‘Not pride, alas, it is, but love of man,
To mourn so terrible a stroke as this.’
Voltaire, On the Lisbon Disaster
On 1 September 1923, a massive earthquake hit the greater Tokyo and Yokohama area, killing over 100,000 people and destroying two thirds of Tokyo. The capital city of commercial triumphs and consumerist luxuries lay in ruins. Prior to the 2011 tsunami, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 was the most devastating disaster Japan had seen. Continuously studied by historians, the earthquake has come to mean many things, entangled as it was in politics, ideology and Japan’s process of modernization and nation-making. Photographs in Brown’s invaluable archive depict the widespread human and environmental costs of the earthquake, and the construction of an adequate narrative is an ongoing process.
For some, the earthquake presented a ‘golden opportunity’ for urban reconstruction (though the grandiose schemes were never realized due to bureaucratic infighting and budgetary concerns). For the authorities, the Kanto disaster presented an opportunity to reorder Japanese society which, from their point of view, had been mired in an age of social unrest and moral decay. In the post-disaster period, ideological issues were as crucial as relief and reconstruction. A few days after the earthquake, the Ministry of Education sent boy scouts to collect stories of survival and heroism (see Borland). Within three months, the Ministry had published and disseminated a collection of stories in three volumes – entitled Education Materials Related to the Earthquake – outlining the praiseworthy deeds of ideal Japanese citizens. The volumes were filled with stories that demonstrate selfless sacrifice, filial piety, humanitarian benevolence, courage and loyalty to the Emperor. The narratives were, in effect, instruments used by conservative officials to reinforce certain ideologies and traditional values, which were increasingly threatened by commercial forces and the influence of western democratic ideas (Borland).
But reality presented a very different picture from the narratives of glorified acts of selflessness, bravery and kindness. To the deaths caused by the natural phenomenon historians have added the human-engineered disaster – the organized killing of Korean citizens by Japanese civilian vigilantes, police and military, in the days following the earthquake. The massacre, though carefully documented by historians, is not extensively known by the outside world. The wave of violence began after rumors circulated about a potential Korean uprising, which involved Koreans poisoning wells or committing arson. Rumormongering turned out to be as destructive as the fires that spread through the city. On 2 September, the government declared martial law; when police and military heard the rumors, they participated in rounding up the Korean citizens. Initially, the Koreans were kept at detention camps for protection, but according to historical studies, many in fact died at the hands of the authorities (see Ryang). There were approximately 20,000 Koreans living in Tokyo and Kanagawa at the time; scholars estimate that over 6000 Korean citizens were killed in the days following the earthquake (police admitted to the death of only about two hundred Koreans). Some Chinese, and even Japanese, were also killed, after being mistook for Korean. Most bodies were brutally mutilated or tortured. Authorities also took the opportunity afforded by the chaos to execute political activists and labor leaders.
Although Prime Minister Yamamoto had issued a special appeal condemning the violence towards Koreans, the government did little else to stop the bloodshed. Historians have long discussed the complex reasons behind the atrocities. The history of colonialism and antagonism certainly played a role, as did the fact that the Korean population in Japan had grown rapidly from 1920 to 1923. The Japanese attitude towards Korea had always been a mixture of contempt and affinity (see Allen). But as Edward Seidensticker writes in his history of Tokyo, ‘A willingness, and indeed a wish, to believe the worst about Koreans has been a consistent theme in modern Japanese culture’. J. Michael Allen argues convincingly for the scapegoat theory, pointing out that the Koreans bore ‘the burden of Japanese confusion and anger in the chaos brought about by the disaster’.
