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How the great Jemulpo Fire of 1907 started

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"Shokansha-dori" of Jemulpo in the early 20th century. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

Just prior to dawn on March 5, 1907, the streets of Jemulpo (modern Incheon) were almost completely deserted due to the early hour and the bitter cold ― aggravated by a fairly strong northerly wind. The few exceptions were probably along the waterfront where customs agents and watchmen prepared for a busy day of inspecting outgoing and incoming goods from the small steamers and junks in the bustling harbor. There was an additional exception, Tsuneno Takahashi, who, in an attempt to flee her uncle's home, would inadvertently ruin the lives of many.

Following Japan's victory over the Russians during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the Japanese population in Korea exploded, as many people came to the peninsula seeking business opportunities. Tsuneno was not an exception. Lured by the prospect of making a good living in Korea, she left her home in Tokushima Prefecture and arrived in Jemulpo in December 1906.

There were about 12,000 Japanese residing in Jemulpo when she arrived, including her uncle, Nakamura, who owned a small store where he sold "fancy goods." Business was apparently quite good, and he and his wife and their three daughters (ages 7-16) lived in the apartments over their shop. Upon Tsuneno's arrival in Jemulpo, she went straight to her uncle and asked him for a position in his household as a maid. He promptly hired her ― possibly out of a sense of familial generosity, or, perhaps because he wouldn't have to pay her much.

"Miyamachi-dori" in Jemulpo in the early 20th century. Robert Neff Collection

At first she was thankful for the opportunity, but soon she came to rue her decision as life in Korea, and especially with her uncle and his family, was not what she had expected. She decided to leave Korea and go to China, to Antung (modern Dandong), and stay at another uncle's house. However, when she spoke of her plans to Nakamura, he refused to grant her permission to leave his employment.

Tsuneno was determined to leave ― even without her uncle's permission. But, she needed money and her uncle was apparently not providing her with wages. Nakamura was afraid (rightly so) that his niece would attempt to borrow money from her friends so he kept her close to home ― refusing to let her visit them. However, on March 4, Nakamura was called away to Yongsan (now part of Seoul) on business ― it was her chance to escape.

Tsuneno arose early in the morning of the 5th, as was her common practice, and placed her anka ― an earthen vessel for heating purposes ― with a counterpane, in the closet. At about 3 a.m., she snuck out of the house and went to the home of a friend who lived nearby.

According to Tsuneno, she was at her friend's home for about forty minutes chatting and trying to borrow part of the fare to Antung when she suddenly heard fire alarms nearby. Fearing the worst, she raced back home and discovered the entire building was engulfed in flames.

In horror, Tsuneno saw Mrs. Nakamura stumble out from the burning building and rushed to help her. The older woman had awakened to the smell of smoke and flames and, "carrying the youngest at her bosom," sought to escape the inferno but before they could reach safety, one of the burning timbers in the ceiling fell ― striking the child and killing her. The two older children also perished in the flames.

Another view of
Another view of "Miyamachi-dori" in the early 20th century. Robert Neff Collection

The fire would normally have been quickly extinguished, but on this morning the wind was strong and constantly changing direction causing the flames to quickly spread from house to house. Japanese and Korean fire crews, supported by the Japanese military and a large number of Korean water carriers (they kept the pumps constantly supplied with water) battled the fire for nearly five hours before they finally got it under control ― even then, the fire smoldered in some places until late in the afternoon.

The loss of life was comparably light, only the three daughters, but the economic loss in property was devastating ― nearly one million in yen or a quarter of the total value of the city. Four hundred buildings ― 373 Japanese, 18 Korean and 9 Chinese ― were completely destroyed as well as Japanese newspaper Nichi Nichi Shinbum's buildings, the Chemulpo Tobacco Company's buildings, the Yoshitomo Rice Cleaning Mill, and four telegraph and telephone stations, leaving the port without telegraph and telephone services.

As for Tsuneno, she had fled the scene while the firefighters battled the blaze. According to her, she went to the harbor where she planned to drown herself but was forced to abandon the idea as there were large crowds of people who had gathered there in an attempt to escape the flames.

Instead of ending her life in Jemulpo, she took the train to Seoul and stayed at a hotel near the post office. The following morning, after reading about the fire in the local newspaper, she left her hotel and wandered the streets aimlessly. She eventually made her way out the East Gate and up into the mountains where "she spent three days and nights without eating anything, and praying that she might be killed by a chance shot from a hunter's gun." Unable to endure it any longer, she returned to Seoul on the 10th and confessed to the police the following day.

"Honmachi-dori in Jemulpo in the early 20th century. Robert Neff Collection

As for Jemulpo, it immediately began to recover. Telegraph and telephone services were quickly reestablished. Charity events were held at the Kabuki Theatre in Seoul and donations were received from businesses throughout the country. David Deshler, one of the most prosperous American businessmen in Jemulpo, offered to provide free passage aboard his steamship line to "those sufferers who [were] desirous of going home but [had] no money to pay their passage." Only a handful of people accepted his offer.

Supplies and timber were brought in and within weeks a new city began to rise up from the ashes. George Trumbull Ladd (an American philosopher, educator, psychologist and Japanese apologist) visited the port a couple weeks after the fire and wrote:

"The impression made by the streets through which we passed was not pleasing; for there had been rain, the air was laden with cold moisture, and the ground was either rough or torn up for repairs and heavy for the jinrikisha pullers with its coating of mud. But it should be remembered that this part of [Jemulpo] is in the making, whereas the older part had a few weeks before been swept by a destructive fire. The Chinese town, through which we now passed, bore a decayed air; but when the Japanese quarter was reached, in spite of the recent loss of some 400 houses, there was a thrifty and prosperous look, an appearance of determination, of not-to-mind-what-cannot-be-helped, so characteristic of the people themselves."

By the end of the year, Jemulpo had, for the most part, recovered from this horrible accident. However, it is unclear if Tsuneno Takahashi, her uncle and his wife ever recovered ― they, perhaps for the better, have faded from the pages of history.

Robert Neff has authored and co-authored several books, including Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes and Brief Encounters.

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