Tokei Maru: A ship lost in the shadow of time

The fascinating story being uncovered of a ship which sailed the coasts of Australia and the Aegean and the heroic efforts of its Japanese captain to save lives during the destruction and slaughter of Greeks in Smyrna

August 1922

This unique photograph taken at the port of Smyrni just a few days before the Turkish army entered the city, depicting the Japanese steamer “Tokei Maru” anchored a few meters away from the Quai and people getting ready to board, is a rare document from the twilight of the christian populations of Asia Minor.

After many years of questioning the authenticity and the timeline when this photo was taken, we now know the date and frame that the picture was taken.

It was August 20, 1922 (September 2, 1922 with the Gregorian calendar), just a week away from the violent intrusion of the Turkish para-militants and the fire that swept the city. For about 80 years it was forgotten, lost in old newspapers and painful memories.

Yet, following the work of scholars, researchers, film makers and many testimonies from the descendants of the Smyrna refugees the pieces came together and details of the Japanese intervention can now be revealed. We now know not only the name of the brave and humanitarian captain, but the captains who preceded him at the helm of Tokei Maru.

Tokei Maru was built in 1882 at the Newcastle upon Tyne shipyard owned by William Dobson and Company. It was 85.35 meters long with an average speed of 8.5 knots. It was named “La Serene” and its maiden voyage was from London in 1883. The ship sailed the open seas with Captain E. Jones at its helm for the first time in 1896, carrying people and goods to Mumbai, India. It was sold on 1900 to the Australian Adelaide Steamship Co., owned by William Dobson, renamed as “Moonta” and traveled between from Melbourne to Darwin along the coastal waters of the continent. Following the rise of Japanese exports and the rapid growth of Japanese marine commerce Moonta was sold to Towa Kisen KK, headquartered at the port of Dairen (present day Dalian in China) and Kobe in Japan. Commanding officer of the Tokei Maru was Captain Sato. The ship sailed the seas of Asia, delivering goods and carrying people. In 1918 Captain Masake was assigned as commanding officer as the ship continued to travel. His name appears on page 14, of the July 17 issue of the South China Morning Post among many listings at the marine traffic section of the newspaper. The identity of the two captains, was recently discovered from the South China Morning Post and The North China Herald newspapers, and the registers office of the ports of Saigon and Shanghai.

Tokei Maru’s coastal shipping script with mention to South Australia. Photo: Supplied

Tokei Maru would have another captain in 1921, the one that will be remembered for his brave act.

On May 17th 1922, Tokei Maru departed from the port of Karatsu in Japan carrying 1412 tons of various goods with Captain T. Norito at the helm. The news of the arrival and departure of Tokei Maru are recorded in the South China Morning Post newspaper, on page 14. Tokei Maru was to travel to Keelung in Taiwan and then to Hongay in Vietnam as noted on page 14, of the South China Morning Post May 24 issue. The ships long journey would take it through the Singapore straits and Suez canal to the Mediterranean Sea. A 10,000 nautical miles journey before arriving at the port of Smyrna on August 20, 1922.

After 100 years the name of the captain is finally known. Captain Norito appears in many listings of the shipping news of many issues and on different dates in the South China Morning Post newspaper.

Tokei Maru’s information in Piraeus’ newspaper, Simea. Photo: Supplied

How did we find the date of the ships arrival at Smyrna? By reading a book written from 1928 and published in 1930 by lieutenant colonel Spyridon Klaudianos, “Scenes of horror from the Asia Minor tragedy” we found the first clue. Klaudianos mentions in his book “…the ship was filled with people who paid to escape the city, then it sailed heading for the island of Lesvos, where people disembarked and three days later on August 24, the ship (Tokei Maru) was back at Smyrna. It took only an hour for the ship to be again crowded with terrified people and the ship sailed again for Lesvos, Thessaloniki and Piraeus” (page 176). By midnight of the 26 to 27 of August 1922 the ship arrived at the port of Piraeus. The news is recorded in the pages of the newspaper of Piraeus ASTRAPI (ΑΣΤΡΑΠΗ) and FOS (ΦΩΣ) in Thessaloniki. Both newspapers mention 1,600 refugees on board Tokei Maru and also, the arrival of judges, higher and lower court officers and 25 Turkish prisoners held with high treason. By cross reading the newspapers and the book of lieutenant colonel Klaudianos we understand that he was present in the process of loading refugees as he presents details. According to the book, Tokei Maru did four salvation journeys to Lesvos, Thessaloniki and Piraeus. (pages 176-177). This is also corroborated from the newspaper listings of Tokei Maru bringing refugees to Piraeus, loaded with 1,000 people, another with 2,000 people (as noted by the newspaper RIZOSPASTIS -ΡΙΖΟΣΠΑΣΤΗΣ) and a final load of 325 people according to the newspaper SKRIP or 825 people according to the newspaper EMPROS (ΕΜΠΡΟΣ). The dates of arrival, correspond to the number of journeys mentioned by Klaudianos, given the fact that the ship would sail on full steam and maximum speed. The newspaper ΑΤΗΙΝΑΙ (ΑΘΗΝΑΙ) mentions Mr Lou as the ships captain, a misunderstanding that led many researchers questioning the identity of the captain (Chinese or Japanese) and event the accuracy of the name. The truth is that there were two Mr Lou’s onboard the ship, brothers and Chinese in origin, delegates and company representatives, assisting the captain (who is not mentioned in any of the Greek newspapers). But as Captain Norito was the captain on the journey from Dairen/Dalian to Suez, he would also be the captain of the ship for the rest of the journey. All of them, Captain Norito, the Lou brothers, the Japanese commander of Tokei Maru (who is mentioned by the SKRIP newspaper) rescued Greeks and Armenians from the creeping death of the burning Smyrna. As the newspaper SKRIP (ΣΚΡΙΠ) from September 4th (September 17th with the new calendar) stated “The captain was indignant of the situation as it evolved from the vindictive demands of the Turkish soldiers and the horrible spectacle of the decomposition of corpses in the sea and the blood flowing from everywhere.”

