Oliver Lister


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Thesis title: “We Really are Doing Nothing”: The Great Kanto Earthquake and the Politics of British Humanitarianism in Japan, September 1923 – August 1924

On the 1 September 1923, a catastrophic earthquake struck the Kanto Plain in the east of Japan, killing at least 89,000 people across Tokyo and Yokohama in what remains the deadliest natural disaster in Japanese history. My project interprets the “Great Kanto Earthquake” (“Kantō Dai-Shinsai”) as a case study into the humanitarian practices and politics of the British government during the European interwar period. This study analyses how the earthquake impacted the British community in Japan and how British survivors described their experiences of the quake. This thesis also explores how the British government provided humanitarian relief to both the British and Japanese survivors of the disaster and investigates why differences in nationality and race predetermined the humanitarian reaction of the British government. Moreover, this project assesses the role that humanitarian aid played in Britain’s diplomatic and political relationship with Japan during the 1920s. Ultimately, this thesis examines what the Great Kanto Earthquake and the humanitarian response of the British government reveals about how the British government conceptualised the world and Britain’s international role in East Asia during the early twentieth century.

With respect to the SIID/IGSD, my study will offer new perspectives on the origins of humanitarianism and overseas aid in Britain at a time when the aid sector is facing substantial challenges. My project will demonstrate how race and racial stereotypes have shaped humanitarian practices and politics in Britain by exploring how racial preconceptions about Japan and the Japanese people influenced the humanitarianism of the British government. Finally, my thesis aims to illustrate how previously overlooked factors, namely humanitarian aid, have influenced Britain’s historic relationship with Japan at a time when the British government is currently seeking closer cooperation with Japan in the aftermath of Brexit.

I consider myself to be a historian of interwar Britain, specialising in the history of international humanitarianism in modern Britain and the role that humanitarian aid played in Britain’s relationship with Japan during the early twentieth century. I started my PhD in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield in 2021 after I graduated with an MA and a BA in History at the University of Nottingham in 2019 and 2016.