Japan and the Armenian Genocide

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A forgotten episode of international humanitarian aid

The devastation and immense human suffering caused by the recent earthquake in Haiti prompted a huge international humanitarian response. Japan once again found itself participating in a global relief effort to save victims of a major disaster. More than $ 70 million in aid to Haiti has been pledged by the Japanese government, including 30 million yen (or ~ $ 357,000) in emergency supplies. This is due to the substantial contributions made by Japan to other recent natural disasters, such as the Great Asian Tsunami of 2004 and the Indonesian Earthquake of 2006.

From the April 1922 issue of New Near East, p. 12.

According to Makiko Watanabe, formerly of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, humanitarian aid from Japan dates back to 1953, when the government began funding UN relief work for Palestinian refugees. Later in the 1970s, Japan sent a small medical team to help Cambodian refugees. In 1987, this one-off aid was formalized with the adoption of the Law on Disaster Relief Teams (JDR Law), which officially enshrines Japan’s commitment to international aid.

The beginnings of Japan’s involvement in international humanitarian aid have not been the subject of any major study. As a result, Japan’s involvement in global humanitarian aid prior to 1953 is little known and not sufficiently recognized in the context of Japanese philanthropic history.

Japan’s first known involvement in international humanitarian aid did not take place in 1953, but in 1922, in response to the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman state.

The global response to the genocide was sparked by a telegram sent by the United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, to the Secretary of State in Washington on September 6, 1915, declaring: “The destruction of the race Armenian is progressing rapidly. . Morgenthau proposed the formation of a relief fund in the United States in order to “provide the means to save some of the Armenians” who had survived. Within weeks, a group of civic, business and religious leaders formed a committee to rescue more than a million people caught in the tragedy.

The Relief Fund Committee was eventually incorporated by act of Congress in August 1919 and called Near East Relief (NER). By 1929, the organization had raised over $ 110 million (about $ 1.4 billion in current terms) and saved over half a million Armenians from certain death. This figure included more than 130,000 children who were housed, fed and educated in more than 200 orphanages across the region. It was an unparalleled achievement, remarkable even by today’s standards, accomplished through the innovation of philanthropic techniques that continue to be used today.

In an effort to internationalize the NER, the Rev. Dr. Lincoln L. Wirt, Minister of the American Congregation and Commissioner of the Red Cross during World War I, was commissioned to establish branches of the NER among the nations of the Pacific. Wirt embarked on his mission from San Francisco aboard the Golden Gate on January 14, 1922. After successfully establishing a relief committee in Hawaii, he arrived in Japan in February, staying at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo.

Viscount Eiichi Shibusawa

There were a number of Americans and Europeans in Japan at the time, and it was to this community that Wirt appealed. He succeeded in forming a general committee, made up of American businessmen and missionaries, with the American ambassador, Charles Beecher Warren, as chairman. The Armenian relief movement began to gain momentum and in foreign social groups, lodges, clubs, churches and garden parties, Wirt was invited to speak.

As Wirt’s mission progressed successfully, Reverend Gilbert Bowles, a longtime American missionary in Japan, learned that a group of prominent Japanese men were interested in learning more about Wirt’s mission. Bowles was held in high esteem by the Japanese, and no foreigner mastered the Japanese language better. Under Bowles’ direction, Wirt was taken to the Imperial Bank and shown to the Director’s room. Acting as a performer, Bowles introduced Wirt to a number of characters, including Viscount Shibusawa, a prominent banker and deputy foreign minister. Sitting at the end of a long table, Shibuwasa asked Wirt “who were the Armenians and why they needed help.” After a bit of geography and history, Wirt described the details of the atrocities committed against the Armenians and their current situation. Shibusawa interrupted him and asked, “Why didn’t you come to us with your call?” He added, “Is it because we are Buddhists and you thought we would not help Christians in need?” We read your speeches as reported in the Japanese announcer [an English-language daily] and we thought we would like to help, even though we weren’t asked to. Without your knowledge, one of our Japanese newspapers published your appeal, and here is your result. Shibusawa presented Wirt with a check for $ 11,000 (approximately $ 140,000 in today’s terms).

Shibusawa accepted the chairmanship of the new Armenian Relief Committee of Japan, headquartered at 1 Uchiyamashita Cho, Kajimachi, Tokyo. Reverend Gilbert Bowles has been appointed as secretary of the fund. Shibuwasa immediately wrote a letter to hundreds of Japanese leaders in an attempt to pique their interest in the Armenian appeal for help. Contributions to the fund began to come from all classes of Japanese society, from ordinary people to government ministers, prominent businessmen and royalty. A Japanese girls’ school took full responsibility for two Armenian orphans. Prince Tokugawa Yoshihisa joined the relief campaign and sent a generous sum of money to the relief committee. He also played a leading role in supervising and distributing literature on the Armenian emergency appeal to all members of the House of Peers.

Wirt continued his journey across the Pacific and successfully established relief committees in China, Korea, the Philippines, New Zealand and Australia. Along with 15 other national committees, the Japanese committee became a member of the International Near East Relief Association headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. It is not known how much money was raised by the Armenian Relief Committee of Japan during the life of the fund, or whether Japanese nationals were mobilized at the disaster sites. However, what we do know is that at all levels of Japanese society; there was practical sympathy for the plight of the Armenians, which saved many lives.

While Japan continues to be recognized today as a major international humanitarian force, a closer investigation of its philanthropic past reveals a deeper connection to international humanitarian assistance than is widely known.

The references

Pierre Balakian, The Tiger on Fire: the Armenian Genocide and the American Response, New York, HarperCollins, 2003.

James Barton, History of Relief in the Middle East: 1915-1930, New York, MacMillan & Co, 1930.

“Internal Affairs of Turkey 1910-1929”, General Documents of the State Department, document no. 867.4016 / 117, Cable Record Group 59, United States National Archives, Washington, DC

Loyal Lincoln Wirt, The world is my parish, Los Angeles, Warren F. Lewis, 1951.

“Le Proche-Orient au Japon”, The New Near East, Near East Relief, New York, April 1922, p. 12.

Charles V. Vickery, “International Golden Rule Sunday: A Handbook,” George H. Doran & Company, New York, 1926.

Vicken Babkenian

Vicken Babkenian is an independent researcher for the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He is the co-author (with Professor Peter Stanley) of Armenia, Australia and the Great War (NewSouth Publishing 2016) – shortlisted for 2 Grand Prix Australian History.

Vicken Babkenian


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