Tokei Maru would sail for a short time carrying goods and people between Chania and Heraklion in Crete and Alexandria in Egypt. In Piraeus, one of the ships agents was Konstaninos Athanasoulas, a founding member of the International Nautical Union who would become later president of the organisation and in Crete Ioannis Adamis, one of the powerful marine agents of Crete.

On September 30 1922 Tokei Maru sailed back to Japan and on November 24, 1922 we find again Captain Norito at the helm of the ship. The Information comes from South China Morning Post, in the Arrivals section of the shipping news on page 16 in the November 27 1922 issue. And on February 23, captain Norito is registers at the port of Saigon as noted by the “Bulletin de la Chambre de Commerce de Saigon” in the issue of February 28 to March 13 and in the shipping news of South China Morning Post, page 13 February 27, 1922 issue. Captain Norito would remain as commanding officer on the Tokei Maru until 1931, when the ship was dismantled and turned to scrap in Tokyo. Between 1922 and 1931 captain Norito is named in different posts of the shipping news, carrying goods but he also faced Marine Court before Lieutenant Commander. G. F. Hole on December of 1925, when according to the research so far, he disobeyed orders given from the coastguard. Captain Norito was also involved in a marine accident when the Tokei Maru and the Norwegian steamer Ravnefjell collided in the Lower Huangpu at about 5.30 p.m. on Thursday, February 24, 1927.

These new findings, came when a single piece of evidence, the listing of the Saigon Chamber of Commerce reached my hands. It was provided by Mr Panagiotis Sotiriou, a young historian who thought that it might be of an interest for me. It took about two years to trace Captain Norito in newspapers and port registers. My research also provided clues and evidence of stronger ties between Japan and Greece between 1921 and 1923. Dating back on 1921, a Hellenic-Japanese association was founded by former parliament member and ex-minister of the Trikoupi governemt, Mr Athanasios Tipaldos-Mpasias. The Hellenic -Japanese Association had offices at the Japanese Industrial Museum at 16 Panepistimiou Street in Athens. Little is so far known about the Japanese Museum and the works of the Association. In fact on January 30, 1922 a newspaper ad reports a journey to Japan, for businessmen and news reporters to attend the International Trade Fair of Tokyo, also known as the Peace Fare, that took place on May of 1922. Those who had interest for one of the 22 reserved seats, had to register at the office of the Association, located inside the Japanese Industrial Museum.

Another important element is the discovery of a second Japanese ship sailing in the Aegean, the Dijon Maru which stuck a reef outside the port of Piraeus on April of 1922 and was towed by a barge named “Averof”. Dijon Maru carried 9,000 tons of wheat and cereal from USA to Piraeus. The accident of the Dijon Maru is reported in the newspapers EMPROS (ΕΜΠΡΟΣ) and SKRIP (ΣΚΡΙΠ). The ships arrival and departure is also reported at the Piraeus Chamber of Commerce report on April 1922. At the same time when the Tokei Maru was at the port of Piraeus, on September 12 1922, a Japanese envoy arrived in Athens with the Ambassador of Japan in Paris Mr Kosida, or Kohida, or Kojida (there are several similar names in the newspapers). The Japanese ambassador met with Mr Polychroniadis, the head of the political bureau of the Prime Minister of Greece and with Mr Kalapothakis who was the head of the Press office. A week later on September 19 the Japanese ambassador in Athens Count Riokuro Moru arrived at Piraeus from Italy with the steamer Chelio. He was accompanied by the military attache Hirokiosi Nisiyama.

Evidence gathered by the Armenian researchers Anna Vardanyan and Tehmine Martoyan provide clues for the whereabouts of Captain Norito between 1930 and 1931. Several Armenians had met the captain in Tokyo in the early 1930’s. We now have strong evidence about Captain Norito and answers to the questions that rose more than 10 years ago about the story of the Tokei Maru.

100 years after the salvation of refugees from Captain Norito and the crew of Tokei Maru, we are now focusing the research on major ports and newspapers from Asia. The extended research of the Greek newspapers from 1922 from Athens, Piraeus, Thessaloniki, Heraklion and Alexandria in Egypt are paying off. It is time to unite our forces and search deeper. As history is making rounds and the world is again in turmoil, we must keep the memory of the brave act of captain Norito and never forget.

As my friend and fellow researcher Anna Vardanyan said:

“Nothing is forgotten, no-one is forgotten”