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(JAPANESE POLITICS and SOCIETY, to 1927 – continued)

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JAPANESE POLITICS and SOCIETY, to 1927 (7 of 9)

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Earthquake and Death to Ethnic Koreans and Leftists

On September 1, 1923, an earthquake – 7.9 on the Richter scale – struck Tokyo and surrounding areas, followed by rampaging flames that destroyed 694,000 homes. Around 106,000 persons died or disappeared, and 502,000 were injured. There were the usual acts of bravery, rescue and people doing what they could to help while during the first 48 hours most Japanese in the disaster area were stunned. Tokyo's parks were filled with burned, broken and bleeding bodies, and little was being done for these people as Tokyo lacked medical rescue teams.

Roaming the city were hordes of people made homeless by the quake and the fires. They were without food, and they were without water as many wells had been destroyed. No leadership appeared to give people encouragement, direction or to allay fears. Newspapers at first were unable to print. And Tokyo and surrounding areas were cut off from the rest of the world.

Among those suffering in Tokyo were thousands of Koreans. Koreans had come to Japan in search of jobs, and social contacts between Koreans and Japanese had been limited. Many Japanese despised the Koreans, disliking the smell of their food and believing them to be inclined toward crime and other unwholesome habits. They thought of Koreans as belonging to an inferior race, and intermarriage between Koreans and Japanese was unthinkable.

Hordes of homeless Koreans were among those wandering the city without food or water. A rumor spread that Koreans were setting fires, looting and raping. The police accepted these rumors, and they spread a rumor of their own: that the Koreans were grouping to attack and take over the city. Newspapers that began publishing within a couple of days of the quake reported the rumors as fact. Stories spread too that the socialists were taking advantage of the chaos by starting riots. Groups of vigilantes formed, and they were joined by soldiers. They began wandering the streets looking for Korean young men, and upon finding them they held mock trials. They forced their captives to their knees and beheaded them. They began seizing Koreans of all ages – males and females. They gave children they suspected of being Koreans a simple test of words that only native-born Japanese could pronounce correctly, and those who failed were clubbed to death. No effort was made by the police to stop the atrocities. The number of Koreans killed in these actions was later estimated to be between 231 and 2,613. The Chinese Embassy in Tokyo estimated that between 160 and 170 Chinese were also killed.

Some police took advantage of the quake and fires to strike against people with dangerous ideas. Police swooped down on hundreds of labor leaders and known socialists, communists and anarchists. Over a thousand socialists were arrested. At one police station in Tokyo nine leftists persisted in singing revolutionary songs. The military police were called in. They stabbed the nine to death and flung their bodies down a well. A captain of the gendarmerie, named Amakasu, strangled to death an anarchist leader, Osugi Sakae, his wife and six year-old nephew. The Communist, Socialist and anarchist movements in Japan were decimated, and their publications ceased to exist.

Days passed before the Prince Regent Hirohito was allowed out of his Tokyo palace to put in an appearance before the city. In an army uniform he rode through the city on horseback with a small escort. It was taken as an indication that the crisis was over and all was well again.

Months later, a disgruntled young anarchist who had vowed to avenge the death of Osugi fired a shot at Hirohito as the prince rode in a motorcade taking him to open Parliament. The shot hit one of Hirohito's attendants instead. The would-be assassin, Namba Taisuke, was the son of a member of Parliament. He was tried and executed. His former teachers resigned in shame for having fostered such a heinous criminal, and his father resigned his seat in Parliament. The attempted assassination inspired a greater vigilance against "dangerous thoughts, " and government surveillance intensified.

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