Korean Massacre

Nationalism and Xenophobia in Japan

Anti-Korean sentiment has been a part of Japanese political and social culture since the Korean Independence movement. One of the first major displays of resistance, the March 1st Movement of 1919, marked the beginning of a strong xenophobia against Koreans in Japan. This hatred was fueled by Japanese nationalism, as ordinary citizens did whatever they could to exclude Koreans living in Japan.

The government took advantage of the chaos after the Great Kanto Earthquake to fuel rumors that heightened anti-Korean sentiment among citizens. As a result, Koreans residing in Tokyo were mass murdered. If that is not horrifying enough – the Japanese government, to this day,  rarely acknowledges that the Korean Massacre even happened.

The Rumors

In the days following the earthquake, Japanese citizens frantically tried to make sense of the devastation around them. The government, along with extreme nationalists, exploited the confusion to fuels rumors that according to ministry bureaucrat Suematsu Kai’ichiro, seemed “too absurd” to believe (Schencking 2013a, p.27).

Because of the earthquake and fires, debris from falling house parts, dust, and ash fell into well water, making it appear murky. However, anti-Korean nationalists twisted the narrative and spread rumors that the cloudy well water was due to ethnic Koreans living in Tokyo who poisoned the drinking water. Other rumors were more detailed. Government issued posters lined the streets, warning citizens of the intricate “coding system” that Koreans had been using to “wreak havoc and terror on the already frightened population” of the disaster area. This rumor said that small groups of Koreans would walk through neighborhoods at night, to place secretive markings on doors and posts. These codes supposedly indicated whether the house must be burned, robbed, or the inhabitants murdered. The next day, an “execution gang” would act on the code. Other posters warned residents that “lawless Koreans” were throwing small bombs and starting fires”, to explain the remaining fires that the government failed to extinguish because of their poorly run fire department (Schencking 2013a, p.28).

The Massacre

Jeong Seong-Gil, a Korean historian holds up a picture of murdered Korean bodies lining the streets of Tokyo after the earthquake (“Historian Releases” 2013).

The false propaganda unnerved already anxious residents. The government milked the prevalence of anti-Korean sentiment to direct attention away from their inability to provide emergency relief. As a result of these rumors, 3,689 Jikeidan, or neighborhood vigilance groups formed. Ordinary citizens roamed the streets looking for Koreans. They were armed, using makeshift weapons such as clubs, iron pipes, swords, and bamboo spears to protect themselves against alleged attacks by Koreans. In reality however, they would often stop and murder, without reason, ethnic Koreans or those who looked like Koreans. Even individuals that did not belong to the Jikeidan killed Koreans aimlessly. Police officers and soldiers rarely intervened, and some evidence suggests that they participated in or cheered on the murders as well. In total, between 6,000 and 10,000 Koreans were killed (Schencking 2013a, p.29).


In a 1924 edition of the journal Kyouiki, Educator Oku Hidesaburo concluded that the Korean Massacre exposed “a moral flaw that was common among ordinary Japanese people and tarnished Japan’s international image”. Yet instead of apologizing, the Japanese government hid this event to preserve their image. Out of the thousands of vigilance groups, only 125 group members were prosecuted. In addition, the government only reported 231 Korean deaths after the earthquake (Schencking 2013a, p.29). Today, the Korean Massacre is left out of textbook readings about the Kanto earthquake and its impacts on Japan. In this way, Japanese Nationalism not only fuels the ugly exclusion and hatred towards Koreans, but also warrants the prideful nation to hide its past wrongs.


Right wing Japanese nationalists wave the rising sun flag at an anti-Korean demonstration in Tokyo on April 21, 2013 (Hayashi 2013).

Hatred for Koreans still runs high among right wing nationalists in Japan today. Small nationalist rallies in towns such as Shin Okubo- which is home to Korea town in Tokyo – are growing in size and becoming more frequent. Anti-Korean sentiment lines the streets during these demonstrations, with flags and posters that say “Roaches” and “Go Back to Korea”. Often, nationalists will chant “Let’s Kill Koreans” as they pass by ethnic Koreans (Hayashi 2013). Perhaps, and hopefully, the recent end of nationalistic Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership will begin to change the hateful climate of Japan.