The 1923 Great Kanto earthquake

Every now and then, there is some evidence for the moral progress of mankind.  Looking back in time, Wikipedia reports:

One particularly pernicious rumor was that Koreans were taking advantage of the disaster, committing arson and robbery, and were in possession of bombs. In the aftermath of the quake, mass murder of Koreans by brutal mobs occurred in urban Tokyo and Yokohama, fueled by rumors of rebellion and sabotage. About 6,600 Koreans were murdered. Some newspapers reported the rumors as fact, which led to the most deadly rumor of all: that the Koreans were poisoning wells. The numerous fires and cloudy well water, a little-known effect of a large quake, all seemed to confirm the rumors of the panic-stricken survivors who were living amidst the rubble. Vigilante groups set up roadblocks in cities, towns and villages across the region. Because people with Korean accents pronounced “G” or “J” in the beginning of words differently, 円 銭 (jū-go-en, go-jū-sen) and がぎぐげご (gagigugego) were used as a shibboleth. Anyone who failed to pronounce them properly was deemed Korean. Some were told to leave, but many were beaten or killed. Moreover, anyone mistakenly identified as Korean, such as Chinese, Okinawans, and Japanese speakers of some regional dialects, suffered the same fate. About 700 Chinese, mostly from Wenzhou were killed.

On modern-day Japan, Edward Hugh has an excellent post.


"there is some evidence for the moral progress of mankind..": or, more likely, for oscillation.

In a lot of developing and under-developed nations, the same kinds of ethnically-based conflicts continue to occur. I think this has far more to do with the relative economic security of a nation (perceived, of course) and levels of education, professionalism and civil social development - all functions in part of the level of industrialization a society has enjoyed. I would also think that a centrally-managed mass media plays a critical role in this.

Perhaps moral progress or more widely spread knowledge, more accurate news reporting (or perhaps more concentration in new reporting so increase monitoring of rumor versus fact)?

6,600 Koreans were murdered ?
Koreans count the number of victims. This is a one-sided claim.
This issue is under debate. Conclusion is not out yet.
You might argue that the number of victims is not a essential problem.
However, the number of victims that Koreans and left-wing Japanese insist are increasing year by year.

or, more likely, for oscillation.

Oscillation, yes, but with an overall trend line sloped upward. See, for example:

70 years is to short of a time to get all hopeful. Remember what the Japanese where doing as late as the 1940s. Moreover, I think it is an unfair comparison. As bad as the current earthquake is, it is not near as bad in terms of loss of life as the Great Kantō by about a factor of 10. To really see if modern man is more moral, you need to put him under the same stresses as his ancestors faced.

Along the same lines, compare Great Britain's rules of engagement for their bombers at the beginning of World War II and how it progressed (or digressed) as the war went on. What really struck me was how "modern" their rules of engagement where at the start of the war. It was the stresses of war that changed the attitudes regarding the acceptability of targeting civilians as opposed to some abstract change in the prevailing moral theory.

In fact, I think you could argue that World War II as a whole shows how fast man can digress. Comparing the Napoleonic wars to World War II does not reflect favorably on the idea that man has been progressing.

Means & ends both matter all the time. GB was facing a horror. Surrender was not an option, which is why Churchill was selected to be PM. That he adopted tactics sufficient to prevail against an enemy which glorified the abandonment of hard-won Western moral values is to be lauded.

In fact, I think you could argue that World War II as a whole shows how fast man can digress.

I would say that the great terrors of Stalin in the 30s, Mao in the late 50s, and Pol Pot in the late 70s show this more dramatically, since these took tens of millions of lives during periods when the respective countries were not at war. And yet, amazingly, the great horrors of the 20th century were just a temporary blip in the overall pattern of progress:


There is progress in the technological sense and there is progress in the moral sense. I don't think we should confuse the two. Had a nuclear exchange been started (as almost happened a couple of times) the entire story of the last hundred years would have been drastically changed.

Also, it should be noted that historians have a systematic bias to overestimate how brutish people's lives were in the pre-modern times were. Archeological evidence almost always forces them to revise their estimate of pre-modern life upward. This is just one example...

"The men whose skeletons were unearthed at Towton were a diverse lot. Their ages at time of death ranged widely. It is easier to be precise about younger individuals, thanks to the predictable ways in which teeth develop and bones fuse during a person’s adolescence and 20s. The youngest occupants of the mass grave were around 17 years old; the oldest, Towton 16, was around 50. Their stature varies greatly, too. The men’s height ranges from 1.5-1.8 metres (just under five feet to just under six feet), with the older men, almost certainly experienced soldiers, being the tallest.

This physical diversity is unsurprising, given the disparate types of men who took the battlefield that day. Yet as a group the Towton men are a reminder that images of the medieval male as a homunculus with rotten teeth are well wide of the mark. The average medieval man stood 1.71 metres tall—just four centimetres shorter than a modern Englishman. “It is only in the Victorian era that people started to get very stunted,” says Mr Knüsel. Their health was generally good. Dietary isotopes from their knee-bones show that they ate pretty healthily. Sugar was not widely available at that time, so their teeth were strong, too."

excerpt taken from here

Oscillation, yes, but with an overall trend line sloped upward.

Trend lines can be oscillatory too. Temperatures oscillate between night and day and also on an annual cycle. And,perhaps on a cycle that's a few centuries long. And on an Ice Age cycle.

There is progress in the technological sense and there is progress in the moral sense. I don’t think we should confuse the two.

But you simply can't have the kind of progress in health, wealth, infant mortality, longevity and so on that we've seen over the last 200 years without moral progress. You need the rule of a law and secure property rights, you need long periods of peaceful trade and cooperation, you need innovation and its the diffusion across national boundaries.

"Some newspapers reported the rumors as fact..."

Plus ça change

Comments for this post are closed