Witnessing over a century of history

Classically trained ballerina took emotional twirl from Germany to Japan, Manchukuo and back


When alone, Hedwig Koh’s eyes gaze perpetually into the past. Even as a child, she looked off into the distance: “I spent most of my childhood upstairs at the attic window, looking out at the view, imagining far away places.”

Koh’s eyes find yours, 101 years after they first opened, cornflower songs of experienced innocence. They’ve seen a lot in a century, but seem eager for more. “I need people and books,” Koh declares, and the five or six German paperbacks littered across her bed, gifts from family and friends, bear testimony.

Koh was born in 1909, in Leipzig, Germany, the third of five daughters. A classically trained ballerina, Koh performed at age 16 at the Leipzig Opera House; a few years later, she met her future husband, Yukichi Koh, a talented young cellist from Japan, who was in Germany to attend the Leipzig Music Academy.

Hedwig and Yukichi married and moved to Japan in 1928. More than a foreign culture shocked her on arrival in Japan — her new husband was famous in his homeland.

“We pulled into Tokyo Station, and got off the train. It was evening, and I was suddenly engulfed with an explosion of lights and noise. I thought it was lightening and thunder, or an earthquake. The radio, the evening news, all the newspaper people were there, waiting for us with those big strobe cameras.” Koh’s husband had never mentioned his status before, but Koh soon became too busy learning about her new home to worry about fame.

Koh found Japan endlessly fascinating, thanks in a large part to the efforts of her young husband. “My husband tried very hard to teach me about Japanese history and culture. He was very proud of Japan. He showed me temples and shrines, history and our ancestors. We visited the grave of Gen. (Maresuke) Nogi (1849-1912). . . . We went to kabuki every month, and Yukichi would carefully explain the stories ahead of time.”

Making Tokyo their base, Koh traveled all over Japan and other parts of Asia, dancing ballet for her husband’s cello recitals. Her eyes consumed each new place and experience; it was a joyful time for the young couple.

After two years in Japan, they returned to Germany for a visit. The Kohs traveled by sea, but the Suez Canal was closed on their journey, and they were forced to go around Africa. A terrible storm shook the ship, a tempest that would foretell the next several years in their lives. They returned safely to their calm, artistic lifestyle in Japan, but war lurked on the horizon.

War first intruded in the Koh family’s life as things turned hectic in the nation’s capital. In 1931, the Manchurian Incident triggered Japan’s takeover of Manchuria and the establishment of Manchukuo. The nation had taken its first step toward the long period of war.

Since the Kohs’ artistic careers included much travel away from Tokyo anyway, they decided to move their base away from the capital to Zushi, Kanagawa Prefecture. In 1934, their first child, Haruyo Sigrid, was born; by the time their second daughter, Sachie Christine, was born three years later, Japan and China were at war.

Yet Koh recalls the time in Zushi as happy, despite the gradually deteriorating conditions as the nation headed toward war. “Many Germans lived in the area at the time, and it was a wonderful place to raise children,” she remembers. They continued to travel together for performances, and their son, Katsuo Victor, was born in 1940.

Still the war raged on. More young Japanese men were conscripted into the army, and the demand for a teacher of the cello diminished as students disappeared. The war robbed some of his wealthy patrons of expendable income, and her husband’s chances for work became limited.

Difficult times only became more harsh. After the Sorge Incident in 1941, in which German national Richard Sorge and others was arrested in Japan on charges of spying for the Soviet Union, the government forced all foreigners away from the Yokosuka area, and the Kohs were repeatedly asked to leave Zushi.

With three young children to consider, her husband held out for two more years, but finally made the decision in 1943 to move his family to Mukden — today’s Shenyang — Manchukuo. He took up various music-related jobs there, forming small orchestras for his former patron and others.

Although their lives in Manchukuo — and then China after the war’s end — only totaled five years, a drop when you live a century, Koh’s eyes immediately surge with tears when recounting her life there as the memories remain painfully fresh.

At first their standard of living improved compared with the last few years in Japan, with plenty of food and an international community eager for music and diversion. Yet all too quickly Aug. 15, 1945, arrived, and the Emperor’s official announcement of surrender.

