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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

"Welcome to the Crystal Palace." Living Conditions and Nutrition of German Prisoners in the Japanese POW Camp Bando

April 22, 1999

Ruth Jäschke

Soon after the outbreak of the First World War, the German leasehold estate of Jiaozhou with its base at Qingdao in the Chinese province Shandong became the scene of a short fight between Germany and Japan. The Japanese have named it the “Japanese-German War” (Nichidoku senso). Following the surrender of Qingdao, about 4.700 Germans and Austro-Hungarians were moved as prisoners-of-war to Japan where most of them had to stay in captivity for more than five years. Initially they were lodged in temple buildings, tea houses, and other temporary accommodations in or on the outskirts of twelve larger towns. However, as those locations were not suited as permanent residences and were criticized by foreign observers, they were gradually replaced by six new camps.

Although the living conditions in most of those camps – especially in the early ones – were not really comfortable, they can in no way be compared with the treatment American prisoners had to face during the Second World War. In those early times, the Japanese government was very interested in presenting Japan to the Western countries not only as a strong military power but also as a so-called “civilized” nation. Japan tried to demonstratethis by observing the international humanitarian regulations set in the Hague Convention (1899/1907).

One of the newly built camps was at Bando on Shikoku (Tokushima prefecture,nowadays a part of the town of Naruto), to which the POWs from the camps of Tokushima, Marugame, and Matsuyama were transfered in April 1917. The situation in this camp was quite special. Because of the liberality of the camp commander, Colonel Matsue Toyohisa, the prisoners were allowed to lead a relatively free life. They engaged in several cultural activities including theater performances, lectures, exhibitions, and concerts (their performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1918, the first one in Japan, is widely known). Additional activities consisted of sports, agriculture, forestry, bridge-building, etc.

A special feature of the Bando camp was the large number of documents printed by the two printing-presses of the camp. Some of them, preserved in the “Bando Collection” acquired by the German Institute for Japanese Studies in 1998, shall be used to illustrate the living conditions of the prisoners. An internee referred to the camp as “our town of Bando.” This image is endorsed by the facilities the prisoners were establishing gradually, including some restaurant-like accommodations. As nutrition was one aspect of daily life which became increasingly important during captivity, I would like to take a closer look at the food situation as one indicator of living quality, which can also give us an insight into some aspects of the camp administration as well as into the spending power of the POWs.

Although the Bando camp provides us with quite a positive view, it is not intended in any way to glorify the captivity. Even at a camp as free as Bando, it was a period hard to bear for every prisoner, as I shall try to show as well. Nevertheless, it demonstrates that treating men with respect and dignity makes it actually possible for former prisoners to return home with only little resentment against the enemy nation which kept them away from their families and native country for half a decade. It was those ex-POWs who played an important role in reviving the personal relationsin the 1960’s which led to building the “Naruto German House” (Naruto-shi Doitsu-kan) with its permanent exhibition about the Bando POW camp and establishing the partnership between the towns Naruto and Lüneburg.