of September 1923. On the 6th day, the Fukuda Village Massacre, or fukudamura-jiken (福田村事件) took place.
Fifteen traveling merchants from Kagawa Prefecture selling medicine arrived in Fukuda Village (Noda City today) on September 6th. There, they encountered a local vigilante group.
Two details about these merchants. Firstly, they hailed from the buraku community. Secondly, they spoke in Kagawa dialect, which made their speech difficult for the Fukuda Village locals to understand.
As rural dialects can be a major marker of discrimination in Japan, the merchants stood out. And it was their accent that convinced the vigilantes to kill nine of them, including children and pregnant women.
The vigilantes used a test that was a common method to distinguish Japanese from Chōsen, which the Japanese merchants failed, for which they were mistaken for Chōsen.
It’s a simplistic test. Knowing that natives of Chōsen language couldn’t pronounce sounds ji and go, the test asked individuals to speak out jyūgo-en gojū-sen (15円50銭), meaning 15 yen 50 sen.
With their Kagawa dialect, the merchants could not satisfy the vigilantes with proper pronunciation and prove themselves Japanese.
“It was something a human wouldn’t do”
“I heard two gunshots. I remember thinking, oh they must’ve gotten killed. (The vigilantes) kicked and pushed (the merchants) to the brink of death. For those who were still breathing, (the vigilantes) tossed them into the Tone River,” said one of the surviving merchants who testified in a postwar civilian investigation.
“I don’t know if you can call it cruel or brutal. It was something a human wouldn’t do.”
The events of the Fukuda Village Incident are retold in director Tatsuya Mori’s latest film September 1923. The new film debuted, fittingly, on September 1st.
In 2003, a civilian group made up of citizens from Kagawa and Chiba Prefectures built a memorial stone near the site of the massacre where they now base memorial services and research events.
On September 6th this year, 80 people including Chiba locals, surviving descendants of victims, and officials from Kagawa held a service at the memorial stone.
Separate memorial services for massacre victims were held also on the 1st in the neighboring Saitama Prefecture. 193 Chōsen died in Saitama, according to records from a 1973 prefectural investigation.
Denialism continues to obscure the truth
As memorial services for the Chōsen massacre victims were peacefully underway this month on September 1st in Saitama, mourners and supporters of the massacre clashed at the Yokoamicho Park memorial.
The all-female right-wing group, Soyokaze (そよ風) or Breeze in English, initially formed to fight against the “comfort women” issue, attempted to gather in front of the memorial stone––––which Soyokaze wants gone.
Soyokaze members have lobbied Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly members to have the monument removed since 2016, claiming that the number of Chōsen victims it displays–––a figure of 6,000–––is a false overestimation.
Opposers of Soyokaze blocked off the monument where the conservative group was scheduled to hold their 7th annual “Memorial Service of Truth,” which the Tokyo Metropolitan Government recognized as hate speech in 2020.
The clash between Soyokaze and its opposers resulted in a frenzied police intervention. A man in his 30s was arrested for interfering with a policeman’s effort to stabilize the clash. Eventually, Soyokaze moved its Memorial Service of Truth elsewhere and gave public speeches.
Soyokaze representatives acknowledged the death of more than 230 Chōsen victims and expressed their condolences.
“However, it is unfortunate that this memorial stone’s victim count has absurdly and unscientifically been made up to say 6,000,” decried Soyokaze representative Suzuki Yukiko.
Tokyo’s governor refuses to acknowledge the victims
Resistance to acknowledging Chōsen victims comes not only from right-wing groups but also from prolific politicians.
The Governor of Tokyo has historically sent condolence letters to the annual memorial service for Chōsen massacre victims at Yokoamicho Park, which the current Governor failed to do for the 7th time this year.
Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko came into office in 2016. From the following year, she stopped sending condolence letters to the Chōsen massacre victims’ service while continuing to do so for the Great Kanto Earthquake’s victims’ service.
In 2022, The Tokyo Metropolitan Human Rights Plaza canceled the screening of director Iiyama Yuki’s short film “In – Mates,” which included content about the massacre of Chōsen.
The overall focus of Iiyama’s film was on the historical struggles of resident Koreans in Japan. They based this story on postwar medical records of Chōsen patients in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital. However, one scene features the aforementioned Professor Tonomura explaining, “It’s true that the Japanese murdered Chōsen.”
In March this year, Iiyama collected about 30 thousand signatures. The petition demanded the city explain last year’s cancellation and permit a future screening. After submitting the petition, Iiyama started in June protesting weekly in-person at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku.
Tokyo officials have only offered the explanation that Iiyama’s film “did not align with the objectives of the display event.”
Iiyama had sharp words for Governor Koike’s refusal to send condolence letters to the Chōsen massacre victims’ memorial service. “The city ignores the massacre’s testimonies. But I hope we citizens can continue to mourn the victims with our voices.”
Citizens’ cries for recognition of massacre victims were louder than ever when a civilian group local to Kanagawa Prefecture released its findings of a document titled “Investigation of Crimes and Arrests of Korean and Chinese Amid Natural Disaster” to the police department.
The document is stamped with the date November 21st, 1923. Kanagawa Prefecture’s Governor at the time, Yasukouchi Asakichi issued the document. It contains information on 145 murder victims including the times and dates of murder. Background such as the occupations and ages of victims are also noted. The document names 14 victims.
Grassroots organizations have been pushing for the government to fulfill its responsibility to officially investigate the massacre of Chōsen.
Civilian findings such as that in Kanagawa disprove the government’s claim that it lacks records to launch an investigation.
But given Japan’s already complicated history with Korea, it is unlikely that the government wants to update its history books with news about the 1923 massacre. Especially when the Education Ministry gave five textbook manufacturers the green light to either omit or edit descriptions of the term comfort women from its history books in 2019.
In March this year, the Education Ministry ordered six publishing companies to correct their descriptions of wartime Korean laborers to align with the government’s vision, which is that they were not “forcibly brought” to Japan.
While it is true that Korean immigration to Japan was mostly voluntary prior to World War 2, wartime labor shortages led to enforced migration.
Koreans in Japan
Pre-war Korean immigrants to Japan sought better opportunities in education and employment. As a result, they dominated the construction and mining industry by 1930, growing to a population of 419,000.
Anti-Korean racism existed from the first wave of immigrants. Japanese authorities viewed them as outsiders whom they could integrate into Japanese society through education and the promotion of intermarriage.
Everything changed following the war. Ethnic Korean immigrants had no chance of becoming Japanese nationals. They were now temporary residents, or Zainichi (在日).
The Japanese government shipped 700 thousand to 800 thousand Koreans to work in Japan during the war. By 1945, there were 2 million Zainichi in Japan. They and their ancestors continue to live in Japan today under a shroud of discrimination and hate.
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