Koh’s husband had been scheduled for an operation for stomach problems on that momentous day, but no doctors came to the hospital. Amid the historical tumult that followed, the Kohs struggled to survive, all connections to their artistic idyll world lost.

With Japan’s defeat came the invasion of Soviet troops into Manchukuo, and men were rounded up to be sent to Siberia or shot for resisting, Koh recalls. “Yukichi used to tell me, ‘my cello is so valuable, it is our life insurance.’ He ran from the soldiers, holding his cello, but they were just rough, taking it from him, crushing it, throwing it in the pond.”

When once he was captured, Yukichi escaped by jumping out of the truck along with a few friends while the Soviet tanks made their slow turns. During another roundup, he was mercifully in the toilet.

The situation calmed as the land was turned over to the Chinese, and survivors gathered in a textile factory run by Yukichi’s former patron. “The Chinese government wanted professors, musicians or technicians to stay, but they sent everyone else back to Japan. There was nothing in Japan after the war, so we felt lucky to stay. Here we had food.” But that was only until the increasing battles Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government and the communist forces led by Mao Zedong engulfed the region: “Suddenly, we were starving.”

Art unexpectedly saved them. Military from the Nationalist side came to request that Koh’s husband join a group of musicians playing for the general’s birthday. The next day, they flew out on the last plane to leave Mudken.

“The communists had already surrounded the airport, guns were shooting, but 40 people in total, Japanese and Chinese musicians and their families, made it on the plane to Beijing — and then to Nanjing.”

Daily living was much improved under the protection of the Nationalists, but the civil war quickly moved on to other parts of China. As the situation worsened for the Nationalists and they made their plans to retreat to Taiwan, the Koh family was invited as well, but decided to return to Japan — again, on the last boat out.

Koh acknowledges her return to Japan started “the second part of my life.” Her husband’s stomach problems were finally diagnosed as cancer, but it was too late: within two years of their return, he passed away. Koh, 42, with three children aged 10 to 16, started work to support her family.

They had returned to her late husband’s hometown in Chiba. “Tokyo was too difficult and expensive. In Chiba I could teach ballet, there were relatives to help us, Chiba University Medical Center was close, and attracted many German doctors or young Japanese doctors who wanted to learn German.”

The next decade became a blur to survive, working as a translator, a teacher at the German School in Japan in Tokyo, spending evenings tutoring students in German, running her own ballet studio, Koh Hedy’s School of Ballet.

Her eldest daughter, Haruyo Sigrid, also worked in the ballet school and took over much of the mothering duties as Koh was so busy. “Nowadays, I would have no chance, there is not such a demand for German, but at that time, in Chiba near the hospital, there was a lot of interest still in German. It is ironic, since I had to work so hard teaching others in German, I never had any time to teach my own children German.”

Perhaps it helped, to be so busy with living. Her eyes had seen so much dying with the war and her husband’s death.

Her efforts paid off tremendously in love. Today she has eight great-grandchildren and six grandchildren, a large family Koh worked hard to ensure could enjoy the same opportunities of art and travel she did. With connections in the United States, Europe and Japan, her family remains close.

In later life, Koh returned to the area of her happy time as a young mother, and lived peacefully for several decades with her eldest daughter in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture. She re-connected with her German community of friends in the area, celebrating her 100th birthday at a local German restaurant by the sea.

Although health concerns prompted a recent move into a senior’s home near the Shonan coast, Koh’s eyes shine, lively and curious as ever. The recent debilitating illness of her eldest daughter is one piece of her life that now prompts tears, but mostly, her days overflow with family, friends and peace.

She waits patiently for visits, special trips out of the home to eat sashimi with her son’s family, or spending time with her second daughter and her family. German friends linger, bringing books and flowers. Her eyes light up with her still-active humor when speaking her native tongue.

Although she’s seen her share of hardship, Koh also remembers clearly the best from her past: “I miss many things from old Japan — the merchants who delivered fish and ‘natto’ (fermented soybeans) and tofu on their backs, going door to door each morning. But the people have not changed. The people of Japan have always been so kind and welcoming to me and my family, and they still are today. Some people think it has changed, but for me, the kindness of Japan has always been strong.”