[Reportage] 100 years on, Japan still obscures truth about Koreans massacred after Kanto quake

Posted on : 2023-08-30 16:46 KST Modified on : 2023-08-30 16:46 KST
Now a century after the atrocity, the precise number of victims and reasons for the massacres remain to be established
A collective of people searching for remains of Koreans massacred after the Great Kanto Earthquake began digging near Arakawa in September 1982 based on witness testimony, but were unable to find any remains. The next year, in 1983, the group discovered newspaper articles stating that the police had already moved and hidden the remains in November 1923. (courtesy of Bae So, a Zainichi Korean photographer)
A collective of people searching for remains of Koreans massacred after the Great Kanto Earthquake began digging near Arakawa in September 1982 based on witness testimony, but were unable to find any remains. The next year, in 1983, the group discovered newspaper articles stating that the police had already moved and hidden the remains in November 1923. (courtesy of Bae So, a Zainichi Korean photographer)

“That’s where Yotsugi Bridge used to be. It was around here that Japanese soldiers and vigilantes brutally massacred Koreans after the Great Kanto Earthquake. They say that around a hundred people were buried here by the stream. Sadly, we haven’t been able to find their remains — or even learn their names.”

At 11 am on Aug. 11, I stood on the banks of the Arakawa River, in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward, taking in the stunning view of Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest broadcasting tower.

With photographs cradled in one hand, Masao Nishizaki, the 63-year-old director of a group called Garden Balsam, began to explain the tragedy that had occurred here one century ago.

With the temperature a sweltering 35 degrees, it was hard enough just to keep standing. But despite the sweat that dripped down his face, Nishizaki described the events of that day as vividly as if it had been yesterday.

Witness: Pregnant women among victims slashed and stabbed

At 11:58 am, on Sept. 1, 1923, a massive earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 rocked Japan’s Kanto region, laying waste to Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba. Because the earthquake hit at lunchtime, when many families were cooking their meals, it also unleashed a series of fires.

The earthquake and resulting fires destroyed around 44% of Tokyo and 80% of Yokohama. All told, 293,000 houses were destroyed and 105,000 people were left either dead or missing.

With Japanese on edge in the hours after the disaster, rumors began spreading that Koreans had launched riots or poisoned the wells.

Kang Deok-sang (1931-2021), a historian of the Korean diaspora in Japan, is one of several scholars who argue that the massacre was caused by rumors about rioting Koreans that the Japanese government allegedly spread as a pretext for declaring martial law on Sept. 2. That led to indiscriminate slaughtering of Koreans and Chinese in Japan, as well as Japanese socialists, by Japanese vigilantes, soldiers, and policemen.

Masao Nishizaki, the director of the group Garden Balsam, stands at the Arakawa riverfront in Tokyo’s Sumida special ward holding up a photo in one hand as he speaks about the massacre of Koreans 100 years ago on Sept. 1, 1923. The bridge behind Nishizaki is the Keisei Oshiage Line. (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)
Masao Nishizaki, the director of the group Garden Balsam, stands at the Arakawa riverfront in Tokyo’s Sumida special ward holding up a photo in one hand as he speaks about the massacre of Koreans 100 years ago on Sept. 1, 1923. The bridge behind Nishizaki is the Keisei Oshiage Line. (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)

Yotsugi Bridge, which Nishizaki identified as the site of an infamous massacre, measured 3 meters in width and 247.3 meters in length. The wooden bridge was demolished in 1969. It was located between the railroad bridge on the Keisei Oshiage Line of the electric railway and Kinegawa Bridge.

On the day of the massacre, a vigilante group composed of young people and army veterans set up a checkpoint at the entrance to the bridge and began picking out Koreans. A large number of Koreans were working on a big drainage project in Arakawa at the time because they could be hired for low wages.