Pre-existing fears and prejudices, coupled with the panic that followed the earthquake, led to the slaughters. Recalling Heinrich von Kleist’s ‘Earthquake in Chile’, the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake presented two opposing sides of human society. There were indeed acts of kindness and courage, people helping one another through the shared plight of grief and terror. But the shadow that is the massacre looms large. Not for Tokyo was the ‘disaster utopia’ described by Mark Healey, forged out of shared suffering. And like Jeronimo and Josefa’s descent from the idyllic paradise of the forest to the brutality of the church, the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake could be portrayed as a downward spiral. The community of Tokyo was exposed to be exceedingly fragile, or perhaps illusory to begin with – since true integration was denied to those who were not born Japanese (see Allen).
Film director Akira Kurosawa was a survivor of the earthquake, and recorded the horrors in his autobiography. Kurosawa described in excruciating detail the harrowing landscape of devastation, where ‘every manner of death possible to human beings [was] displayed by corpses’. Kurosawa’s passage on the massacre of the Koreans is perhaps one of the most engaging parts of his autobiography:
“What is frightening is the ability of fear to drive people off the course of human behavior. By the time the fires downtown had subsided, everyone had used up all the household candles, and the world was plunged into the real darkness of night. People who felt threatened by this darkness became the prey of the most horrifying demogogues and engaged in the most incredibly reckless, lawless acts. […] When a person can’t see anything to the left or the right, he becomes thoroughly demoralized and confused […] The massacre of Korean residents of Tokyo that took place on the heels of the Great Kanto Earthquake was brought on by demogogues who deftly exploited people’s fear of the darkness. With my own eyes I saw a mob of adults with contorted faces rushing like an avalanche in confusion […] They were chasing a bearded man, thinking someone with so much facial hair could not be Japanese.”
It was indeed the dark night of the soul, and as a child witness, Kurosawa was bewildered by the behavior of the adults. However, Kurosawa’s argument for the demogogues responsible for the madness is unconvincing. Exploitative demogogues were no more responsible for the massacre than star alignment was. Human actions and societal forces were responsible for the social catastrophe of the massacre. At the height of modernization and westernization, human reason seem to have disappeared overnight. The government was right to be concerned about the moral decay of Japanese society, but the seat of that decay was probably not what they expected it to be. Although it was certainly a small group of people who participated actively in the massacre, that such an event occurred signals fractures in the society (plus it is impossible to know how many of those who did not directly participate actually condoned the slaughtering). Such social violence, fueled by ethnic animosity and long-repressed rage, ultimately did more damage than protests, riots and urban decadence (which were the main issues that the government was concerned about).
The Great Kanto Earthquake called for a re-examination of the moral limits of 1923 Japanese society. And although this is history, it is not entirely in the past. Just last year, officials in Yokohama recalled textbooks that described the massacre. From the 1923 earthquake to the 1995 Kobe earthquake to the recent 3/11 tsunami, much remains to be analyzed about the interrelationship between Japanese society and the culture of disaster. And if Murakami’s interpretation is to be heeded, multiple fissures still lie beneath the calm surface of rational, progressive Japan. If nothing else, the Great Kanto Earthquake reminds us of the porous boundary between natural and human-made disaster. It is only through human failings that events become catastrophes for humankind, in the truest, most destructive sense; so perhaps there are no purely natural disasters, only natural cataclysms prolonged and darkened by social catastrophe.
Allen, J. Michael, ‘The Price of Identity: The 1923 Kanto Earthquake and Its Aftermath’, Korean Studies, vol. 20, no. 1 (1996): 64-93.
Borland, Janet, ‘Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Reinvigorating the Japanese State with Moral Values through Education following the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 40, no. 4 (2006): 875-907.
Ryang, Sonia, ‘The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Massacre of Koreans in 1923: Notes on Japan’s Modern National Sovereignty’, Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 76, no. 4 (Autumn 2003): 731-748.
Schencking, Charles, ‘Catastrophe, Opportunism, Contestation: The Fractured Politics of Reconstructing Tokyo following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923’, Modern Asian Studies, vol. 40, no. 4 (2006): 833-873.
Weisenfeld, Gennifer. Imagining Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake (University of California Press, 2012).