The Japanese at Smyrna: 1922

August 5, 2018

A fascinating aspect of the Smyrna disaster of 1922 was the unanticipated appearance of a Japanese freighter that evacuated more than 800 Greeks and Armenians at a time when other nations would not. The name of the ship, its captain, and why it was in Smyrna that fatal first week of September has never been clarified.

A critical historical breakthrough regarding the ship was made in the past decade by Stavros Stavridis. a frequent contributor tothis newspaper. By examining the back issuesof two Athenian newspapers, “Eleftheros Typos” (September 4, 2008) and “Impros,” (September 6), he foundthe name of the Japanese ship rendered as Tokei Maru.

The work of Stavridis and otherscholars has now been enhanced by Nanako Murata-Sawayanagi, a history professor at TokyoUniversity who seeks to write a definitive history of the matter. Murata-Sawayanagi is fluent in English, Japanese, and Greek. As will be noted at the end of this article, he is requesting assistance from Greek-Americans who have knowledge of the ship.

The spine of the story is that a Japanese freighter came to the port of Smyrna in early September, 1922 when the docks were already crammed with thousands of Greeks and Armenians fleeing a Turkish army that seemed intent on slaughtering as many of them as possible.  Foreign ships in port would only rescue their own nationals. Greek boats were absent due to fear of being captured.

The captain of the Tokei Maru was so appalled by the sight of the desperate refugees that he is said to have dumped all or most of his cargo to take on anyone who could reach his ship.  Once the Tokei Marureached capacity, he transported the refugees to Piraeus and transferredtheir care to the Greek government.

The strongest testimony about the ship was written byU.S. Consul General George Horton who reported on the ship in an official dispatch to the secretary of state.His report does not indicate first-hand witnessing but is based on primary sources available to a consul general. Hortonemphasized that the Greeks were deeply moved by the “the kindness of the Japanese officers and men.”

“The New York Times published a story on the ship’s role on September 18. Although the Times is a credible source, it is not clear ifthis story was a first- or secondhand account. The Atlanta Constitutionpublished a story on October 15, citingAtlanta John Owen, who had been present at the harbor. Histestimony,however, istainted in that he refers to a Japanese warship as well as a Japanese freighter. In December, Anna Harlowe Burge, the wife of a professor at the International College of Smyrna told theBoston Globe of her firsthandknowledge of the ship.

Christos Papoutsy in hisShips of Mercystates he contacted the Japanese government about the possible presence of Japanese vessels. Told that there were no Japanese warships in the region, he concluded that the warship is a myth but that quite possibly, “a merchant ship provided aid at Smyrna.”Marita-Sawayanagi confirmed that the Japanese government had a strict policy of avoiding any military presence west of the Suez Canal.

Stavridis perused The Japanese Times and Mail, an English-language newspaper published in Yokohama and found that there had been a group of Japanese freighters operating a Port Said-Marseilles schedule. Smyrna was not on that route, but it is easily imaginable that there was an unexpected side delivery or that the ship was doing some “private business.”

Murata-Sawayanagi has added two new elements to the story. He has examined Japanese shipping records and found a ship named Tokei Maru and another named Tokai Maru that were in that region at that time. More spectacularly, he has found a photo of a ship flying the Japanese flag in Smyrna’s harbor, but given the placid dock scene, this was not a photo taken during the panic of September. Murata-Sawayanagi’s preliminary findings are available in Mediterranean World (#23, 2017) published by Hitosubashi University. That essay will be reprinted in the next issue of the social policy journal of the American Hellenic Institute that will be available in January.

Oneambition of Murata-Sawayanagi is to discover the name of the captain of the ship.  He is using Japanese social media to ask descendants of the captain or crew to contact him. He is hopeful that letters, diaries, or oral histories will emerge.

Murata-Sawayanagialso seeks accounts of the ship by Greek-American descendants of the survivors. He is hopeful there may be written records of some kind,such as family histories or diaries. Just as important are oral accounts the survivors told to their children, relatives and friends. I have corresponded with him about the memories of my mother who was one of those saved by the Japanese. In his follow-up queries,Murata-Sawayanagi asked how mymother, then only a child knew her saviors were Japanese; how she reached theship; her immediate reaction; and her long-term memories of the crew.

When I suggested to Nanoko Murata-Sawayanagi that I write in this column about his quest to involve more Greek Americans in his research, he was delighted at the prospect.  He asks that anyone with any stories or data about these events to contact him at [email protected].


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He wasn’t the first one to think about it but a humor columnist for POLITICO suggested - ironically, of course - that if Greeks want back the stolen Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum that they should just steal them back, old boy.

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