“It was definitely the 3rd [of September 1923]. That’s when the vigilantes tied up several Koreans under Yotsugi Bridge and killed them. They used the most brutal methods to do it, too, slashing them with katanas, stabbing them with bamboo spears, and bludgeoning them with iron bars. A woman who was obviously in the late stages of pregnancy was stabbed to death as well. I must have seen them kill 30 or so people.” — the account of a witness named Aoki

Not only vigilantes but also Japanese soldiers took part in the massacre.

“They gunned down 22 or 23 Koreans with a machine gun below the embankment downstream from Yotsugi Bridge. They were all slaughtered in the blink of an eye. There were a couple of women in the group. Their behavior was atrocious. They stripped the dead bodies and then made sport of them.” — the account of a witness named Okawa

A number of accounts by survivors and witnesses appear in a book called “Wind, Sing the Song of the Garden Balsam,” that was compiled and published by conscientious Japanese who organized a group in 1982 to uncover the full truth about the massacres that followed the Great Kanto Earthquake, to honor the Koreans who died in the massacres and to unearth their remains to bring peace to their spirits.

Witness: Japanese police orchestrated coverup of Korean massacre

Based on witness accounts, the group carried out a dig around Arakawa in September 1982, but failed to find any remains. In 1983, the group found out why the dig had failed in an old newspaper article.

It turned out that Japanese soldiers and policemen had killed not only Koreans after the earthquake but also Japanese labor activists. When the bereaved families eventually learned this, they asked for the remains of their loved ones to be returned.

The police countered that it wouldn’t be easy to identify the labor activists because they’d been buried along with the Koreans around Yotsugi Bridge, but the labor groups and bereaved families didn’t back down.

Fearing that the massive scale of the massacre would come to light, the police whisked away the remains before they could be interred, according to the reports in the old Japanese newspaper the group had found.

“All this went down on Nov. 12 and 14, 1923. Three truckloads of remains were reportedly transported in the second shipment. There’s no telling where the remains were taken. Because of this organized coverup, it’s impossible to know how many people were killed or who they were,” Nishizaki said.

“The Japanese government needs to conduct a full investigation and take responsibility for this,” he stressed.

Masahir Sekhara, 70, the head of the Saitama branch of the Japan-Korea Association, tells the Hankyoreh on Aug. 22 about Kang Dae-heung, a Korean who was killed by vigilantes on Sept. 4, 1923, while explaining the route that Kang may have fled in. (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)
Masahir Sekhara, 70, the head of the Saitama branch of the Japan-Korea Association, tells the Hankyoreh on Aug. 22 about Kang Dae-heung, a Korean who was killed by vigilantes on Sept. 4, 1923, while explaining the route that Kang may have fled in. (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)

Koreans were massacred not only in Tokyo but throughout the Kanto region. Even Koreans who had escaped the massacre and made it to Saitama found vigilantes waiting for them there.

“It’s estimated that around 223-240 Koreans lost their lives in Saitama. The police and army took part in massacres in other areas, but the massacres there were mostly orchestrated by the vigilantes,” Nishizaki said.

“Many of the Koreans who were massacred around here appear to have been fleeing other areas,” said Masahiro Sekihara, 70, the head of the Saitama branch of the Japan-Korea Association, who spoke with me at Josenji Temple, in Someya, Saitama Prefecture, on Aug. 22.

“Koreans felt they were as good as dead no matter where they went in Kanto. The sense there was nowhere to run must have been terrifying,” he said.

Grave of “Kang Dae-heung, a Korean” at a temple

There’s a striking grave at Josenji Temple that was dug for a Korean victim of the vigilantes following the Great Kanto Earthquake. The gravestone is inscribed in large letters as “Grave for Kang Dae-heung, a Korean.”

“It’s almost unheard-of for graves of the massacre victims to include individual names or ethnicity. I think [this gravestone inscription] conveyed the desire of the people of Someya to prevent such wrongdoing from ever happening again,” Sekihara remarked.

