Japan's Darker Days: The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Rumors ruined lives and they're starting again.
The people of Japan have impressed the world with their generally orderly and peaceful response to the earthquake, the tidal waves, and the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture. While there have been problems, there have been few reports of wide-spread looting or violence. Most people are patiently dealing with the problem, even in devastated areas. There have been runs on toilet paper and drinking water but for the most part things have gone smoothly. Rumored accounts of sexual assault at the shelters and other acts of violence are starting to come in but few are verifiable. The police did arrest one 40 year old construction worker who broke ranks at a line for gas and threatened a gas station attendant until his car was filled up. He drove off and was arrested later for the obvious: extortion (恐喝容疑）. However, for the most part the average Japanese citizen’s response to a trifecta of disasters has been a model of stoic calm and mutual consideration.
This wasn’t the case after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Rumors were soon spread and propagated by the mass media that Koreans and other foreigners were running amuck, creating a hostile atmosphere in which untold numbers of Koreans and others were killed and brutalized. It did not speak well of the Japanese people at the time. Japan has not always been a peaceful nation and disasters do not turn all sinners into saints. The Asahi Shinbun, Japan’s second largest newspaper today reports that wild rumors are already flying in the disaster stricken areas, including those of roving foreigner bandits (外国人窃盗団). Due to the disproportionate coverage the Japanese media gives to crimes by foreigners and an undercurrent of xenophobia in Japanese society, it’ll only take one report of a group of foreigners committing crimes after the earthquake to quickly create an ugly mood. It would be nice if the Japanese press showed the restraint in reporting such events as they do in reporting on the professional negligence of TEPCO, one of the biggest media advertisers in Japan.
However, there are signs of greater acceptance of foreigners in Japan and acknowledgement and/or acceptance of their role in Japanese society. The Sumiyoshi-kai, Japan’s second largest crime group, reaching out to some foreigners to offer them places to stay was surprising. As is the March 26th story story in the Sankei Shinbun (産経新聞）which has the headline: “The US Forces In Japan: Heroes of The Reconstruction” （在日米軍 復興の英雄). Anyone who knows what a far-right, anti-American newspaper the Sankei Shinbun is on a normal day, should be shocked to see such a headline. In US terms, it’s like Glen Beck saying, “I think Obama’s health care policies make a lot of sense. I support him.” You get the idea.
The following is reprinted from the book, The Dark Side: Infamous Japanese Crimes and Criminals (Kodansha International, 2001). Currently out of print. Mark Schreiber, the author of the book, was kind enough to give us permission to reprint the relevant section. It’s a sobering read and it says a lot about how far Japan has come in the last few decades. Note: The Asahi Shinbun (朝日新聞）does touch upon the fate of foreigners in the Great Kanto earthquake within their article. (過去の震災では、１９２３年の関東大震災で「朝鮮人が暴動を起こす」とのデマが流れ、多数の朝鮮人が虐殺された。９５年の阪神大震災では、大地震の再発や仮設住宅の入居者選定をめぐる流言が広がった.)
“ The quake and its aftermath” by Mark Schreiber
Nineteen twenty-three, the 12th year of Taisho, is best remembered as the year of the Great Kanto Earthquake. When the quake struck just before noon on September 1, law enforcement suffered as much as the general population. Twenty-one of the city’s police stations and 254 koban were seriously damaged or completely destroyed. Among the dead were 94 police officers and firemen, including the captain of the Honjo Aioi police station.
Tokyo’s Kosuge Prison was devastated. The over 1,000 inmates were temporarily released on the honor system — a custom going back to feudal times. Amazingly, all of them returned, apparently out of a sense of obligation to the warden, Shirosuke Arima, who was known for his stern but fair treatment. In Yokohama, where the devastation was even greater, the local prison was not so fortunate. Its warden temporarily freed 1,131 prisoners on their own recognizance. Of these, 140 failed to return and the warden required assistance from the navy shore patrol. Later, naval ships were used to ferry several hundred convicts to temporary lodgings at Nagoya prison.
The mob lynchings of thousands of Koreans and smaller numbers of Chinese were anything but spontaneous. On September 3, Fumio Goto, a security official in the Interior Ministry, cabled outlying offices that Koreans were committing acts of arson and ordered them rounded up. The media, particularly the nationalist Hokkai Times, chimed in with inflammatory stories.
One of the first acts by newly appointed Prime Minister Gonnohyoe Yamamoto was a demand for the persecution to stop, but the damage had been done. The incident was to spur a young man named Daisuke Namba to fire a shots at then Crown Prince Regent Hirohito on December 27. He was found guilty of lese majeste and hanged a year later.
Rightists also took advantage of the confusion to kill scores of fellow Japanese, whom they viewed as “enemies” of the state. In the notorious “Kameido Incident” of September 3, Yoshitora Kawai, Keishichi Hirasawa and eight other labor activists were beheaded by cavalry troops based in Chiba.
Perhaps the best-known victim of the carnage was a 39-year-old anarchist named Sakae Osugi. One of the country’s most flamboyant rebels, Osugi had recently stirred controversy with an autobiography in which he railed against the oppressiveness of family and society. He had just returned from a sojourn in France.
On September 16, a captain of the *kempeitai* (military police) named Masahiko Amakasu dispatched teams of soldiers to track down and apprehend Osugi. He was finally spotted around 5:30 p.m., waiting with his six-year-old nephew Munekazu as his wife, Ito Noe, 29, shopped for fruit near their house.
The three were driven to the military police compound at Kojimachi. Around 8:00 p.m. Osugi was taken into a conference room and seated. Amakasu later testified that he walked behind Osugi and locked his forearm across his throat in a judo stranglehold. It took about 10 minutes for Osugi to die of asphyxiation. The process was repeated shortly afterward with Ito. Two enlisted men then strangled the boy using a hand towel. That night, their bodies were wrapped in burlap, bound with rope and tossed down an unused well.
On September 20, doctors performed forensic autopsies on the victims. The report, only made public half a century later, noted that Osugi and his wife were also severely beaten before being strangled.
At his court martial in October, an unrepentant Amakasu delivered a rambling soliloquy on his motive for the slayings. “In just 50 or 60 years,” he harangued, “our country has achieved the level of civilization that took 500 or 600 years in Western countries. If anarchists are allowed to oppose the ways of our sacred land, it will lead to the ruination of the Yamato race. [These people] are like parasites in the body of a lion, and I cannot allow them to carry on.” The prosecutor at the trial was less than energetic in condemning Amakasu’s crimes. After all, he conceded to the bench, these were “extraordinary times.” Still, murder could not be disregarded; the prosecution requested a 15-year sentence. On Dec. 8, the military court sentenced Amakasu to a 10-year term of imprisonment. Sgt. Keijiro Mori received 3-year sentence. Two MPs under his command were acquitted because they acted on orders.
Amakasu was quietly paroled after two and a half years. After spending 18 months in France, he became director of a film production company in Manchuria and over the next decade engaged in a variety of intrigues. He committed suicide on August 20, 1945, to avoid capture by the Soviet army. Amakasu achieved posthumous film stardom of sorts. Played by composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, he was prominently featured in the 1987 Bertolucci film “The Last Emperor.”