BA Western Washington U.; MA Hawaii; PhD Cantab

Office: 10.40, Run Run Shaw Tower

Charles Schencking is a historian of modern Japan who has published widely on the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, the Japanese navy, natural hazards, Japanese-American relations, and war, state, and society. His research and teaching is heavily influenced by exploring the interplay between politics, technology, environment, and society.

Before joining the University of Hong Kong, he was an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne, a British Academy postdoctoral fellow at Cambridge University, and a Yasuda Banking and Trust fellow. He has held distinguished visiting appointments at the University of Tokyo, Rikkyō University, the University of Kyoto, and Murdoch University.

Over the course of his career, Charles has secured generous research funding from the British Academy, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Australian Research Council, the Hong Kong Research Grants Council, and the Japan Foundation. History is the discipline that best enables Charles to better understand humanity. He strives to convey this through his teaching and research.

Charles is currently the Public Orator and Deputy Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee at the University of Hong Kong. He has served as chairperson of the Arts Faculty Board, a member of the university Senate, the University Court, chairperson of the Department of History, and Mace Bearer for Arts Faculty congregations. As an immense beneficiary of international exchanges throughout his life, Charles also works closely with the Faculty of Arts Exchange Programme, which encourages and assists students to undertake international exchange as part of their undergraduate studies. 

Charles has adopted a research-led teaching approach to his undergraduate portfolio, offering courses that reflect his research passions in the history of natural hazards, humanitarianism, Japanese-American relations, and war. He has developed two distinct teaching pathways for students. One focuses on war, technology, and society that includes: HIST2107 Total War in Asia and the Pacific; HIST2174 Hell in the Pacific; HIST2186 Death and Destruction from Above: A History of Aerial Bombing from Zeppelins to Drones; and HIST4036 World War III: A History (capstone). The other pathway centers on natural hazards, the history of science, and society. Courses include: CCCHU9004 Catastrophes, Cultures, and the Angry Earth; HIST3027 Natural Disasters in History, 1701 – 2011; HIST2162 Saving the World: A History of Global Humanitarianism; and HIST4032 The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Reconstruction of Tokyo (capstone).

His teaching seeks to empower students to develop and articulate original, evidence-based ideas and opinions about the past in clear, concise, and persuasive ways. Charles has been awarded a host of prestigious teaching awards including the HKU Faculty of Arts Teaching Excellence Award in 2010, the Australian Learning and Teaching Council’s Australian Higher Education Teacher of the Year Award, Early Career Category in 2006, and the 2006 University of Melbourne Barbara Falk Teaching Award that recognized the university’s outstanding teacher from among the Arts, Law, Education, and Music faculties.


America’s Tsunami of Aid: Humanity, Opportunism, and Betrayal following Japan’s 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake.

Following Japan’s most deadly and destructive natural disaster—the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923—Americans responded to Japan’s suffering with an outpouring of aid unrivalled to this day. My study explores the simple, yet poignant question: Why? Why did Americans give so much and what did they hope for in return? How was aid given and why is this case of American humanitarianism so unique? America’s Tsunami of Aid illustrates how a complex set of perceived humanitarian obligations coupled with opportunistic visions for economic and political gain defined America’s aid campaign for Japan. In doing so, it paints an entirely new picture of America’s interwar internationalism, Japanese-American relations, and of 1920s America itself. It also revolutionizes our understanding of the American Red Cross, President Calvin Coolidge, and the origins of what I describe as the beginnings of America’s humanitarian century abroad, 1918 to 2017.

America’s Tsunami of Aid does not look at this extraordinary “humanitarian moment” exclusively from the side of the givers. Drawing on a wealth of materials from Japanese archives, this study also explores how Japanese officials and citizens used donated cash and materials. Importantly it also documents how Japan expressed its gratitude toward Americans through a series of soft-power public relations campaigns coupled with a frenzy of economic activity within America. When completed, this study will appeal to scholars and students of American, Japanese, and Asian American history as well as those interested in humanitarianism and natural disasters. It will also appeal to the general public. My study conveys a story that will make Americans feel proud about their international philanthropic past and hopefully, encourage everyone to rethink the importance of global humanitarian engagements in an era of increasing popular nationalism.

Research Interests

  • Modern Japanese history 
  • History of natural disasters in Japan 
  • History of international humanitarianism 
  • Second World War in Asia and the Pacific


The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan
(Companion website)

“The author is to be commended for his painstaking research, accessing popular journals, academic publications, folklore, song and commentaries issuing from political, military and business sources from the 1910s to the 20s… the only major work of its kind in English.”

