National / History

Civility shown to Russo-Japanese War POWs lives on as Matsuyama's legacy

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Tucked away in a tiny corner of Matsuyama, on a hillside not too far from the famous Dogo Onsen hot springs resort, lies a unique graveyard. Inside lie gravestones for 98 Russian POWs who died during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, a somber reminder of a time the city is nevertheless generally eager to remember, and occasionally romanticize.

The Russo-Japanese War, which was fought on China’s Liaodong Peninsula at Port Arthur (modern Dalian) as well as at sea, woke many in the West up to the fact that Japan, which only a few decades earlier seemed to be an ancient, technologically backward country, was now a modern military power in the Pacific.

The exploits of the Japanese army and especially the navy, culminating in the Battle of Tsushima in late May 1905 in which Russia’s Baltic Fleet was sunk, meant that between the time war was declared in February 1904 and the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended it in September 1905, more than 70,000 Russian POWs had been brought to Japan and placed in up to 29 camps.

But it was the Matsuyama camp that became the most famous for its lenient and humane treatment of the Russians. The exact number of POWs in Matsuyama fluctuated throughout the war, as prisoners were often transferred to other camps that opened after they arrived at Matsuyama. But the maximum number in the Matsuyama camp at any given time was believed to be just over 4,000, at a time when Matsuyama’s population was about 30,000.

The treatment of the Russians was also praised by non-Japanese observers. Commenting about her tour of Japan in 1904 to check on the health conditions of the prisoners, Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee, an American military physician, described the following to a U.S. audience upon her return: “I was also given the opportunity to go to Matsuyama on the Inland Sea, where the largest hospital for prisoners of war was located, and which at this time had also a number of sound (healthy) Russian officers who had just been transferred from Port Arthur.

“The Japanese were rightfully very proud of Matsuyama, where they gave their captured enemies quite as good care as their own soldiers received.”

Ritsumeikan University professor Noboru Miyawaki, who has written a book about the Matsuyama camp and the treatment of the POWs, says that from the time it was set up in spring 1904, local authorities made it official policy to ensure good treatment. Historical documents show Ehime Prefecture, the army, and municipal authorities stressed that POWs were not criminals, but honorable men who had fought for their country, Miyawaki said.

In his book, Miyawaki records what their daily lives were like, including the food they ate, which was often beef stew or beef pies (croquettes). At the time, eating beef in Japan was far less widespread than today, but the POWs were accommodated.

“The prisoners, mostly the officers, were also allowed to drink alcohol, which was purchased from local merchants and from those in Kobe,” he said.

Official records uncovered by Miyawaki show that, for the month of September 1905, the camp’s canteen bought 2,587 different items from local merchants. These included 720 bottles of Asahi beer, two bottles of champagne, six of cognac and large bottles of whiskey, but no vodka, though Russian officers could obtain it at times.

Under careful supervision, Russian POWs were allowed to visit the nearby Dogo hot springs, and bicycle around the area. Russian officers were also sometimes invited as “guest lecturers” to various meetings, where they spoke on a variety of topics of interest to their Japanese audience.

The treatment of the Russian wounded was often handled by Japanese Red Cross nurses, and romances between soldiers and nurses did occur. Most of those who perished in Matsuyama had suffered severe wounds in battle before they arrived, or were extremely ill.

Word about life in the Matsuyama camp eventually spread back to Russia, and to Russian troops. There were reports in the press at the time that as the war progressed, Russian troops who surrendered would sometimes lay their guns down, raise their hands and shout “Matsuyama, Matsuyama!” to their Japanese captors. However, Miyawaki said hard evidence that that really happened is hard to come by, although many people in Japan believed it was true.

In 2009, popular interest in the period grew after the airing of the NHK drama “Saka no Ue no Kumo” (“Clouds Above The Hill”). Based on a novel by Ryotaro Shiba (1923-1996), the story revolves around three men, including the brothers Yoshifuru and Saneyuki Akiyama, from Matsuyama, and their lives during the Russo-Japanese War. The TV drama followed various events in Matsuyama during 2004 and 2005 to commemorate the centennial of the war, and the opening of the Saka no Ue no Kumo museum in 2007.

But for a long time before that, the Matsuyama camp in particular was not something that received much public attention. It’s only been in recent years that the city has rediscovered that part of its historical legacy.

Today, lots of Japanese-language travel information sites on the internet mention the Matsuyama camp and Russian cemetery, though information in other languages remains relatively scarce.

“The message of the Matsuyama camp, especially for younger people, is that even in war, you can keep your humanity. War is inhumane, but the humane treatment of the Russian POWs in Matsuyama offers hope to people who are idealistic, and that’s the most important lesson, I think,” Miyawaki says.