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[Wang Son-taek] Japan must make chance for Kanto massacre apology

By Korea Herald

Published : Sept. 7, 2023 - 09:26

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The Japanese remember the Great Kanto Earthquake on Sept. 1 every year. There was a 7.9 magnitude earthquake, and more than 100,000 people died. Koreans remember the same day as the Great Kanto Massacre. Shortly after the quake, Japanese police, military and civilian vigilantes brutally killed over 6,000 Koreans, around 750 Chinese as well as Japanese socialists and others on the left.

The Great Kanto Massacre took place in 1923, so this year marks the 100th anniversary. Since it was the centenary of the tragedy, some Koreans including myself expected that the Japanese government pay tribute to the victims. However, that did not happen. It is very disappointing. If Japan had expressed its condolences, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol could have gained some momentum for his policy to improve the relationship with Japan. It has been proven that he was naive to expect Japan to fill the other half of the cup, as South Korea filled half of the cup of water first while pushing for a surprise improvement in Korea-Japan relations. The opportunity for Japan in turn to help Yoon helplessly passed.

The Kanto massacre 100 years ago is still a problem because it is a factor that caused a collective trauma for the Korean people, and it could be a fundamental obstacle to improving Korea-Japan relations. Above all, it was an outrageous crime against humanity in that it brutally murdered more than thousands. Shortly after the earthquake, strange rumors spread that Koreans sprayed poison on wells, set fires and rioted. Japanese vigilante groups were organized, and they looked for Koreans and tore their bodies to death with Japanese swords, sickles and spears. They cut off the heads of innocent Koreans. They sprayed oil and burned Koreans to death. The Independent, a Korean language newspaper at the time, reported that 6,661 Koreans were murdered by the massacre. For comparison, North Korea claims that the number of victims is about 23,000.

It should also be remembered that assailants in the massacre included soldiers and police as well as civilian vigilantes. It is reported that an army unit operating the Narashino camp in Chiba prefecture contacted a nearby vigilante group to take over detained Koreans several times. The vigilante group repeatedly dragged them to the village and killed them.

It is also shocking that it was an instance of state violence planned by government authorities. According to a document from the Japan Defense Research Institute's Military History Research Center, the Japanese Interior Ministry's director for warning instructed local officials to organize vigilante groups, saying Koreans were planning acts of arson and rioting. After the massacre, there were no reports of Koreans making such plans or rioting. The massacre was simply an inexcusable crime against humanity that was deliberately designed to prevent the disaster from leading to domestic political chaos.

We can distinguish some severe flaws in Japan's response. The Great Kanto Massacre can be compared to Germany's Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass. On Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, Nazi Party paramilitary forces committed tremendous violence against Jews in Germany. They attacked Jewish-owned buildings randomly. More than 7,000 synagogues and shops were burned or destroyed, about 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps, and at least 91 were killed. Understandably, Kristallnacht is classified as part of the Holocaust. One similarity between Kristallnacht and the Kanto Massacre is that they were both pogroms, if not parts of a genocide based on racism. Second, they constituted state violence led or sponsored by the state, and third, they were evil crimes designed for domestic political purposes. There are also differences. First, in Japan, more than 6,000 Koreans, Chinese and some Japanese on the left were murdered in a few days. In Germany, far fewer were killed -- 91. However, in Germany, the rampage continued to last seven more years, exterminating six million people. Second, Kristallnacht is known internationally to some extent due to reports from foreign media, but the Kanto Massacre is relatively unknown internationally. Third, trials were held after the fall of the Nazi regime, and procedures were carried out to discover the truth. However, finding out the truth is an ambiguous task in Japan, let alone getting an apology for the massacre.

What descendants of Korean victims hear from Japan amounts to denialism rather than an apology. The Japanese government is saying it cannot grasp the damage caused by the massacre. The governor of Tokyo has refused to send a memorial address to the commemorative ceremony since 2017. Some right-wing conservatives in Japan say the massacre itself is false, or claim that only 233 Koreans died. The number 233 is ridiculous because about 750 Chinese people were killed just because they were mistaken for being Korean.

Japan should apologize for the massacre and take appropriate actions for many reasons. First, Japan is a civilized country, and civilized nations should apologize for crimes against humanity. If you do not apologize for your past misdeeds, it is almost as if you are declaring that you would do the same thing again in the future. Second, improving Korea-Japan relations benefits both countries, and an apology for the massacre is one of the essential measures to remove obstacles to strengthening bilateral ties. Third, trilateral cooperation among South Korea, the US and Japan cannot develop further without resolving the historical issue of the massacre. Regrettably, the Japanese lost a very good opportunity to atone for the Great Kanto Massacre on Sept. 1 this year, the 100th anniversary. However, as we still have four months before the end of this year, I hope that Japan will try to apologize. That will help those who were murdered 100 years ago finally to rest in peace, as well as help improve the relationships among Korea, the US and Japan.

Wang Son-taek

Wang Son-taek is a director for the Global Policy Center at the Hanpyeong Peace Institute. He was a former diplomatic correspondent at YTN and former research associate at Yeosijae. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.