Tue, Mar 23, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Japanese POW camp was a little slice of home

An enlightened policy of treating World War I prisoners leniently helped seal the relationship between Japan and Germany


Aremote Japanese community that welcomed German World War I prisoners with beer, sausages and sauerkraut instead of typically harsh treatment elsewhere has inspired one researcher to help uncover a forgotten past that forged an enduring link between the two countries.

Roland Schulz, a 32-year-old German, is hoping to shed light on the legacy of a "fence-free" camp for German war prisoners in Naruto, southwest of Tokyo, that helped found a lasting friendship between two former enemies.

While many fellow captives of the 1914-18 conflict were crowded into tiny huts and subjected to violence, some 1,000 German prisoners enjoyed an almost idyllic lifestyle in Naruto's Bando camp, complete with football matches, concerts and picnics.

"I was surprised to know that such a prison existed in Japan," said Schulz, who has been in Naruto for nearly three years working at a museum and translating documents from prisoners interned at the camp.

"It is unfortunate that Bando Prison is not famous in Germany," Schulz said. "I would like to send a message to my country, saying that the root of the relationship between the two countries is here."

According to wartime records, prisoners were able to create a small corner of Germany at Bando, eating traditional food in a European-style cafe and holding lectures on philosophy and literature.

For entertainment, the Germans built a bowling alley, played billiards, sailed dinghies, watched and performed plays, baked biscuits, and had the use of a heated spa bath.

Lasting friendships were forged between the German prisoners and the Japanese villagers, and the bond has survived largely intact.

"My father told me that at first, villagers were shocked to see such tall men with long noses and blue eyes," said Keisuke Hayashi, 70, the son of a prison camp post office worker.

"People thought it was as if the soldiers came from outer space," the retired high school teacher said.

"But people soon realized they were not trouble makers, and then provided support and enjoyed life with the `Doitsu-san,'" he said, using the honorific of "Mr. German" by which the villagers addressed their enforced guests.

German prisoners were allowed to operate businesses in the camp set up with money donated or lent by Japanese.

Many resumed their pre-war professions -- furniture makers, shoemakers, photographers, publishers, barbers, carpenters, pharmacists, shipbuilders, musical instrument craftsmen, and poetry teachers.

Under such liberal conditions, only one young homesick soldier ever attempted to escape.

Most of the 4,630 German POWs held in Japan at the end of WWI were not so lucky. Reports of assault and battery against prisoners were frequent and they were crowded into small huts or cells, according to Ichiro Tamura, who runs the museum.

The enlightened policy in Naruto was introduced by Colonel Toyohisa Matsue, the warden of the 57,000㎡prison camp built to intern the German troops captured in China.

Japan took part in World War I in 1914 as an ally of Britain. Tokyo declared war against Berlin and seized the northern Chinese port city of Qingdao held by German troops.

"Matsue used to say both Japanese and German soldiers fought for the sake of their own countries, not against each other," said Masashi Nakano, assistant director of the museum.

"Matsue respected his enemies and ordered his men to provide as much hospitality as possible although the central government was critical of him for being too lenient," Nakano said.

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