The Tokei Maru, a Japanese Ship at Smyrna in September 1922

The Great Fire of Smyrna, also known as the Catastrophe of 1922. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Tatiana Bollari via Art Exhibition concerning Smyrna)

Some 10 years ago, I wrote an article about an unnamed Japanese freighter that threw its commercial cargo into the bay of Smyrna to rescue Greek refugees and taking them to Piraeus, Greece. The information in my article was based on conversations that I had with some Greek-Americans, news articles published in the American press after the Smyrna catastrophe, consular dispatch by George Horton and checking Admiral Bristol’s war diary entries in the US Department of State collection on Turkey. This piece was published in The National Herald titled “Unsung Heroes of Asia Minor: the Search for the Japanese Ship at Smyrna on September 7, 2007.

Nearly 18 months later, Christos Papoutsy’s 2008 book Ships of Mercy was reviewed by Catherine Tsounis on greeknewsline.com on September 21, 2009. She wrote that according to Papoutsy, “Japanese naval ships were not the primary rescuers of the Greeks…but Japanese naval ships were not even present in the Smyrna Harbor during September 1922, never mind leading the rescue.” Three sources of the Japanese Military History Department, the Japanese National Institute for Defense Studies, and the Information and Culture Center of the Japanese Embassy in Washington, DC are cited which indicate that “no Japanese military or merchant vessels were in these waters.” However, Papoutsy believes “that a Japanese fishing vessel or merchant ship was present in a nearby harbor…such a vessel provided some help.” Papoutsy even quotes me on pages 126 and 130 in his book through the exchange of emails. It’s interesting that Japanese official sources don’t mention this ship.

My research on the elusive Japanese ship waxed and waned until after the release of the edited publication title The Genocide of the Ottoman Greeks 1912-1922 in 2012 with a photograph of a Japanese ship displaying its national flag stationed in Smyrna harbor. I wrote to the editors of the book requesting them to contact Nicholas Hlamides on my behalf as I wanted to track down the source of this photo. Unfortunately, I never received a response from him. Anyway, it renewed my interest in the unnamed Japanese ship.

Fast forward to 2016, Dan Georgakas, who is also a columnist for the Herald, approached me to contribute a piece on the unnamed Japanese ship which appeared in the American Hellenic Institute Foundation (AHIF) Policy Journal. My contribution was largely based on previously gathered information along with Georgakas “who related how his mother and uncle then aged 12 and 11, were saved by the Japanese. These events were spoken at home when he was a child, not at political [ events] or patriotic gatherings.” In my mind, this further strengthened my conviction that a Japanese ship did rescue Greek refugees from Smyrna.

After the publication of my article in AHIF Policy Journal, we received information on the name of the Japanese ship: Tokei Maru. The name of this vessel appeared in the Athens newspaper, Embros (Forward) on September 4, 1922, under the heading The Brave stance of the Japanese. Japanese Philanthropy. A little while later, I found a similar article in another Athens newspaper, Athenai, published on September 4, 1922, which provided the name of the Japanese captain, a “Mr.Lou.”

In the Embros article, the Japanese captain was touched by the massacres and refugee appeals and sent out small craft to pick up as many refugees as possible. The Kemalists circled the boats threatening to sink them. He told the Kemalists that in the case of even harming a refugee’s hair, he would consider it as an insult to the Japanese flag and would demand immediate satisfaction.

Seeing that the Japanese captain meant business, the Kemalists decided to leave the refugees undisturbed to the board the Japanese ship. The Japanese action was one of bravery in the wake of Turkish threats and display of humanity.

The Athenai article states that 823 refugees arrived at Piraeus from Smyrna who showed gratitude and had tears in their eyes for the noble and charitable initiative of the Japanese captain and his officers in bringing them to a safe place. As the Turks tried to ban the loading of refugees, Mr.Lou considered these poor souls had the protection of the Japanese flag. Moreover he was ready to provoke the intervention of the Japanese High Commission in Constantinople if the Turks offended the Japanese flag. The Kemalists allowed the refugees to leave Smyrna. There was no way that Count Uchida, the Japanese High Commissioner would have acceded to such a request as he was known for his pro-Turkish sympathy.

Embros is the only newspaper that published an editorial on the Japanese rescue effort on September 7, 1922. The editor, Pavlos K. Kalapothakis, argued that despite all the protests of the Unredeemed Greeks and Greek organizations regarding the destruction of Hellenism in Asia Minor. They directed their appeals to the three Powers (Britain, France, and Italy) and the heroic efforts of the Japanese are not even mentioned by name.The Japanese displayed its philanthropy in rescuing Greek and Armenian refugees. There was no word of gratitude to the land of the rising sun and its noble children. An editorial that contained a lot of truth.

On further investigation, Eleftheros Typos (Free Press) and Embros published in their shipping columns on September 4 and 6, 1922, that the Tokei Maru a 4000 tonnes vessel was to depart from Piraeus for Chania and Irakleion, Crete and then onto Alexandria carrying both cargo and passengers. Details regarding this ship could be obtained through Shipping agents I.D Alevras, Athens

The Japanese scholar Nanako Murata-Sawayanaki has recently published an article entitled: The memory in a crisis: A Japanese ship helping out Greek refugees on the Quay of Smyrna in 1922 which is available online. The author is convinced that a Japanese ship did rescue Greek refugees but further research needs to be conducted into this interesting and unknown aspect of modern Japanese and Greek history. Murata is delving into Japanese archival sources trying to obtain more information on the Japanese ship and also shows a picture of the Japanese ship” with a note written in Italian on its margin saying (“Smyrna September 8, 1922).”I am pleased that Murata uses and quotes some of my early research in their article.

My historical journey on the Japanese ship has been a long one, but slowly we are filling the gaps which official sources don’t mention. I hope there are Greek-Americans who may have information to share on this fascinating story of a Japanese ship.

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