Family Lore and the Great Kanto Earthquake

Great Kanto Earthquake
Tokyo after the Great Kanto Earthquake

A version of the short essay that follows was originally published at my friend Marc Brush’s wonderful but now defunct online lit mag Wandering Army.

I have some mixed feelings about reviving the piece barely a month after the devastating March 11 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. But I keep seeing references to the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and only a few of these references make mention of the story that I’m going to tell here.

I’ve seen nothing to suggest that there’s been any persecution of minority groups in Japan following this latest disaster. But organized atrocities masquerading as mass hysteria continue to occur around the globe.

And I’ll admit: I have wondered how foreigners in the hardest-hit regions in Japan have fared since March 11. Not Western foreigners so much, who are often accorded a weird special status, but others, especially other Asians. I’ve seen no reporting on that. Hopefully that’s because there’s nothing untoward to report.


Five Syllables

On September 1st, 1923, a powerful earthquake struck Tokyo. My grandmother, Kimi Kawabata, was twelve years old. Terrified by the shaking, she ran out of her house in the upscale Shibuya district and into the street. The Great Kanto Earthquake, as it came to be called, measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, felling houses into splinters, buckling streets, rending water mains. But the Kawabata house in Shibuya was lucky. It was still standing when the tremors subsided.

The quake struck at 11:58 a.m. Within minutes, lunchtime fires had become unstoppable conflagrations. The area would burn for two days. Over a million people lost their homes. 140,000 died. But the Kawabatas’ luck held. Their house did not burn down. They all survived.

Family lore has it that on the day of the earthquake the Kawabatas were expecting out-of-town relatives. They were from Kagoshima, the Kawabatas’ ancestral home, a city about 600 miles southwest of Tokyo. Kagoshima was and is well-known for a number of things—for Sakurajima, the very active volcano poised over the city and its bay; for Saigo Takamori, the real “last samurai,” a leader of the ill-fated Satsuma Rebellion; and for being home to Kagoshima-ben, a dialect notorious for being difficult to understand. I don’t know how close the Kagoshima relatives got to the devastation of Tokyo before their train stopped. Close enough that they did not turn around.


Disasters breed disease, confusion, rumors, mobs. Afterward people say: It was a chaotic time. People were afraid. As if this confers absolution. But atrocities are rarely grassroots events. The history of the last century is littered with instances of so-called mob violence that were in truth incited and abetted by the authorities. Think Kristallnacht. Think Rwandan genocide. In the days following the Great Kanto Earthquake, the Japanese government fomented rumors that resident Koreans, Chinese, and political radicals were looting, setting fires, and poisoning wells. Newspapers reported this as fact. The military, police, and civilian self-defense groups were authorized to take any action they deemed necessary to maintain order.

Ito Noe
Ito Noe

For days people were rounded up, murdered by their neighbors, herded into trucks, dumped into rivers, and killed at police stations where they’d fled for protection. Six thousand Korean men, women, and children died in the massacre, as well as hundreds of Chinese laborers, and scores of known anarchists. Among the latter were Ito Noe, age 28, mother of seven children, an important early feminist who had published Emma Goldman in Japanese. Also killed were her lover, the anarchist firebrand Osugi Sakae, and Osugi’s seven-year-old nephew. They were strangled by the military police, their bodies dumped in a well.


Someone once said that a language is just a dialect with an army. The relatives from Kagoshima somehow made it to Tokyo that week, but were stopped at a checkpoint. Their Japanese sounded funny. Are you Korean? they were asked. No, they said. Prove it, the guards told them. Say ra ri ru re ro.

Ra ri ru re ro. It doesn’t mean anything.

The Japanese syllabary consists of 51 syllables that, separately and in combination, account for every sound it is possible to make in Japanese. It begins with the vowels: a i u e o. The next line is ka ki ku ke ko. And on it goes in its sing-songy way, each line adding a consonant, until one gets to this line, the killer line: ra ri ru re ro. The conventional romanization renders this consonant as an “r”, but it’s some hybrid of  “r” and “l” and “d” and yet not that either. Few non-native speakers can really pronounce it correctly. But all native speakers of Japanese, regardless of provincial dialect, can make this sound. Even speakers of Kagoshima-ben can say ra ri ru re ro.

The relatives from Kagoshima passed the test; they were allowed safe passage to Shibuya. They’d been saved by five syllables.


The word “shibboleth” originates from one of the most savage stories in the book of Judges, and that is saying something. The Ephraimites, trying to retreat over the Jordan River after a defeat at the hands of the Gileadites, were stopped at the ford and made to say shibboleth. If they pronounced it sibboleth, they were taken for Ephraimites and killed. Judges 12:6 coolly reports that forty-two thousand Ephraimites died.

I’ve since read that the shibboleth after the Great Kanto Earthquake wasn’t ra ri ru re ro, but ga gi gu ge go — that hard “g” sound apparently one that Koreans can’t clearly distinguish.

That may be, but the story I grew up hearing from my parents was about ra ri ru re ro.  Nothing was said of Koreans or massacres. The story concerned a checkpoint and relatives with funny accents, a comical anecdote about the impossible Kagoshima dialect.


My sister and I are half Japanese. We lived in Japan until she was four and I nearly six, when we moved to the United States.  In the faithless and adaptable way of children, we promptly forgot our Japanese in our rush to become Americans. We put on the English language like a set of new clothes. It was that easy. But we never forgot how to say ra ri ru re ro.

I have two children of my own now. They don’t look Japanese at all. But my sister calls me and says, Do you speak to them in Japanese? Can they say it? Make sure they can say ra ri ru re ro.


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