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In-depth Japan and World War I
A Forgotten Tale of World War I: Life for German POWs in Japanese Camps

Seto Takehiko [Profile]


At the outset of World War I Japan waged a short, successful campaign against German forces in China, taking thousands of prisoners of war, who went on to spend more than five years in camps in Japan. Documents and photos from the period reveal the surprisingly livable conditions of these World War I camps.

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I. People in Japan generally think of it as a European war, and they rarely discuss it, perhaps because the events of World War II weigh so heavily on their memories. And the fact is that although both conflicts are called “world wars,” they were fundamentally different in scope.

Japan participated in World War I as one of the Allied Powers, but its effective involvement was largely limited to the campaign against forces defending Germany’s concession at Qingdao (Tsingtao) in China. This 1914 campaign ended with the Germans’ surrender after a month and a half, at which point Japan found itself with 4,700 prisoners of war. They were dispersed to camps in 16 locations around Japan where they would be held for more than five years. Today their story has been almost forgotten.

POWs “Must be Humanely Treated”

Strictly speaking the prisoners of war were not all German, as they included Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Poles, and others. However, as the vast majority were German, here I will refer to them collectively as “German POWs.”

At that time, the rules for treatment of prisoners of war were as stipulated in the Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, part of the Hague Convention, which was signed on October 18, 1907, and promulgated by Japan on January 13, 1912. Chapter II, Article 4 of the annex to the convention states that prisoners of war “must be humanely treated.” Ten years after its victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5, Japan wished to be seen as a civilized nation by the Western powers, and it made efforts to comply strictly with international law in handling the German prisoners. This meant ensuring that there was no abuse or forced labor in any of the camps.

An incident did take place on November 15, 1915, involving Masaki Jinzaburō, the commander of the camp in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture. To celebrate the enthronement of Emperor Taishō, each prisoner was specially presented with one bottle of beer and two apples. When two officers refused them on the grounds that Japan and Germany were at war, the enraged Masaki struck them on the cheek. The prisoners in the camp protested vigorously at this infringement of the Hague Convention’s banning of abuse against POWs, and they demanded a visit from the embassy of the still-neutral United States. The incident blew up into a major issue, and Masaki was dismissed from his position in short order. However, occurrences of this sort were rare. Although there were minor flare-ups between lower-ranking guards and prisoners, there was almost nothing that could be described as abuse.

Photos Show Relaxed Prisoners

Photograph 1 (Courtesy of Naruto German House)  Photograph 2 (Courtesy of Oswald Hasselmann)

Photograph 1 shows German officers posing together with their Japanese captors at the camp in Marugame, Kagawa Prefecture. The picture is believed to have been taken on the occasion of the retirement of Colonel Ishii Yashirō, the camp commander, at the beginning of April 1916. Ishii, seated in the middle of the front row, looks rather huddled up, perhaps because of his sickly constitution, while the Germans on either side of him appear imposing and sit at ease with their legs crossed, looking not at all like prisoners. This picture expresses one aspect of the POWs’ treatment.

Photograph 2 is of POWs at the camp in Nagoya. It is not known when the picture was taken, but the clothes suggest that it was winter. The prisoners have found a sunny spot in a room in the camp, where they sit in relaxed poses. They certainly do not appear to be cowering under harsh discipline.

Photograph 3 (Courtesy of Kurume Board of Education)

Photograph 3 was taken at the camp in Kurume, Fukuoka Prefecture, on January 27, 1915, when the prisoners were celebrating the birthday of German Emperor Wilhelm II. The picture shows Lieutenant Yamamoto Shigeru, one of the camp officers, chatting with the prisoners. Yamamoto had studied at a military academy in Germany and was fluent in German. A former POW’s diary records that Yamamoto brushed up his language skills by exchanging Japanese lessons for German lessons with one of the prisoners. Although there are many pictures of Japanese and German officers together, very few show them smiling like this.

  • [2014.08.27]

Professor emeritus at Kōchi University. Specializes in German literature. Completed a master’s degree at Tōhoku University in 1970. His works include Chintao kara kita heishitachi: dai ichiji taisen to Doitsu hei furyo no jitsuzō (The Soldiers from Qingdao: World War I and German Prisoners of War).

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