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[Lee Kyong-hee] Truth behind the 1923 massacre

By Korea Herald

Published : Aug. 31, 2023 - 05:31

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Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of one of the worst natural disasters in history, the Great Kanto Earthquake, which leveled swaths of Japan’s main island. The tremor and subsequent fires destroyed 40 percent of Tokyo and left 60 percent of the population homeless. Yokohama, the second-largest city, suffered a similar fate. Nationwide, the estimated death toll was 140,000.

Today, the cities’ neighborhoods leave no trace of the ruins or lives lost. They also bear little trace of a murderous spree that occurred amid the mass destruction.

The earthquake, measuring 7.9 on the moment magnitude scale, struck just before noon on Sept. 1, 1923. At the time, Korea was years into Japanese colonial rule and ethnic Koreans in Japan were suspected of being anti-colonial activists, or otherwise unruly and rebellious.

Shortly after the temblor, rumors claimed that ethnic Koreans were poisoning wells and plotting to attack Japanese citizens. Under martial law, the Japanese military, police and armed vigilantes prowled the ruins, setting up roadblocks and immediately killing Koreans and anyone they suspected of being Korean.

The massacre lasted three weeks in Tokyo, Yokohama and Kanagawa prefecture. Government officials withheld any objection and downplayed the scale of the killings. The police are widely regarded as the source of the rumors. The Korean provisional government in Shanghai estimated the death toll was 6,661.

In the 1960s, scholars among Zainichi Koreans, ethnic Koreans residing in Japan, defined the massacre as an inter-ethnic and international issue involving crimes coordinated by the Japanese government and private citizens.

Around this same time in Japan, historical revisionism arose among some nationalist intellectuals. After the 1990s, revisionism shifted to denialism amid mounting demands for Japan’s apologies and compensation from neighboring countries for its wartime treatment of civilians. Amid international lobbying, the denialist groups garnered support from J. Mark Ramseyer, Mitsubishi professor of Japanese legal studies at Harvard Law School.

In 2019, Ramseyer recognized the rumors about “subversive” Koreans after the Great Kanto Earthquake as facts to build his argument in a paper, titled “Privatizing Police: Japanese Police, the Korean Massacre and Private Security Firms.”

He wrote: “As early as three hours after the earthquake, survivors in Tokyo and Kanagawa began to hear rumors of marauding Korean gangs. They said Koreans torched, planted bombs, poisoned water supplies, murdered, pillaged and raped.”

“The puzzle is not whether this happened. It is how extensively it happened,” he wrote. “More specifically, how broadly did Koreans commit crimes amid the chaos of the earthquake, and how many Koreans did the private security bands actually kill?”

Ramseyer thus attempted to justify the deaths of Koreans by Japanese authorities and vigilantes. He effectively denied the mass killings by arguing that the number of victims was exaggerated. He claimed that ethnic Koreans living in Japan were disproportionately male and young, forming a high-crime group, exposing a lack of understanding of the Korean immigrant population in Japan during the early 20th century.

Ramseyer’s draft paper was released online in the Social Science Research Network, for potential publication in a Cambridge University handbook. On the first page, he thanked the “generous support of Harvard Law School and the University of Tokyo Law Faculty.”

However, the thematically and structurally flawed paper incited numerous questions from academia and an angry outcry from Koreans. At the suggestion of co-editors Avihay Dorfman and Alon Harel, who called the disputed content a “very regrettable mistake,” Ramseyer removed most of his description of the slaying of Koreans.

Under a new title, “On Privatizing Police: With Examples from Japan,” the radically shortened paper was included in the Cambridge Handbook of Privatization, published in 2021. That year, Ramseyer went on to rile Koreans again by defining imperial Japan’s war-era brothels as a system of consensual prostitution operated under contracts. In a paper on “comfort women,” he dismissed the sex slave narrative of the tragically exploited women and girls as “pure fiction.”

Also in 2021, Nobuyuki Watanabe, a retired journalist from Asahi Shimbun, was asked to write a review of the Harvard professor’s paper on the Kanto earthquake aftermath. A history specialist, Watanabe probed the many newspaper reports quoted by Ramseyer, including some early crucial stories carried by Osaka Asahi Shimbun.

Watanabe had begun covering the earthquake in 2013. He visited exhibitions marking the 90th anniversary of the quake at various museums around the region. The exhibitions seemed useful in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima in 2011 as well.

Those exhibitions all unanimously had a small section, simply named “Massacre of Koreans” with little explanation. Why did it happen? How could human beings kill other human beings in such brutal ways? “I had a string of questions popping up in my mind, but I couldn’t find answers,” Watanabe says.

Ramseyer’s paper supplied a blueprint for how to approach the massacre. Watanabe investigated the background of each press report, piecing together how reporters might have gathered information and filed their stories, and what sources they might have used when all communication and transportation networks were destroyed.

“The authorities spread fake news to manipulate public opinion in a state of utter panic, and journalists had no other choices than to use such information,” wrote Watanabe in the epilogue of his latest book, “The Great Kanto Earthquake, Truth of the Massacre Denial.”

“If I was there, I could not have avoided reporting fake news under such circumstances. What I find regrettable is why the journalists didn’t move ahead to make detailed follow-up reports on how ungrounded rumors resulted in such a tragedy.”

Now, a century later, the massacre remains a symbolic roadblock in bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Despite the budding amity between the two governments, different memories of the shared past and a lack of honesty on either side threaten to disrupt ties at any time.

By Lee Kyong-hee

Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.