BY VICKEN BABKENIAN
In 2010, I published excerpts from Japan’s humanitarian response to the Armenian Genocide in an article for The Armenian Weekly. I mentioned how an Armenian relief fund was established in Tokyo after a visit by Reverend Loyal Wirt, international commissioner of Near East Relief Organization, in February 1922. The Armenian relief fund was led by a banker and diplomat Eminent Japanese Viscount Eiichi Shibusawa. The Viscount is recognized today as the founder of modern Japanese capitalism and a great humanitarian. He has been involved in the founding of more than 500 business and economic organizations and some 600 organizations for social welfare, education and international trade. Contributions to the Armenian relief fund came from all classes of Japanese society, from ordinary citizens to government ministers to businessmen and royalty. A school of Japanese girls has even assumed full responsibility for two Armenian orphans.
Another important Japanese link to the Armenian Genocide will soon be the subject of a major documentary 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. In particular, she was appointed consul of the Republic of Armenia in Japan during the short-lived Armenian Republic (1918-1920). It was a diplomatic post that allowed him to speak on behalf of a sovereign state when speaking to individuals and institutions. In this way, Diana was able to obtain special permission from the Japanese government to allow Armenian refugees to enter Japan from Russia. This approval alleviated the distress among refugees and helped them find a permanent settlement in the United States and elsewhere during transit in Japan.
The most remarkable story of Japanese humanitarianism during the Armenian Genocide may have been the role played by the captain and crew of a Japanese ship in saving lives during the Smyrna disaster of 1922. Hundreds of Thousands of Armenian and Greek refugees had taken refuge on the Smyrna embankment as Turkish nationalist troops entered and occupied the city on September 9, 1922. The Turkish occupation was followed by the usual massacre and deportation of Armenian and Greek civilians. A fire broke out in the Armenian neighborhood four days later, destroying much of the city. About 20 warships and cargo ships stationed in the port, including one from Japan, had a complete vision of the disaster. Many foreigners have seen the Japanese ship mobilize to save the frenetic refugees. Mrs. Anna Harlowe Birge, the wife of the American professor Birge of the International College of Smyrna, saw the desperate refugees huddle each other on the docks while Smyrna began to burn. Men and women could be seen swimming in the hope of rescue until they drowned. Anna wrote:
“In the harbor at that time was a Japanese cargo ship that had just arrived loaded on the decks with a very precious cargo of bristles, lace and porcelain representing several thousand dollars. The Japanese captain, when he realized the situation did not hesitate. The entire cargo was sown in the dirty waters of the port, and the cargo ship was loaded with several hundred refugees, who were taken to Piraeus and safely landed on Greek shores, “writes Stavros T. Stavridis in an article published in the journal of the American Helenic International Foundation Policy.
Another story was published on September 18, 1922 by The New York Times:
“The constantly arriving refugees are telling new details about the Smyrna tragedy. On Thursday, September 14, there were six steamboats at Smyrna to transport the refugees, an American, a Japanese, two French and two Italians. The American and Japanese steamers accepted all the arrivals without examining their papers, while the others took only foreign subjects with passports.
The Japanese ship’s humanitarian actions were also recorded by Armenian and Greek survivors from Smyrna. They are among the many testimonies and testimonies that historians Stavros Stavridis and Nanako Murata-Sawayanagi from Japan have brought to light in their research on Japan and the Smyrna disaster. Recently, Stavridis discovered the name of the ship – the Tokei Maru – which had been published in many contemporary Greek newspapers. In June 2016, Greek community organizations in Athens handed a shield plaque to the Japanese ambassador, Masuo Nishibayashi, in recognition of his country’s efforts to rescue his country in Smyrna in 1922. It is a gesture that Armenian communities should follow.
Japan’s humanitarian response is just one of many stories of international goodness during the catastrophic events that almost completely destroyed the indigenous Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire. More than 50 countries participated in the global humanitarian effort to save survivors of the Armenian Genocide. While much of the genocide scholarship has focused on the evils committed, there are innumerable stories of human compassion and generosity that still need to be explored by scholars.
Vicken Babkenian is co-author (with Professor Peter Stanley) of the book “Armenia, Australia and the Great War” (NewSouth Publishing 2016) available on Amazon.
Stéphane © armenews.com