German soldiers in Japanese wartime captivity, 1914-1920

Dr. Takuma Melber (Universit├Ąt Heidelberg)

The episode of German soldiers in Japanese captivity, 1914-1920, belongs to a generally comparatively little-known complex of topics in the history of German-Japanese relations. Only a few days after the outbreak of the First World War, from mid-September 1914, British, but above all Japanese troops besieged Tsingtau, the capital of the German protectorate of Kiautschou, which had been leased from the Chinese Empire for 99 years since 1898. After a month and a half siege, more than 4500 defenders of the city - mostly German soldiers, but also combatants of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy - became Japanese prisoners of war. The defenders of Tsingtau included professional soldiers, conscripts and conscripts, as well as German war volunteers who arrived from other parts of Asia at the outbreak of the First World War from other parts of Asia to defend the city under the command of Governor Alfred Meyer-Waldeck. However, on November 7, 1914, Tsingtau's soldiers were forced to lay down their arms after fierce resistance due to supply problems.

The Japanese Empire was inadequately prepared for such a rapid surrender of Tsingtau and the large number of prisoners of war. In an improvised manner, the German soldiers were transported from China to Japan on cargo ships and under extremely adverse conditions after the fall of Tsingtau. Here they were initially housed in hastily set up and spatially cramped camps: public buildings, barracks grounds or temple complexes served as temporary POW quarters for the first hour. For example, at the beginning of their captivity, over 300 soldiers were housed for the first few months on the temple grounds of Hongan-ji in Asakusa (Tokyo) including the commander of the East Asian Naval Detachment Lieutenant Colonel Paul Kuhlo.

On three of the four main islands of Japan, there were a good dozen POW camps at Asakusa (Tokyo), Himeji, Nagoya, Osaka and Shizuoka on the island of Honshu, Tokushima, Marugame and Matsuyama on Shikoku, and Fukuoka, Koradai, Kumamoto, Kurume and Oita on Kyushu. During the course of the World War, camps were restructured, closed and reopened, and camp inmates were relocated as a result. On Honshu, the Narashino camp near Tokyo was opened in September 1915, the Aonogahara POW camp, primarily for Austro-Hungarian soldiers, and the Ninoshima camp at the gates of Hiroshima in February 1917. The most famous camp, however, is probably the Bando camp (today's Naruto), which was established on the island of Shikoku in April 1917 and can be considered a "model camp" due to its exemplary conditions. Due to its size alone - the Bando camp had over 950 inmates - but above all because of the very good camp conditions, it is the story of Bando that has a lasting impact on the overall narrative of German soldiers in Japanese captivity during the First World War.

Thanks in particular to the liberal attitude of the camp commander, Colonel Matsue Tomohisa, under whose supervision the Tokushima camp had previously been, the German POWs in Bando were treated very humanely. But also at other camp locations, the German POWs enjoyed many freedoms and good treatment - especially compared to the treatment or mistreatment of of Allied Prisoners of War during World War II in Japan, but also compared to the treatment of their German comrades who had been taken prisoner on the European battlefields of the First World War. In general, the Japanese camps were relatively spacious, with separate barracks for enlisted personnel and officers as well as arbors. Prisoners of war could engage in sporting activities on sports fields and tennis courts.

Many documents bear witness to the fact that already more than 100 years ago, before this year's Tokyo Olympics, young German men competed in in sporting competitions in Japan: Disciplines included running races, wrestling, gymnastics, rope pulling, tennis, field field hockey and, unsurprisingly for Germans, the popular sport of soccer. There were also separate camp kitchens, slaughterhouses, bakeries, and washhouses, which were essential for ensuring camp self-governance. The soldiers were allowed to grow vegetables and keep animals, especially livestock such as chickens, cows and pigs, whose products were necessary to meet their daily needs. The camp inmates also had access to alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine, or even spirits, but this sometimes led to problems due to excessive alcohol consumption.

In the course of time, soldiers were allowed to leave the camps under Japanese supervision for walks and excursions in the immediate surroundings. In addition, orchestras, choirs and theater groups were organized in the camps alongside sports clubs. Printed matter, such as camp newspapers, was produced in camp printing houses. Depending on their professional backgrounds, the camp inmates taught each other all kinds of languages, subjects such as chemistry or physics, or they could take courses in East Asian culture and language. Furthermore, festivities were celebrated in the camps, such as the emperor's birthday or Christmas. In addition, there was sometimes a lively exchange between German prisoners and the local civilian population - for example, German soldiers worked in Japanese stores to earn some extra money and at the same time teach the Japanese how to make German products, such as German baked goods, sausages or brews.

To this day, "Narashino Sausage," a German-style sausage, has survived in Narashino as a regional treat.The camp gates were opened to locals in the final stages of the war to allow them to visit exhibitions designed by the detainees, where German products, art and German crafts were demonstrated. Germans and Japanese also engaged in joint sports activities, such as playing soccer against and with each other. Despite the overriding context of war, genuine German-Japanese friendships developed at some camp sites.

Although the picture sketched above may seem almost idyllic, it must be emphasized that the German soldiers were prisoners of war: They were involuntarily in Japan and wanted nothing more than their freedom. They wanted to leave the camps as soon as possible so that they could embrace their relatives and friends back home. The only way they could keep in touch with them was by field mail which was subject to censorship. First-person documents report conflicts among the camp inmates, but also between German soldiers and Japanese guards. In some places, German combatants attempted to escape, to which the Japanese reacted with punitive measures. There are also reports of behavioral problems The mental health of some prisoners was severely affected by their imprisonment. In addition, towards the end of the First World War, a global pandemic was raging that did not stop at the gates of the prisoner-of-war camps. The Spanish flu caused severe illness and death among both German and Japanese soldiers.

However, the end of the war in November 1918 did not immediately mark the end of the captivity of German soldiers in Japan. It was not until the spring of 1920 that the vast majority of German prisoners of war were repatriated, although a few hundred actually preferred to remain in Asia (China, Japan, the Dutch Indies).
soldiers actually preferred to remain in Asia (China, Japan, Dutch India). Those who returned to Germany from the Far East faced shocking misery on the ground and faced an uncertain future. Many of them struggled greatly with the process of their personal resocialization.

In particular, it is thanks to the German House in Naruto - the place where remains of the Bando camp are still preserved today - its collective exhibition, documentations, special events as well as the commitment of its staff that the history of the German prisoners of war has been preserved as a cultural heritage of German-Japanese relations and friendship until today.

In the recent past, other former camp sites, for example Kurume and Narashino, have also increasingly taken on the history and historical reappraisal of their camp stories in projects. In Germany, the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies (HCTS) at the University of Heidelberg started a project a few months ago. "Digital Tsingtau Archive - German Soldiers in Japanese Captivity during World War I." Descendants of former German prisoners of war can continue to submit private estates for digitization on a temporary/loan basis, in order to preserve further evidence of the episode of German captivity in Japan, 1914-1920 for posterity in digital form.

Please feel free to contact the project manager, German-Japanese historian Dr. Takuma Melber, if you are interested or have any information: