Expressing Gratitude and Memorializing Transpacific Humanitarianism following the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923

Charles Schencking

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.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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