Researcher Vicken Babkenian has written a new book describing how a Japanese ship saved hundreds Armenians and Greeks from genocide in Smyrna in 1922. Not only did the ship rescue these desperate people from a certain death, the nation of Japan later also provided vital humanitarian aid to the survivors of the Armenian genocide.
Babkenian, along with Professor Peter Stanley, are the authors of the new book “Armenia, Australia and the Great War.” They write about the largely-unknown humanitarian aid which the Japanese nation gave to Greeks and Armenians during those desperate times.
Perhaps the most remarkable incident of Japanese humanitarianism occurred when the captain and crew of a Japanese ship saved many lives during the 1922 Smyrna Catastrophe.
Hundreds of thousands of Armenian and Greek refugees had fled to the docks of Smyrna after Turkish nationalist troops had entered and occupied the city on September 9, 1922. The Turkish occupation was followed by the massacre and deportation of Armenian and Greek civilians.
About twenty allied ships were in the harbor watching the events unfold. A fire broke out in Smyrna’s Armenian quarter four days later, which eventually ended up destroying most of the city. The captain of the Japanese merchant ship decided to take it upon himself to rescue the desperate refugees.
Mrs. Anna Harlowe Birge, the wife of the American professor Dr. Birge of the International College at Smyrna, witnessed the helpless 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, and many of them eventually drowned.
Mrs. Birge related that “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,” according to Stavros T. Stavridis, who wrote about Mrs. Birge’s story in an article published in the American Hellenic International Foundation’s Policy Journal.
(The Greek newspaper Empros (Εμπρός) praises the “brave stance” of the Japanese)
Another account was published on September 18, 1922, in 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 were also recorded at the time by many Armenian and Greek survivors of the Smyrna massacre.
Recently, Stavridis discovered the ship’s name – “Tokei Maru” – which had been published in numerous contemporary Greek newspapers. In June of 2016, Greek community organizations in Athens awarded a shield-shaped plaque to Japan’s ambassador, Masuo Nishibayashi, in honor of his nation’s rescue efforts at Smyrna in 1922.
Authors Bakenian and Stanley also documented that 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 organization. The Armenian relief fund was headed by the prominent Japanese banker and diplomat, Viscount Eiichi Shibusawa.
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