BY VICKEN BABKENIAN
In 2010 I revealed snippets of Japan’s humanitarian response to the Armenian Genocide in an article for The Armenian Weekly. I mentioned how an Armenian relief fund had been established in Tokyo after a visit by the Rev. Loyal Wirt, the international commissioner of the American Near East Relief organisation, in February 1922. The Armenian relief fund was headed by a prominent Japanese banker and diplomat Viscount Eiichi Shibusawa. The Viscount is recognized today as the founder of modern Japanese capitalism and a great humanitarian. He was involved in the founding of over 500 enterprises and economic organizations as well as some 600 organizations for social welfare, education, and international exchange. Contributions to the Armenian relief fund came from all classes of Japanese society—from ordinary people to government ministers, leading businessmen and royalty. A Japanese girl’s school had even assumed the full responsibility of two Armenian orphans.
Another important Japanese link to the Armenian Genocide will soon be the subject of a major documentary film produced in San Francisco by Mimi Malayan. Mimi is the great granddaughter of Diana Apcar, a Burmese Armenian who lived in Japan from 1891 until her death in 1937. Apcar was a prolific writer, businesswoman and diplomat. Most notably, she was made Consul of the Republic of Armenia to Japan during the short lived Armenian republic (1918–1920). It was a diplomatic post which allowed her to speak in the name of a sovereign state when reaching out to individuals and institutions. In this way, Diana was able to secure from the Japanese government special approval to allow Armenian refugees to enter Japan from Russia. This approval alleviated distress among the refugees and helped them find permanent settlement in the United States and elsewhere while in transit from Japan.
Perhaps the most remarkable story of Japanese humanitarianism during the Armenian Genocide was the role played by the captain and crew of a Japanese ship in saving lives during the 1922 Smyrna Catastrophe. Hundreds of thousands of Armenian and Greek refugees had fled to the quay of Smyrna as Turkish nationalist troops entered and occupied the city on 9 September 1922. The Turkish occupation was followed by the usual massacre and deportation of Armenian & Greek civilians. A fire broke out in the Armenian quarter four days later which destroyed much of the city. Having full view of the catastrophe were some 20 allied warships and freighters stationed in the harbor including one from Japan. Many foreigners witnessed the Japanese ship mobilize to rescue the frantic refugees. Mrs. Anna Harlowe Birge, the wife of the American Professor Birge of the International College at Smyrna, witnessed the desperate refugees crowding each other off the wharves as Smyrna began to burn. Men and women could be seen swimming around in the hope of rescue until they drowned. Anna wrote:
“In the harbor at that time was a Japanese freighter which had just arrived loaded to the decks with a very valuable cargo of silks, laces and china representing many thousands of dollars. The Japanese captain, when he realized the situation did not hesitate. The whole cargo went overboard into the dirty waters of the harbor, and the freighter was loaded with several hundred refugees, who were taken to Piraeus and landed in safety on Greek shores,” wrote Stavros T. Stavridis in an article published in the American Helenic International Foundation’s Policy Journal.
Another account was published on 18 September 1922 by the New York Times:
“Refugees constantly arriving .. relate new details of the Smyrna tragedy. On Thursday [September 14] last there were six steamers at Smyrna to transport the refugees, one American, one Japanese, two French and two Italian. The American and Japanese steamers accepted all comers without examining their papers, while the others took only foreign subjects with passports.”
The humanitarian actions of the Japanese ship have also been recorded by Armenian and Greek survivors of Smyrna. They are some of the many testimonies and eyewitness accounts that historians Stavros Stavridis and Nanako Murata-Sawayanagi of Japan have uncovered in their research on Japan and the Smyrna Catastrophe. Recently, Stavridis discovered the ship’s name – the Tokei Maru – which had been published in numerous contemporary Greek newspapers. In June 2016, Greek community organisations in Athens, Greece, awarded a shield shaped plaque to Japan’s ambassador, Masuo Nishibayashi, in honour of his nation’s rescue efforts at Smyrna in 1922. It’s a gesture that I believe Armenian communities should follow.
Japan’s humanitarian response is only one of the many stories of international goodness during the catastrophic events that almost entirely destroyed the Ottoman Empire’s native Christian communities. More than 50 nations participated in the global humanitarian relief effort to save survivors of the Armenian Genocide. While much of the scholarship on the genocide has focused on the evils committed, there are countless stories of human compassion and generosity that still need to be explored by scholars.
Vicken Babkenian is co-author (with Professor Peter Stanley) of Armenia, Australia and the Great War (NewSouth Publishing 2016) available on Amazon.