Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Poisoned Minds

Here on the grounds of Tozen Temple in nearby Ushioda (just a stone's throw away from Temple Valley) stands a monument to a random act of kindness and bravery. It's dedicated to Tsunekichi Okawa, a police precinct commander, neighborhood cop and local legend who is credited with single-handedly saving the area's Korean-Japanese community from the hands of a blood thirsty mob in the chaotic aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. 

In the wake of that devastating event, a volatile mix of emotions flowed through the streets of Yokohama. In his book, Yokohama Burning, Joshua Hammer writes that "some army commanders may have viewed the Great Kanto Earthquake as an opportunity to purge the country of trouble makers [and] vent their hatred against all Koreans..." In Yokohama fear mixed with old hatreds creating a tornado of violence that swept up the small ethnic Korean community in a path of death and destruction. Hammer notes that "the army in Tokyo and other areas whipped up rumors about Korean well poisonings... and for several days gave vigilante squads known as Self-Defense Committees freedom to patrol the streets and exact what justice they saw fit." 

It was just such a rumor that sent 300 people fleeing for their lives ahead of an angry mob to the doors of our valley's local police station. Not long after the desperate group of innocent men, women and children were given sanctuary within the walls of the precinct station, the state-sanctioned killers showed up looking for their pound of flesh and more. It was then that a man of quite ordinary stature, a simple cop, emerged from within. Staring the prospect of his own death straight in the eye, Tsunekichi Okawa looked the rabble up and down and said "if you want to kill them, you'll have to take my life first, so go and fetch me a jug of that poisoned well water you're crying about." Then jug in hand, Okawa downed the entire contents of the vessel proving beyond a doubt what he already knew. The poison was all in their minds. 

When he died, Okawa's ashes were interred in the cemetery attached to Tozen Temple. Years later some of those he had saved and their descendants had the monument pictured above erected on the temple grounds in his memory. This spot and a couple of others in the surrounding area known as Okitsuru (an amalgamation of the place names, Okinawa and Tsurumi)were stops on a multicultural Japan tour sponsored by a Tokyo-based NPO. The tours were  initiated sometime in the early aughties in response to a few less than kind words Tokyo's governor, Shintaro Ishihara, had to say about the metropolitan area's international community.

Related post: The Kindness of Strangers


  1. Thank you for this! In the same era (late 1800's into the early decades of the 20th century), Chinese (and African Americans) experienced the same in US communities.

    Jean Pfaelzer's Driven out catalogs this ethnic cleansing and how Chinese fought back. Their lawsuits established legal precedents that we never read about in American history texts.

    "Driven Out exposes a shocking story of ethnic cleansing in California and the Pacific Northwest when the first Chinese Americans were rounded up and purged from more than three hundred communities by lawless citizens and duplicitous politicians. From 1848 into the twentieth century, Chinatowns burned across the West as Chinese miners and merchants, lumberjacks and fieldworkers, prostitutes and merchants' wives were violently loaded onto railroad cars or steamers, marched out of town, or killed.

    But the Chinese fought back—with arms, strikes, and lawsuits and by flatly refusing to leave. When red posters appeared on barns and windows across the United States urging the Chinese to refuse to carry photo identity cards, more than one hundred thousand joined the largest mass civil disobedience to date in the United States. The first Chinese Americans were marched out and starved out. But even facing brutal pogroms, they stood up for their civil rights. This is a story that defines us as a nation and marks our humanity."

    I am rereading this book and wanted to share because most people don't know of the role of Chinese in establishing crucial constitutional precedents in the U.S. I don't think Koreans had access to courts in the same way in Japan in this period, but I am going to take a look...Okinawans have used the courts dynamically in the past decade to assert their rights...

  2. "Driven Out" sounds like an important book. I am a little familiar with similar experiences in the US but really only know part of the whole story. Thanks for letting me know about Pfaelzer's work. I guess, for better or worse, people are pretty much the same all over.

  3. >> I guess, for better or worse, people are pretty much the same all over.

    Maybe. In the abstract. But then you get heroes like Okawa, who are clearly awesome. Thanks for sharing this story.

    1. Maybe you're right and I agree that definitely was a pretty awesome deed Okawa pulled off. Sometimes I see this story play out as a movie in my mind. I always envision Clint Eastwood taking on the role of Okawa (my wife sees Hiroshi Abe as a better fit).