Japan commemorates German World War I prisoners of war | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 27.01.2020
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Japan commemorates German World War I prisoners of war

The Japanese town of Narashino on Monday marked 100 years since the last group of World War I German prisoners of war (POW) left the camp, which had been the home for many of them since 1915. Julian Ryall reports.

Japan's local board of education held a lecture and displayed documents relating to the lives of the prisoners during their time in Narashino, a town in Chiba Prefecture just east of Tokyo. The exhibition also included a number of the POWs' personal belongings, such as diaries.

The lecture was delivered by Masayuki Hoshi, an employee of the city government, who has devoted many years to researching the history of the POW camp and its inmates, and believes it is important that more people are reminded of what was happening more than a century ago.

"The history of war is said to be a chain of hatred and retaliation," Hoshi told DW. "Breaking that chain and coexisting on the same Earth requires that we turn hatred into friendship. I believe the German soldiers in the Narashino camp understood that."

Read more: Germany's navy marks 100 years since scuttling at Scapa Flow

Bonds of friendship

"And in a world where wars are still being waged, it is important that we pass on to future generations the evidence of people's efforts to overcome the scars of war and to turn those experiences into friendship," Hoshi added.

The Narashino POW camp was opened in 1915 to take some of the German navy and army personnel who had been captured by Japanese forces in the early stages of World War I. Some were captured at the fall of some of Germany's possessions in the Pacific Ocean, such as the Marshall and Marianas Islands.

Japan Gedenkstätte Narashino (Narashino City Municipal Board of Education)

Camp prisoners kept themselves entertained by operating a theater and playing football, tennis and hockey

Others included the crew of the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth, which was scuttled in November 1914 in the Chinese city of Tsingtao, a German colony.

A total of 4,700 prisoners from Germany and allied nations were held at 12 POW camps across Japan, with the Narashino camp home to around 1,000 servicemen at its peak, according to Hoshi. The regime, he adds, appears to have been fairly relaxed.

"Although the camp was surrounded by barbed wire rather than fences, local residents had almost free access," Hoshi said. "One of the housewives in the neighborhood who did the laundry later remembered the melody of the folk song 'Schnadahuepfel' being sung by the POWs. Local children entered the camp, were given lemonade by the German soldiers and watched pantomimes with clowns.

"The prisoners made their own bread, sausages and sweets in the camp — things that were very rare for ordinary Japanese people," he said. "And the music of the camp orchestra resonated across the whole town. We could say that these prisoners unintentionally played the role of goodwill ambassadors."

Read more: German WWI submarine remains resurface on French coast

Entertainment, education

Surviving documents show that inmates were able to take classes in bookkeeping and electrical engineering, as well as Japanese and French language classes. As well as the camp orchestra, prisoners kept themselves entertained by operating a theater and playing football, tennis and hockey.

Some 30 men died while incarcerated, 25 of them victims of the Spanish flu pandemic that swept the world from late 1918 to the early part of 1919. All were buried with full military honors at the Narashino Army Cavalry Cemetery and even today, a commemorative service is held at the spot — marked by a large memorial stone — in early November, hosted by the German-Japanese Association of Chiba and with representatives of the German Embassy in Tokyo.

With the surrender of Germany in November 1918, discussions began on the repatriation of POWs but it was not until November 1919 that the first group from Narashino was released. The last POWs were put aboard ships for Germany in January 1920, although a number of former prisoners had by that point put down roots in Japan and opted to remain here. Some opened sausage shops and others taught at universities.

"Their success completely healed the scars of the war between Japan and Germany," Hoshi said. "Most Narashino citizens — and most Japanese people in general — do not even know that Germany and Japan were at war more than 100 years ago. It is important that we remember."

Building bridges

Yoshiko Tamura, a founder of the POW Research Network Japan NGO, points out that there have been many efforts to build bridges between former POWs of both the first and second world wars, with a high degree of success.

"The music the prisoners played at Narashino and that could be heard all across the town is famous and the story was recently on a television program here, so it is good that more people are hearing about history and what happened then," she said.

"We have far more stories about prisoners held in Japan during World War II, but it is also important that we remember the men who were here in the First World War," she said. "By remembering their experiences and hardships, we can do better in the future. It's really very important for the future for all of us."

Read more: German schools evacuated after WWI chemical weapon find

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