NARUTO, Tokushima Pref. — At 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 23, 1914, despite opposition among many pro-German military officers and politicians, Japan honored a 1902 treaty with Britain and declared war on Imperial Germany.
Earlier that month, Germany and Austria-Hungary declared war on France, Russia and Britain. With Japan’s entrance on the side of the Triple Entente, the conflict reached Asia.
Rather than send troops to northern France and Belgium, where the trench war was raging, Japan, with British agreement, decided to attack the German colony at Tsingtao, China, while its Imperial navy seized coaling stations in the Mariana Islands that had been abandoned by the German Pacific Fleet racing to get back to Europe.
On Aug. 28, 28,000 Japanese troops departed Nagasaki for Tsingtao, which was defended by 5,000 Germans. A siege began, which culminated in an attack on Oct. 31. Outgunned, exhausted and with no hope of reinforcements, the remaining 3,900 German troops surrendered Nov. 7.
They were rounded up and sent to Japan, where they languished in a dozen hastily erected POW camps, most of which were in the Kansai region, Shikoku and Kyushu. Unlike the situation nearly three decades later, Japan’s military and civilian leaders during World War I were worried about how the international community viewed its treatment of POWs.
Japan had won international praise for its treatment of Russian prisoners during the Russo-Japanese war a decade earlier, and its leaders were determined to ensure its reputation as a civilized nation was upheld.
Thus, when observers from neutral nations criticized conditions in the camps, Japan’s military authorities responded by consolidating the 12 camps into six. The most famous of these would be Bando in Naruto, Tokushima Prefecture.
Opened in April 1917, Bando housed nearly 1,000 POWs. Under the leadership of Cmdr. Toyohisa Matsue, who respected the Germans and was determined to treat them humanely, the Bando POWs lived in extremely relaxed conditions.
Matsue and his adjutant, Capt. Taii Takagi, a gifted linguist who spoke seven languages, including German, allowed the prisoners to have their own bakery, raise chickens and print a camp newspaper. They were given facilities for playing billiards and nine-pins, a form of bowling. Drama groups put on works by Shakespeare, Lessing, Goethe and Schiller, as well as light comedies.
And, in a move that drew the wrath of superiors in Tokyo, Matsue even allowed the prisoners to leave the camp to interact with local Japanese.
From a Doitsu-san (German), local Japanese learned to bake bread, made cheese, performed gymnastics and played soccer.
Music was arguably the most popular pastime among POWs at the camp. Records show that among less than 1,000 prisoners there were three symphony orchestras, a brass band, a chamber music group and a mandolin band. Between April 1917 and January 1920, when the camp closed, 100 performances were given not only within the premises but also in the nearby city of Tokushima.
One musical performance in particular made Bando eternally famous among Japanese classical music lovers. On the evening of June 1, 1918, as Germany’s last major offensive on the Western Front was failing and the tide was turning in favor of Japan’s allies, the Bando POWs performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which had never before been heard in Japan.
Playing on instruments that were sometimes hand-made and forced to use male singers for the choral sections, the musicians wrote to family and friends in Germany afterward that the concert had been a resounding success.
And so it had been. The performance marked the beginning of a Japanese love affair with the work that continues to this day, with devoted choral groups rehearsing up to one year in advance just to play a single concert.
But life at Bando was coming to an end. On Nov. 11, 1918, Germany signed an armistice after its capitulation. Over the next year, the POWs were repatriated to a country and a continent where the kind of chivalry the Japanese had displayed had not been seen since the Christmas Truce of 1914, where German, French, and British soldiers put down their guns and climbed out of their trenches to exchange presents and greetings, held a soccer match — the Germans won — and helped each other bury the dead.
Historians have described that truce as the last moment in the 20th century when 19th century ideas about gentlemanly conduct in war were honored. But it was, arguably, at the Bando camp in Japan, far removed from the horrors of the Western Front, where such notions remained long after the truce was over.
While Matsue and Takagi were justly praised for their humanitarian instincts, the fact that Japan basically sat out the war after the capture of Tsingtao may have been a factor in the benevolence shown at Bando. Between 1914 and 1918, Japan lost just over 1,100 men and ended up at the victor’s table.
By contrast, the nations of Europe, all of which had been certain in August 1914 that the war would be over by Christmas, found themselves in a four-year nightmare in which almost 9 million people perished after the Japanese capture of Tsingtao.
When the Bando camp closed in 1920, 63 Germans chose to remain in Japan rather than return to their defeated and devastated homeland. Some who did return kept up correspondence with their former Japanese guards and students, especially music students, who helped spread the word of the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth. But the international community remained largely ignorant of the Bando story.
Over the past few years, as the last of the World War I veterans pass away, there has been a revival of interest in the war among Europe’s younger generation.
Battlefield tours of northern France are growing in popularity among people in their 20s and 30s, while fictional works using World War I as a setting are on the increase, especially in Britain and Ireland.
Earlier this year, the story of the 1914 Christmas Truce was told in the film “Joyeux Noel,” currently playing in Tokyo and Osaka, which was nominated for an Oscar. This film followed last year’s highly acclaimed “A Very Long Engagement,” which addressed the still-controversial subject of the French mutiny during the war.
Now, interest in Japan’s role in World War I and the Bando camp story may be ready to take off among younger Japanese, as the film “Baruto no Gakuen” hits theaters Saturday. The film stars Ken Matsudaira as Matsue and features internationally renowned German actor Bruno Gantz as a ranking German officer.
The entire camp, from the barracks to the canteen to the bakery and printing shop, was re-created near the original site for the film and is now open to the public. Visitors can get a small idea of what life was like for the POWs.
The film focuses on life at the camp, specifically the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, instead of the larger role of Japan in World War I.
Tourists at the “Baruto no Gakuen” set and the memorial hall a 10-minute walk away appeared less like those who contemplate the tragedy of war at quiet graveyards and old trenches in northern France and more like classical music fans visiting the site where their favorite piece made its Japan premiere.
But whether “Baruto no Gakuen” creates a new wave of interest in the period, and the war that is virtually unknown among younger Japanese, the Bando story remains one of the most poignant tales of the entire war, not least because it allows the modern world to reflect on just how different the mind-set of Japanese military men like Matsue and Takagi was from that of those who followed them a generation later.
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