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Japan's Darker Days: The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Rumors ruined lives and they're starting again.


Mar 26, 2011

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.

"Roving Bands Of Foreign Thieves". The Asahi Newspaper reports that groundless rumors are flying across Japan (March 26th)

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.”

26 thoughts on “Japan's Darker Days: The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Rumors ruined lives and they're starting again.”
  1. I can’t speak to earlier times but as one who was in Tokyo during this devastation I can say I did notice a change from previous times I’ve visited Japan. People were friendlier, more open and even more gracious than ever. I felt like they really appreciated that I, a foreigner, was still in Japan despite all of the wonky press that was being put out.

    It is interesting that Western media is having a really hard time explaining why people are being so civil in Japan.

    As for TEPCO, I have a feeling most people realize they are only still around because they need to fix that disaster of theirs. No amount of advertising or low-key press is creating good favor for them.

    Thanks for this interesting angle on events.

    1. Julie-sama
      Thanks for taking the time to read it. I think in general this disaster has had people show their best side. I could speculate why but I’m just happy that is the case.

  2. yeah this disaster must have western (american) reporters baffled,cofused and angry that they can’t make another culture/country/race look inferior to us like the haiti coverage or any other random disaster

  3. I agree with Julie, people became more friendly and help in sometimes strange situations. I’ve been living here for 11 years and can say that we got to know each other better with my neighbors after all. Digging up and pull out their card made us one big family. My car was on another parking which was fine, but I worked with others to help with theirs. They were so happy that I did even though my car was away and safe.
    Hate when press make us to hate as criminals.

  4. Very nice article Jake. I must admit that Sankei headline had me nodding in disbelief until I’ve read the article on their site – what the world is coming to? Japanese far right types slightly admitting there’s something good in the US? Maybe that 2012 thing is true, after all.
    The wave of anti black people, “You-see-Japan-does-right-because-their-racist” nonsense that’s engulfing Youtube and other social networks these days should probably make the most intelligent part of US public very, very worried.

    1. Yes, these are strange times in Japan. I actually subscribe to the Sankei Shinbun and the Asahi News For Elementary School and Junior HIgh School students. Sankei has great crime coverage and the Asahi articles for kids are easy to read and often very informative.

  5. You wouldn’t believe how weird are times here in Italy too. Coverage of the disaster has been so far AWFULLY inaccurate and unprofessional, far beyond the “normal” non-professionality of the Italian press. I’ve actually subscribed to a FB group made by Italians resident in Japan and few Japan lover (like me) trying to stop the insanity (faked news, reports of panic and massive evacuation in Tokyo, you name it). We’re achieving some result, but in general the whole thing is seriously depressing.
    The only exception seems to be Pio D’Emilia, a Skynews report who’s doing a very good job straight in Miyagi and Fukushima. But the rest is really trash.

  6. An interesting artcile that goes to show just how much Japanese society has progressed after the militaristic fanaticism of the early 20th century.

    If there’s some good of this disaster, then perhaps it can remind people over Asia that past is the past, and help people let go of the old grudges from last century as Japanese people and foreign aiders work to overcome this crisis. Particularly encouraging has been the sympathy from Chinese people towards Japan in the destructions aftermath. I guess time shows if it can lead to at least some greater reconciliation between the nations, but I hope so.

  7. Mr. Adelstien, I’ve become a reall fun of yours since I’ve started trying all possible way to get in touch with you. All those days were useless, but still I want to tell you about one strange case that took place in Moscow this winter and I really need you expert opinion on it. Please let me tell everything about it 🙂

  8. Granted things are – as far as we’ve seen – more civil than they were after the 1923 quake, but I don’t understand why the western media (with few exceptions) has insisted on perpetrating this “There’s no looting in Japan!” myth. (The Atlantic ran such an article and was quickly corrected by a reader. They’ve since retracted the article and posted links to video and news reports about looting.)


    Some of the bigger thefts have started to make the news, such as when 40 million yen was stolen from a tsunami-ravaged bank:


    And the Guardian is reporting on mounting frustration and anger among survivors and cases of looting and theft:


    The insistence of the foreign media that Japan is some sort of zen haven with no crime or looting, even in times of great distress bothers me, probably because I prefer to think of the Japanese as people, not some astonishingly polite alien species/race of docile fetish objects. When people are starving and freezing, they’ll take what they need to survive.