– The Japan Times

“Schencking’s study… is based on an enormous amount of research. Well-written and compelling it… will act as a seminal work not only on the disaster itself, but on the politics and narrative of the disaster, for many years to come.”

– Janet Hunter, Modern Asian Studies 50:1 (January 2016): 815-835.

“Schencking is a demon researcher… [who has created] a compelling narrative history as well as a satisfying analytic one… tenaciously researched, imaginatively argued, and carefully crafted.”

– Mark Jones, Journal of Asian Studies (August 2016): 836-839.

“Schencking, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, has spent a decade and more excavating hitherto untranslated Japanese sources… his is the first book, either in English or Japanese, to cover the entire story from 1923 up to 1930.”

– The LA Review of Books

“A gracefully written and searching analysis that places Japan’s deadliest earthquake in historical context. An important contribution to the literature on natural disaster that moves beyond the clichés often told about reconstruction.”

– Theodore Steinberg

“A meticulous study… The Great Kanto Earthquake is a superb work of historical scholarship and a major contribution to our understanding of modern Japan and modern natural disasters.”

– Gregory Smits, Journal of Japanese Studies 40:2 (August 2014): 505-509.

“In Schencking’s excellent and engaging book, an anatomy of a disaster reminiscent of Richard J. Evans’s classic Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years: 1830-1910 …[he] painstakingly reveals the anxieties, the hopes, and the political dynamism of 1920s Japan.”

– Martin Dusinberre, The American Historical Review 119:2 (April 2014): 499-500.

“Overall, this meticulously researched monograph not only provides a rare picture of how Taishō Japan worked and saw itself, but also casts a sobering light on contemporary expectations that 3.11 will necessarily transform Japan into a stronger, greener and denuclearized country.”

– Andre Haag, Pacific Affairs, 89:1 (March 2016).

“In fact, the book is the first study in English or Japanese that details how elites interpreted, constructed, and packaged the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake and attempted to use it for larger political, ideological, social and economic aims… Chapters can be read separately according to the reader’s interests, whether they are historians, political scientists or Japanologists.”

– Tamaki Tokita, Asian Studies Review 39:2 (February 2015): 244-346.

“The results are laudable, for Schencking has drawn together and contributed immeasurably to a number of otherwise disparate scholarly literatures… with an enviable eye for detail and with prose that is positively poetic… In sum, this is an excellent book that is much more than a recount of a cataclysmic event. It uses the quake as a conceptual lens through to which view 1920s Japan in its many complexities. Our understanding of Taishō Japan will only be the richer for Schencking’s efforts.”

– Peter Mauch, Japanese Studies 34:1 (May 2014): 105-107.

“Deeply researched and well written, it is a major contribution to the urban history of modern Japan as well as to the burgeoning field of disaster studies.”

– Peter Duus

Making Waves: Politics, Propaganda, and the Emergence of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1868-1922

“Such a brief summary cannot do full justice to Schencking’s argument, research, and presentation. In person and method, he is truly an international naval historian… a book that should make waves not just among naval historians or those who focus on modern Japan. Anyone interested in the dynamics of arms races or the Pacific origins of World War II or even the early twentieth century world more generally can read it with great profit. Banzai for a superb work by a rising star in the historical firmament.”

– Roger Dingman, Journal of Military History 70:1 (January 2006): 249-250.

“Japan specialists and naval historians will relish this hearty new addition to the modern Japanese history canon. In a market driven by polish over substance, Making Waves is distinctly nourishing fare. This is the first English language analysis of the Japanese navy to precisely map the politics of naval expansion from 1868 to 1922. It will remain an essential reference for Japan scholars and naval historians for years to come.”

– Frederick Dickinson, Pacific Affairs 78:4 (Winter 2005-06): 662-663.

“In eight well-argued and well written chapters, Schencking provides a new history of the Japanese navy that privileges the politics, bureaucracy, and economy behind naval development, part of a new theoretical school of naval history that articulates how modern navies evolved into remarkable complex, politically active, and significant organs of state out of simple economic and political necessity. Making Waves is an important book for historians of Japan, for naval and military historians, and for those interested in the relationship between politics and the military in the pursuit of modern state power.”

– William McBride, Technology and Culture 47 (October 2006): 833-834.

Making Waves makes some of its own and deserves a place on the reading lists of scholars interested in learning how modern Japan was forged and, in a very real sense, made modern.”

– Michael Barnhart, Journal of Japanese Studies 33:1 (2007): 199-201.

Making Waves… is meticulously researched, well written, and compelling throughout. Schencking puts to rest the notion that the Imperial Japanese Navy was passive and apolitical through an examination of many of the personalities and issues that lay at the root of this rivalry.”

