ⓕ font-size

  • -2
  • -1
  • 0
  • +1
  • +2

1923 Kanto Earthquake Massacre seen through American viewpoints

  • Facebook share button
  • Twitter share button
  • Kakao share button
  • Mail share button
  • Link share button
Earthquake at Yokohama Circa 1923 /  Courtesy of Robert Neff collection
Earthquake at Yokohama Circa 1923 / Courtesy of Robert Neff collection

By Robert Neff

Shortly after noon on Sept. 1, 1923, the vibrant port city of Yokohama lay in ruins ― devastated by a powerful earthquake. One young American woman, dazed by the destruction, said it resembled a Pompeian ruin, as "intense blackness occasionally lighted by the flaring of fire, appeared in all directions. Great fissures opened in the earth destroying the sidewalks and streets, and struggling figures could be seen trying to gain the surface."

The earthquake lasted for 4 to 10 minutes and, in some places, had thrust the ground up over 2 meters. It destroyed several cities, including nearby Tokyo, and nearly 140,000 people perished. But not all of them died as a result of Mother Nature's fury -- many, especially Koreans, were murdered by the terrified survivors of the earthquake.

Following the earthquake, rumors spread amongst the Japanese population that Korean activists were poisoning wells, setting fires and looting. Many foreigners heard these rumors as well and some allegedly witnessed some of these acts.

Mrs. Frances Fitzpatrick Osato, an American, was too afraid to rejoin her husband in Tokyo because of the "thousands of Korean prisoners pillaging and killing on the roadside."

Others, like Miss Billy Coutts, did make the journey. She and her party of refugees encountered "pillaging bands of Koreans and Japanese armed with long glittering knives and clubs, demanding the possessions of all who had valuables. Several Japanese who resisted the bands were killed." At one point, several "Korean marauders" threatened her with their weapons but after witnessing her give her baby niece a final kiss on the cheek merely "mumbled a few words and stalked out."

Elmer L. Murray, an employee of the American Embassy, had to walk back to Tokyo through the ruins and had "many terrifying experiences." According to him, he was "‘drafted' into service in an effort to keep off the Korean bandits, who were reported on their way behind us to confiscate food and anything they could get their hands on."

While there may have been some Koreans involved in looting, the majority were law-abiding residents who found themselves victims. D. J. Fisher, an American missionary, wrote:

"One of the worst features of the horror [of the earthquake] is that the Japanese accused the Koreans of having started the fires. As a result the fleeing Korean refugees were slaughtered by the Japanese mobs wherever seen or caught. A very systematic search was instituted by the mob over Tokio and Yokohama and where a Korean was found he was at once killed."

The mobs were bands of young Japanese men armed with "heavy sticks, sections of pipe, and in some instances antiquated swords" and were described as "a sort of Ku Klux Klan-Fascist combination."

A newspaper reporter wrote: "A Korean's life wasn't worth a plugged nickel that night. They were bumped off where they were found -- beaten to death with clubs, hacked to pieces with swords; pierced with spears. Just to be a Korean […] was sufficient to sign a summary death warrant at the hands of the roaming bands of frenzied ‘loyalists.'"

Miss Martha Johnson witnessed one of these brutal murders. "A Korean caught by [the] Japanese and tied to a pole at the edge of the city [was] beaten by every passing native as reprisal for the terrorism carried on by robbers alleged to be his countrymen."

The Korean refugees couldn't look to the Japanese authorities for help because they were often part of the problem.

Captain Hedstrom, a dock superintendent in Yokohama, claimed that the official Japanese order was to "kill as many Koreans as possible." The day after the earthquake, he witnessed 250 Koreans tied together in groups of five and placed upon an old junk that was then covered with oil and lit on fire, burning the Koreans alive. The Japanese government later claimed that a group of 750 Koreans had been placed aboard ships in Yokohama harbor to protect them from violence. Unfortunately, a large oil storage tank nearby had burst and coated the water with oil which caught fire.

Japanese police were alleged to have taken 50 Koreans away under the pretense of protecting them but the next morning their mutilated bodies were discovered in a pile. There were smaller but no less brutal atrocities witnessed by other Americans including the lynching of a Korean who was turned over to a mob by the Japanese police.

W. H. Stevens and his family were compelled to watch the execution of eight Koreans who were slowly bayoneted to death by Japanese soldiers. Stevens was then forced to drive his car over their bodies or suffer their fates.

Many witnesses became jaded to the horrors. One American wrote, "With thousands of dead all over Yokohama, a few more corpses were as raindrops in the sea."

Alarmed at the negative press and concerned of possible unrest in Korea, the Japanese government censored its domestic press and the press in Korea. Koreans in Japan were not allowed to return to their homelands for fear they would recount the horrors they had experienced.

The Japanese government did eventually admit that "many innocent Koreans suffered with the guilty" at the hands of the vigilantes and authorities. It still maintained that Koreans had committed violent acts not only upon the Japanese but Westerners as well. But an American surnamed Sheriff, a businessman in Yokohama, claimed that the mobs had actually killed and robbed the foreigners and the government was laying the blame on the Koreans.

Shortly after the earthquake, the Japanese government claimed 500 Koreans died from the violence but the true number has been estimated to be between 6,000 and 10,000. The 1923 massacre is another example in a long list showing how the devastation caused by a natural disaster pales in comparison to the inhumanity heaped upon foreigners by a frightened society.

Robert Neff is a historian and columnist for The Korea Times. He can be reached at


Top 10 Stories

go top LETTER