  9. Rose,
    I completely agree with you. I suppose it’s more about on a comparative scale. If enough time goes by without proper aid or police on the ground, people will start misbehaving. Japan is not a crime free society and earthquakes don’t magically transform people into saints.

  10. I think the “no looting” -myth created by the media is largely born as a mix of two things. Firstly with foreign journalists expecting similar reactions by Japanese as they saw in Haiti, or with 2004 tsunami, and their surprise that in Japan looting didn’t happen on a similar scale. And secondly this combined to a streotypical image about Japanese as honest and obedient people. Tempting some journalists into writing about stoic Japanese who even in the face of disaster remain law abiding and resist the temptation of looting, forgetting the fact that some people did in fact take the opportunity created by the chaos.

    1. Maybe as Ian has posted what is reported as looting is people taking food stuffs that will go bad anyway with the power out. Some of what is reported as looting may just be bad reporting. I don’t think that the Slate piece said there was no looting, just not a lot of it.

  11. There was *some* looting in the Miyagi prefecture and there was coverage in the Japanese news. However, it was more like handing out stuff that was going to go bad.

    A camera crew were interviewing a manager for a supermarket at his warehouse and people were coming up and taking whatever they could carry. Someone actually brought his kei-van. The crew asked the manager if that was ok and he said there’s no point keeping food that was going to go bad with the electrical being down and water getting everything.

  12. Btw, can Jake-san or someone else comment on how things are in Tokyo at the moment? It’s been a while since I’ve seen media reporting about anything else than Fukushima, and I’ve been wondering how the rest of Japan is faring now.

    1. It’s a little austere and Tokyo is quiet but daily life here goes on pretty much the same. In the disaster stricken areas, roads are being rebuilt, people are going home.

  13. http://badboyinjapan.blogspot.com/2011/03/post-earthquake-looting-in-japan.html

    I was stimulated by the foreign media more than the local. They seem to want to perpetuate some kind of ideal society. It’s a great place. Lotta warts like any other. But the media’s apparent lack of research was an eye-opener. SLATE, The Telegraph U.K., FOX, Huffington Post. All used stories with the words “No looting”?

    People under stress are gonna act differently and when the government isn’t fully in control of things bad people are going to take the opportunity.

    It has gone (apparently, from “No” to “No-mass looting”) That is better than a flat out inaccuracy. I can understand the local media not really wanting to report on that now. They have not had their (Watergate/Vietnam) which forever changed American media and it’s relations to Washington but it has been MOSTLY the foreign media that has been perpetuating a myth.

    Your a Journalist..right? Fact checking is a basic and fundamental aspect to that occupation. The people are mostly just trying to survive and there are some profiteers posing as bank reps etc etc…typical post disaster scheming but the media….the media…they blew my minds on this one.

    1. Chris,
      You make excellent points. I should point out that SLATE actually wrote “Why so little looting in Japan?”. Earthquakes don’t turn people into saints but overall the amount of looting and violence in post-earthquake Japan has been relatively small. And there have been cases of what was reported as looting being false. There were reports that a supermarket was being looted in Miyagi Prefecture and then it later turned out that the owner was inviting people in to take whatever they could because, “without electricity it’ll just rot here anyway.”

      As for fact-checking being fundamental to the occupation, I agree but places like NewsCorp do not. It’s a business first. As a matter of fact, just recently, I had a documentary production company with a highly esteemed reputation tell me that while my contract said that I was supposed to verify “the factual accuracy” of the program that what they really meant was they just wanted me to opine on “the general accuracy” of the final product. I have no idea what “general accuracy” is supposed to mean. If that’s the gold standard in journalism now, I’m appalled.

  14. Needless to say no one has monopoly on evil or goodness. Human mind puts survival at the forefront; when chaos rules, people will act to survive. What can be said of the relative lack of looting in Japan speaks, perhaps, more for the general sense people share that order will quickly be restored, that the authority will quickly act to bring some sense of order. This than, if anything can be called virtue, is the virtue of Japanese people.

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