The Great Kanto Earthquake Massacre
In 1923 Americans in Japan witnessed the killing of Koreans and socialists
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▲ Yokohama in early September, 1923
ⓒ2006 Robert Neff Collection
Just before noon on Sept. 1, 1923, a powerful earthquake violently shook the Japanese cities of Tokyo and Yokohama. The earthquake lasted between four and ten minutes, in some places thrusting the earth up nearly eight feet, and for the next couple of days would be followed by more than 800 aftershocks.

The earthquake's devastation was unbelievable, but the firestorms that followed were horrific. The flames spread through the cities, incinerating victims who were trapped in the ruins of their buildings and those who sought shelter in the supposed safety of the open squares and parks. Perhaps the worst example of this was the incineration of nearly 30,000 people who sought refuge at the Military Clothing Depot in downtown Tokyo, only to be trapped by the flames and perish horribly.

Though the acts of Mother Nature were horrendous, they paled in comparison to the behavior of humankind. Because it was nearly lunch, many of the Japanese mothers and wives were cooking when the earthquake struck -- the subsequent fires were primarily due to these small stoves. However, rumors quickly spread that Korean activists, in league with the Japanese socialists, were responsible for the fires and the poisoning of wells. These rumors spread just as quickly and were just as deadly as the firestorms.

Newspapers in the United States were filled not only with the accounts of the horrible devastation in Japan, but also with the massacre of Koreans that followed.

On Sept. 4, The Dunkirk Evening Observer reported: "Rioting has broken out at Tokio [sic], adding its horror to those of the flames. The population is in desperate need of food. Koreans are reported to be taking a leading part in looting and pillaging and martial law, which has been proclaimed after the disaster has been extended." Other newspapers reported that 200 armed Koreans were driven from Tokyo after battling with the Japanese military, Korean looters were being shot, and that the Japanese population was being armed by the police to deal with the Koreans and the socialists.

Reverend H.V.S. Peake noted that the young Japanese men were armed with "heavy sticks, sections of pipe, and in some instances with antiquated swords," but very few firearms. One newspaper described them as "wildly excited mobs of 'young men's societies' -- a sort of Ku Klux Klan-Fascist combination."

Miss Martha Johnson, an American tourist aboard the steamship Empress of China in Yokohama harbor, told of her own experiences in the days that followed the quake: "A Korean caught by [the] Japanese and tied to a pole at the edge of the city [was] beaten by every passing native as reprisal for the terrorism carried on by robbers alleged to be his countrymen."

A reporter noted that: "A Korean's life wasn't worth a plugged nickel that night. They were bumped off where they were found -- beaten to death with clubs, hacked to pieces with swords; pierced with spears. Just to be a Korean -- or to be a Japanese 'Red' or Socialist -- was sufficient to sign a summary death warrant at the hands of the roaming bands of frenzied 'loyalists.'"

Not all the victims were Korean. Roderick O. Metheson witnessed a young Japanese man, possibly a Socialist, who was beaten to death by a crowd of young Japanese men (18-25 years old) armed with crowbars and had this to say:

"Whenever some one was unable to give a good account of himself he went to the ground under a shower of blows and his head was beaten in. It was a gruesome sight, but our nerves already were stunned by an afternoon and night of horror, and it made little impression. With thousands of dead all over Yokohama, a few more corpses were as raindrops in the sea."

The Japanese authorities reported that 750 Koreans were placed on boats in Yokohama harbor as a means of guaranteeing their safety. There were many large oil storage tanks near the harbor and these burst during the earthquake covering the water with a thick film of oil. This later caught fire and destroyed several vessels and forced others to flee the harbor. This might have been what Captain Hedstrom, an American working at Yokohama's docks, witnessed. He alleged in a paper presented to the State Department that he witnessed 250 live Koreans, bound hand and feet, being placed on an old oil-covered junk and set afire.

In the days that followed the earthquake, Japan, sensitive of world opinion, began censoring news reports of the disaster and the subsequent massacres. The Japanese premier issued a house to house appeal to the population to exert its characteristic self-control, and insisted that peaceful Koreans had to be protected. By Sept. 7, thousands of Koreans had been rounded up and placed in internment camps for their own safety.

Although many of the terrified Koreans sought the safety of the police and military, others were terrified of these figures of authority who, in some instances, actually took part in the atrocities.

An American witnessed a Japanese mob lynch a Korean who they had obtained from the Japanese police. They horribly mutilated him before they finally killed him. W.H. Stevens, an American, and members of his family witnessed eight Koreans accused of arson, slowly bayoneted by Japanese soldiers, "compelling them to die by inches." Stevens was then forced to drive his automobile over the Korean corpses or suffer the same fate. Another incident involved fifty Koreans led away by Japanese police to "supposed safety." They were found the next morning slaughtered and lying in a heap.

In the weeks that followed the earthquake, Japanese authorities concerned that word of the atrocities would reach Korea increased their vigilance on the peninsula and carefully monitored what was printed in the news. Japanese state-owned Korean newspapers were easy to censor, but newspapers from abroad were not. Eventually the Japanese government conceded that over 500 Koreans had died at the hands of Japanese vigilantes and troops. In its own defense it cited cases of Koreans who had engaged in looting, arson, and violence, and concluded that "many innocent Koreans suffered with the guilty." Further vilifying the Koreans and giving justification to the massacre, Japanese-owned newspapers reported "the activities of the Koreans led to the discovery of a plot to assassinate the prince regent, members of the imperial family and high officials."

No one will probably ever know how many Koreans were killed in those terrible days following the earthquake, but it is estimated that the true number was between 6,000 and 10,000 people. To this day it remains a dark page in the annals of Korean-Japanese relations.
Robert Neff is a historian on the Joseon period and is currently writing a number of books in that field. He has lived in Korea for many years.

2006/09/29 오후 3:14
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