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  • The Passing Perils of Korean Hunting:Zainichi Literature Remembers the Kantō Earthquake Korean Massacres
  • Andre Haag (bio)

"Never forget the Great Kantō Earthquake" (Kantō daishinsai o wasureruna). This talismanic phrase animates the body of passing narratives of violence and fear that I will explore here. There are abundant reasons to remember the 7.9-magnitude catastrophe that destroyed the greater Tokyo region on September 1, 1923, and to memorialize its one hundred thousand victims. As the aphorism goes, "disaster strikes when it's forgotten" (tensai wa wasureta koro ni yatte kuru). Yet, the command "Never forget the Great Kantō Earthquake" has more often than not been uttered with explicit reference to the history of Japanese colonialism in Korea (1910–1945) and the Zainichi Korean diaspora in Japan, where the words have a distinct, if unstable, resonance. Spoken in these contexts, it warns against forgetting a paroxysm of ethnic violence that might be repeated: namely, the post-disaster massacre of several thousand Korean residents of Japan's Kantō region—then formally "Japanese" imperial subjects—at the hands of civilian mobs, police, and the military.1 The perpetrators of this atrocity were enthralled [End Page 257] by fallacious rumors of insurrection and sabotage committed by the "malcontent Koreans" (futei senjin) opposed to imperial rule and went to great lengths to hunt down and kill invisible insurgents. When the dust settled, these murderous "Korean Hunts" (Chōsenjin-gari) had exposed in one gory eruption the hatred, fear, and violence lying beneath fictions of the harmonious union of Japan and Korea. Despite official assimilationist rhetoric to the contrary, the hunts and massacres revealed that a yawning gulf separated the empire's Japanese and Korean subjects. The latter might pass but would never be permitted to become the former.

Consequently, to recall the Kantō Earthquake Korean massacres is to remember, or be reminded of, who you are and where you are. Late in World War II, the injunction "Never forget the Great Kantō Earthquake" was voiced both by the anxious Japanese settler community in Korea and, in parallel, at gatherings of fearful Korean workers in the imperial metropole.2 Colonizer and colonized were united in this one sense. Both populations found in the example of the 1923 earthquake a reminder of the life-and-death stakes of identity attending their precarious positions as unwanted alien entities in hostile territory.

Memorialization of the Kantō Earthquake Korean massacres encapsulates how imperial atrocity can be re-inscribed as precarious, postcolonial identity. Myriad mnemonic rites and markers have [End Page 258] served to ensure that the event is not forgotten—the most tangible of which are the stone cenotaphs (ireihi) to victims erected across the Kantō region, ostensibly to pacify vengeful spirits and promote reconciliation.3 Works of literature looking back at the earthquake and attendant atrocity represent a less stable and tangible, but potentially quite powerful, repository of memory and meaning. Literary recollections of the post-earthquake massacres have often explored the ways that violence was employed to police the invisible lines dividing the categories "Japanese" and "Korean" in September 1923. Novelist Ema Shū (1889–1975), for example, provides a glimpse of how this boundary was affirmed in the savagery visited on a Korean massacre victim's corpse, which was identified with a placard declaring, "All those who are Japanese [iyashikumo Nihonjin taru mono] will be sure to strike this loathsome Korean."4 The earthquake refugees depicted by Ema do indeed corroborate that they "are Japanese" (Nihonjin taru mono) by visiting abuse on the body, whose only tenuous marker of ethnic difference is the placard that declares it to be Korean, and thus loathsome and ungrievable.

Meanwhile, leftist poet Tsuboi Shigeji (1897–1975) recalls the violence of spoken language employed to differentiate Korean tongues from Japanese ones, which he overheard in the shibboleth jūgoen gojissen (the monetary unit "fifteen yen, fifty sen") demanded of suspect refugees by vigilantes and soldiers at the height of the panic.5 The witness in Tsuboi's poem recreates the post-earthquake scene in which a laborer is challenged by [End Page 259] checkpoint guards to pronounce that peculiar phrase: "Oh, if the man in the short coat had been Korean / and...


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