– Steven Bullard, Asian Studies Review 29 (December 2005): 427-428.

“Chapter five on the aftermath of the Battle of Tsushima… is almost worth the price of the book by itself… Schencking adds great historiographical weight to the efforts of historians to show that public support, or at least consent, for government policies was necessary even though Imperial Japan was hardly a democracy… Anyone interested in the politics of national security should put this book on their reading lists.”

– Nicholas Sarantakes, Intelligence and National Security 21:4 (August 2006): 634-635.

“He bases his history on an impressive reading of Japanese and English-language primary and secondary sources to produce a story with political implications far beyond the history of one service. Schencking provides one of the best descriptions of the inner workings of the Japanese political system that I have ever read.”

– S.C.M. Paine, Naval War College Review (Summer 2006): 155-156.

“Solidly grounded in Japanese-language sources, well organized, clearly written, and jargon-free, Making Waves should appeal to all readers interested in twentieth-century Japanese political and naval history.”

– E. Bruce Reynolds, Japanese Studies 25:3 (December 2005): 301-302.

The US and the War in the Pacific, 1941-1945
[co-author with Sandra Wilson, Michael Sturma, Arjun Subrahmanyan, and Dean Aszkielowicz]

兴风作浪 : 政治、宣传与日本帝国海军的崛起

Articles and Book Chapters

Scawthorn, Charles, Nishino Tomoaki, SCHENCKING, J. Charles, and Borland, Janet. “Kantō Daikasai: The Great Kantō Fire following the 1923 Earthquake,” Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 113:5 (October 2023): 1902-1923.

J. Charles Schencking, “Acts of Humanity, Expectations of Returns: Corporate Giving from America’s Industrial Heartland Following the Great Kantō Earthquake,” The Asia Pacific Journal: Japan Focus,s 21:8 (August 2023): 1-14.

J. Charles Schencking, “Generosity Betrayed: Pearl Harbor, Ingratitude, and American Humanitarian Assistance to Japan in 1923,” Pacific Historical Review 91:1 (February 2022): 66-103. University of California Press.

Sandra Wilson, Michael Sturma, Arjun Subrahmanyan, Dean Aszkielowicz, J. Charles Schencking, The US and the War in the Pacific, 1941-1945 (New York: Routledge, 2022).

Janet Borland and J. Charles Schencking, “Objects of Concern, Ambassadors of Gratitude: Children, Humanitarianism, and Transpacific Diplomacy Following Japan’s 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 13:2 (June 2020): 195-225. Johns Hopkins University Press. 

J. Charles Schencking, “Giving Most and Giving Differently: Humanitarianism as Diplomacy Following Japan’s 1923 Earthquake,” Diplomatic History 43:4 (September 2019): 729-757. Oxford University Press.

J. Charles Schencking, “Mapping Death and Destruction in 1923.” In Wigen, K., Fumiko, S. and Caracus, K (Eds.), Cartographic Japan: A History in Maps, 155-158. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 

J. Charles Schencking, “The Imperial Japanese Navy and the First World War: Unprecedented Opportunities and Harsh Realities”. In Minohara, T., Hon, TK & Dawley, E (Eds.), The Decade of the Great War: Japan and the Wider World in the 1910s, 83-106. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

J. Charles Schencking, “1923 Toyko as a Devastated War and Occupation Zone: The Catastrophe One Confronted in Post Earthquake Japan,” Japanese Studies 29:1 (May 2009): 111-129. Taylor and Francis.

Full list of publications


  • HIST2105 The Rise of Modern Japan, 1830-1950s
  • HIST2106 Imperial Japan: Its Modern Wars and Colonial Empire
  • HIST2107 The Second World War in Asia and the Pacific, 1931-1952
  • HIST2123 Meiji Japan: Challenges and Transformations, 1853-1912
  • HIST2124 Taishō and Shōwa Japan: Perfecting state, society, and nation, 1912-1989
  • HIST2162 Saving the world: A history of global humanitarianism
  • HIST2174 Hell in the pacific: The Japan-America War and its legacies today
  • HIST2186 Death and Destruction from Above: A History of Aerial Bombing, from Zeppelins to Drones
  • HIST3027 Natural Disasters in History, 1700-2009
  • HIST4032 Great Kantō Earthquake and the Reconstruction of Tokyo
  • HIST 4036 – World War III: A History
  • CCHU9004 Catastrophes, Cultures, and the Angry Earth  


The Great Kantō Earthquake and the Chimera of National Reconstruction in Japan

Columbia University Press 

Publication Date:
07.2013 hardcover/e-book