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Anthropological Quarterly 76.4 (2003) 731-748

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The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Massacre of Koreans in 1923:
Notes on Japan's Modern National Sovereignty

Sonia Ryang
Johns Hopkins University

About thirty years ago, when I was a student at a Korean middle school in T city, Tokyo's suburb, the best place to hang around with my classmates after school was the local library. We would lounge around and, disregarding the frowning eyes of Japanese users because of our loud giggles and conversation on top of our strange school uniform, which was a modified Korean dress, we would skim through many books and sometimes loan them out. One afternoon, we were looking at a photo-document book that recorded key incidents in the first half of the twentieth century. When we reached the 1923 great Kanto earthquake, our eyes were fixated on one photograph.

It was a picture of two bodies thrown out on the street of Tokyo. If you were to look carefully, you'd see that one was a man, the other a woman, her breast dug out and appearing as two black holes on the chest. Their noses and eyeballs were gone, leaving two conspicuous round spots and one triangle on their face. Their thighs were covered with thousands of horizontal lines, which were obviously lacerations. The rest was covered under the blood-stained yukata, Japanese summer outfit. We froze, speechless in terror, because the caption below said "the photo of two Koreans who were murdered by jikeidan" or the vigilantes. This horror for me was the originary point of this inquiry into the Kanto earthquake [End Page 731] and the massacre of Koreans that followed, an event I had avoided because of its very horror. The memory of it is instantaneously revived from my adolescence whenever I face the subject of the great earthquake. 1

In this article, I'd like first to reconstruct a sketch of what happened when the earthquake occurred and soon after that. I shall then move on to explore why it was Koreans who came to be placed at the center of the Japanese citizens' rage, resulting in torture and massacre. Rather than turning to the area of social psychology and psycho-somatic explanation of mob violence, trying to understand the event in terms of mass hysteria, panic, or the role of the rumor, I attempt to grasp a cultural logic behind this ethnic violence. In my view, the 1923 massacre of Koreans in Japan is indissolubly connected with the historical process of the emergence of Japan's modern national sovereignty. Although this theme itself requires closer and more thorough investigation and analyses, for the purpose of this article I present a preliminary exposition by relying on Giorgio Agamben's thoughts and Japanese ethnologist Origuchi Shinobu's insights.

I propose to focus on Japan's modern sovereignty and its national substance: the constitutive unit of Japanese nation is conditioned upon the person being born Japanese. The birth right, which is at once pre-modern and unchangeable, became the pre-requisite to obtaining a membership to modern Japanese nation-state. I argue, below, that as far as this principle is concerned, there has been no fundamental change in Japan today—except for a brief interval toward the end of the colonial Empire. In other words, the emergence as well as maintenance of Japan's modern national sovereignty is closely connected with the exclusion of non-Japanese. With these in mind, let me unfold my thoughts.

On September 1, 1923, at 11:58 A.M., the earthquake of magnitude 7.9 violently shook the Kanto region encompassing Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, and other prefectures in the vicinity. During that day a total of 114 tremors were felt. In Tokyo only, a total of 187 major fires were recorded, which spread all over the metropolis in no time, burning down residential homes, industrial premises, and public buildings. It is said that the death toll reached somewhere between 100,000 and 140,000. The authorities and...


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