Media watch: Doc maker’s first narrative feature to tackle 1923 quake massacre

Tatsuya Mori

September 1 marks the 99th anniversary of the Great Kanto Earthquake, in which more than 100,000 people perished. Local governments use the occasion to carry out preparedness drills for major quakes. A few localities also hold memorials for victims, including Japan-resident Koreans murdered en masse by vigilante groups, whose rage was stoked by baseless rumors that Koreans were poisoning wells and carrying out other acts of terrorism. At the time, the Korean peninsula was under Japanese Imperial rule, and there was an underground resistance movement that attempted to throw off this rule, though the vast majority of Koreans killed after the quake had nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, it’s been well documented that the police and military not only did little to stop the random massacre of Korean residents, but that they also participated in some of the killings.

The memorials to the Korean dead don’t get a lot of media attention. In fact, most Japanese probably don’t know much about the massacre itself since it isn’t something that’s taught in school or covered in textbooks. As with similar matters related to pre-1945 Japan-Korea relations, there are disagreements about the number killed. Officially, it’s only a few hundred, but some scholars claim the real number is as high as 6,000. Consequently, there’s almost no mention of the massacre in Japanese popular culture, but that will change soon. An article that appeared in the Aug. 29 Asahi Shimbun reported on the first narrative feature by the noted documentary filmmaker Tatsuya Mori, which will tackle one isolated incident that occurred during the killings.

Mori’s most famous work comprises two long documentaries about the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, which carried out the deadly sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. As he told Asahi, the Aum movies embody a theme that has obsessed him his whole career, and which his new film will continue to explore. What fascinated him about Aum followers is that they appeared so rational and even-tempered. They did not outwardly manifest qualities that many people would characterize as being evil, and yet they allowed themselves to be party—in many instances through direct action—to evil deeds. That’s why in his new movie, whose working title is “Fukuda Mura Jiken” (Fukuda Village Incident), he will endeavor to take the point-of-view of the perpetrators of the killings, which took place in a village that is now in an area of Noda, Chiba Prefecture. The killings he chronicles took place on Sept. 6, 1923, or five days after the earthquake itself. 

However, the people who were killed by local vigilantes were not Koreans. They were Japanese, but strangers to the locals. Actually, they were members of the Burakumin community, which were considered an untouchable caste in Japanese society at the time. They had travelled to the Kanto region from their home in Kagawa Prefecture to sell their wares at local festivals and on the street. Fifteen of them had set up their stalls along a roadside and when the vigilantes heard them speaking their own dialect, they assumed they were Koreans and attacked them with hunting guns and swords. Nine were killed, including a pregnant woman and a child. 

Mori says that this incident was not mentioned in the official report on the massacre released in 2008. That report concluded that such disasters intensify fear, which in turn generates hatred and violence. As Mori said, the frustration born of the realization that normal life has been taken away from you can make you do very desperate things. Incited by a rabid group mentality, it’s easy to take that resentment out on anyone who isn’t part of the immediate group, and Koreans were the most mistrusted outsiders in Japan, a sentiment aggravated by government propaganda. Mori says that he witnessed this same kind of sentiment, though to a much less deadly degree, following the earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku region in 2011. It’s even evident in the brutal design choices that have come to dominate public facilities, such as benches that prevent homeless people from lying down on them. He believes the Aum sarin attack of 1995 permanently instilled this sense of unease, and he’s afraid that were another massive quake hit the Tokyo area it could lead to other massacres, since the capital is now filled with more people “whose roots are not in Japan.”

Mori started shooting his movie Aug. 20 on a specially built set that recreates a Taisho era wooden house. He hopes to have it ready for release by the 100th anniversary of the 1923 quake, but, according to other reports, he is having trouble raising money in Japan. However, the movie was recently selected as an official project of the Asian Cinema Fund, the largest investment and co-production market in Asa, and which is headquartered in Busan, South Korea. 

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