Kang died at the age of 24 on Sept. 4, 1923. He’s presumed to be one of several hundred Koreans who fled from Tokyo to Saitama. The Koreans were being housed by the prefectural police, who were planning to transport them to Gunma Prefecture.

Somehow, Kang got away. But early in the morning on Sept. 4, he ran into vigilantes in the village of Katayanagi.

“It looks like he ran for his life for about 4 kilometers. Eventually, his foot slipped into a canal, and the pursuing vigilantes caught up with him and stabbed him with knives and spears,” Sekihara explained, showing me the route that Kang is believed to have fled by.

The Saitama Communication Center building now stands on the spot where Kang fled in mortal terror, only to be slain by vigilantes.

Sekihara stressed that the Japanese government bore heavy responsibility for the massacre of Koreans like Kang. On the morning of Sept. 3, 1923, the police bureau of the Japanese Home Ministry circulated a document to different regions of the country calling for a “concerted crackdown” on “Koreans setting fires in various locations.”

“Korean rioting” canard published in official documents

Local governments also contributed. On the evening of Sept. 2, Saitama Prefecture sent a document entitled “On the Matter of Rioting by Malcontent Koreans” to affiliated county offices in the name of the home minister. It called on “reservists, firefighters, and youth associations to collaborate on maintaining alertness and promptly develop appropriate plans in the event of an emergency.”

“The term ‘malcontent Koreans’ [‘futei senjin’ in Japanese] was used in the sense of a ‘terrorist group plotting to achieve Korean independence,’” Sekihara said. “Effectively, [the document] amounted to a combat order to organize vigilantes to defend villages.”

“Most crucially, the reference to ‘Korean rioting’ in an official document would have led to vigilantes assuming groundless rumors to be the truth,” he added, stressing that this was a “reason the massacres spread so rapidly.”

Large-scale massacres also took place in Kanagawa Prefecture to the south of Tokyo. A 30-minute walk at a leisurely pace from Higashi-Kanagawa Station in Yokohama leads to the building occupied by the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism’s Yokohama Port and Airport Research and Engineering Office.

At the time of the earthquake, the Asano shipyard was located near here. The site where the Research and Engineering Office stands today was a dormitory for Korean laborers who were working on reclamation efforts for the shipyard.

“Around 50 Korean workers who were staying there were massacred,” said Sumiko Yamamoto on Aug. 21 as she pointed out the location where the dormitory once stood. The 84-year-old Yamamoto chairs the Kanagawa Prefecture executive committee for investigative and commemorative efforts related to the Korean massacres after the Great Kanto Earthquake.

A grave for Kang Dae-heung, a Korean killed in the early hours of Sept. 4, 1923, by vigilantes, stands at Josenji Temple in Someya, Saitama Prefecture. The gravestone reads: “Grave of Korean Kang Dae-heung.” (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)
A grave for Kang Dae-heung, a Korean killed in the early hours of Sept. 4, 1923, by vigilantes, stands at Josenji Temple in Someya, Saitama Prefecture. The gravestone reads: “Grave of Korean Kang Dae-heung.” (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)

The information in question was tracked down through examinations of old newspaper articles. It remains unclear who committed the killings or when.

“I think what allowed these massacres to happen was the fact that people knew there were Koreans here, and nobody knew that better than the police,” Yamamoto said, explaining that Koreans had been “previously named as ‘dangerous elements’ and subjected to constant monitoring.”

To investigate the truth of the events that day, Yamamoto formed the executive committee in 2013 and began traveling to libraries in different regions to read through newspaper articles, journals, and official documents. In 2014, she compiled them into a report titled “Korean Massacres in Yokohama at the Time of the Great Kanto Earthquake.”

Japanese government claims “no records” exist

Why did this indiscriminate slaughter happen? Kang Deok-sang, who spent his life researching the massacres of Koreans after the earthquake, published his conclusions in a book entitled “Memories of Massacres: The Great Kanto Earthquake.”

