A massive earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale rocked the Kanto region in central Japan on Sep. 1, 1923. Some 570,000 homes went up in flames in Tokyo, Yokohama and Chiba, and 140,000 people were killed or missing in the devastation. Concerned about public unrest after the earthquake, the Japanese government settled on the familiar expedient of using ethnic Koreans as a scapegoat.
The military and police spread rumors that ethnic Koreans had incited a rebellion and had poisoned drinking wells, which sparked murderous mob violence against the minority. Angry vigilantes wielded swords and sharpened bamboo spears and killed every Korean they could find.
Around 6,600 innocent Koreans were killed in the bloody rampage.
The Japanese government and provincial officials channeled the anxiety of locals after the disaster toward foreigners, a task made easier by the contempt in which Koreans were held by many who thought of them as a servant race.
The Kanto massacre stands in the same line of atrocities as the Holocaust, involving the systematic murder of an ethnic group by or at the instigation of a state obsessed with notions of racial superiority.
But while the Holocaust is widely documented and discussed, few have heard of the Kanto massacre, and only two out of six Korean high school texts mention it.
Japan generally prefers to cover up the massacre and massage the facts. Education officials in Yokohama recently deleted a section in a middle school history text that said the Japanese military and police "persecuted and massacred" Koreans. Now only one out of seven Japanese middle school history texts uses the expression "massacre."
A few brave Japanese activists have erected a memorial to the ethnic Koreans who were butchered and held ceremonies to honor them, as well as publishing compilations of eyewitness accounts.
But the government here seems happy to leave all the work on either side of the divide to the Japanese. It has never even investigated the massacre, nor asked the Japanese government to do so.
Tokyo clings to its official, but clearly distorted, figure of 231 casualties. Japan's failure to muster the courage to face its history and its doomed insistence on distorting the truth are already entrenched. Compounded by resurgent rightwing nationalism, they are creating the perfect conditions for a revival of imperial ambitions.