The University of Hong Kong
How does a country ravaged by an unprecedented natural disaster thank humanitarian aid givers thousands of miles away? Why is expressing gratitude important? What are the obligations associated with accepting aid? How does a country balance local needs and global expectations in post-disaster recovery situations? These questions are often asked today following natural disasters and subsequent humanitarian interventions. In 1923 Japanese officials pondered many of the same questions and came up with some surprising answers. In this paper, I explore how Japan’s government and people responded to “America’s Tsunami of Aid” that followed the Great Kantō Earthquake. Expressing gratitude, I suggest, took many forms. It ranged from using cash donated by Americans to purchase relief supplies from Americans, to launching well-choreographed, soft power gratitude tours, pageants, and publishing events. It also included something remarkably novel: construction of a state-of-the-art memorial hospital to those who gave in support of sufferers. These campaigns were undertaken, I suggest, for many of the same reasons that encouraged Americans to give to Japanese sufferers: namely to cement friendly relations between both countries for generations to come.
J. Charles Schencking is Professor of Japanese History at the University of Hong Kong. His current research project, America’s Tsunami of Aid, illustrates how a complex set of perceived humanitarian obligations coupled with opportunistic visions for economic and political gain defined America’s aid campaign for Japan.