There, he characterized the massacres as an ethnically motivated crime resulting from a combination of factors including tactics used by authorities and the leadership to prevent the possible of the public’s anger over the massive devastation from being directed at the imperial family or security officials; hostile policies and widespread discrimination toward Koreans during the colonial era; and perceptions of ordinary Koreans as a potential “threat,” including fears related to the March 1 Independence Movement.

In the century that has passed since the earthquake, the Japanese government has never conducted a proper investigation. For that reason, the precise number of victims and reasons for the massacres have not been established to date.

The results of investigations by contemporary Koreans themselves have provided at least some basic information for understanding the situation at the time. The findings of an investigation carried out through October 1923 by groups of Korean residents in Japan were published in a report credited to the “Korean Consolation Corps for Disaster Victims in the Kanto Region.”

Details were published in the Korean Provisional Government’s Tongnip Sinmun newspaper in the issue dated Dec. 5, 1923.

According to the investigation, the highest death toll was in Kanagawa Prefecture, where 3,999 people were killed. A total of 6,644 victims were counted, including 1,781 in Tokyo, 488 in Saitama Prefecture, 329 in Chiba Prefecture, 34 in Gunma Prefecture, eight in Tochigi Prefecture, and five in Ibaraki Prefecture. The Tongnip Sinmun reported the total death toll as 6,661.

These numbers were quite different from those counted in the Japanese government’s official statistics. The Ministry of Justice listed the total number of Korean victims as 230.

Sumiko Yamamoto, 84, gestures toward a site where Korean laborers were slaughtered en masse following the Great Kanto Earthquake. The site, which she showed the Hankyoreh on Aug. 21, is now the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism’s Yokohama Port and Airport Research and Engineering Office. (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)
Sumiko Yamamoto, 84, gestures toward a site where Korean laborers were slaughtered en masse following the Great Kanto Earthquake. The site, which she showed the Hankyoreh on Aug. 21, is now the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism’s Yokohama Port and Airport Research and Engineering Office. (Kim So-youn/The Hankyoreh)

Shoji Yamada, an emeritus professor at Rikkyo University who has researched the massacres of Koreans around the time of the earthquake, criticizes the ministry’s announcement in his book entitled “The Japanese State and Public’s Responsibility for the Massacres of Koreans after the Great Kanto Earthquake.”

“The problem with the Ministry of Justice’s announcement is not simply that it attempts to cover up the number of Koreans who were killed. It leaves out the massacres committed by the military and police,” he explains.

Yamada added that there were “also inaccuracies with the figures published in the Tongnip Sinmun,” due to factors including limits on investigation capabilities.

The most recent data come from a 2008 analysis report published by the Japanese Cabinet Office’s Central Disaster Management Council. In that document, the Japanese government states that there were “acts of killing and injury perpetrated by people at the time.”

“While it is impossible to know the exact number of victims, it represents anywhere from 1 to several percent of the total death toll due to the earthquake,” it continued, adding that “Koreans were the largest group represented” among the massacre victims. On that basis, the report estimates the death toll at several thousand.

A century has passed, but the Japanese government has neglected to properly investigate or apologize for the massacres, irresponsibly insisting that there are “no related records.”

Few of the perpetrators were punished either. Members of the military and police were not punished at all, and although some vigilante group members were arrested, investigated, and tried, most ended up receiving suspended sentences. Even those perpetrators would receive special pardons later on.

“A Japanese man in his 20s committed a serious crime [in 2021] motivated by hatred and prejudice, setting a fire in Utoro, a district in Kyoto with a large Zainichi Korean population,” explained Sumiko Yamamoto.

“To stop this sort of thing from happening again, we need to uncover the truth about why the events 100 years ago happened. That’s necessary for Japan’s sake too,” she stressed.

By Kim So-youn, Tokyo correspondent

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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