Feeling at Home in Prison: German POWs at the Bando POW Camp

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“Anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.” So writes Evelyn Waugh in his 1928 novel, Decline ad Fall. Those who have been to English public schools and gone through the strict discipline demanded there as depicted, for example, by Charles Dickens in his 1854 novel, Hard Times, will probably concur with him. But how can anyone feel at home in prison? A prison is not intended to be a comfortable place like home in the first place. Moreover, we are amply aware of the cruelty and horror of life there from the fictional stories told by such writers as Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo as well as from the real-life stories told about such places as Auschwitz and Guantanamo.

There is, of course, an exception to everything we encounter in life. One of the notable exceptions to the conventional notion about a prison being the scene of cruelty and horror is the Bando POW Camp in Naruto City in the closing days of World War I.

The Bando POW Camp was one of the camps set up in Japan to accommodate some 4,700 German soldiers, who were taken prisoners and brought over from China after the Siege of Tsingtao. Bando itself was host to some 1,000 German POWs. Toyohisa Matsue (1872-1956), Director of the Bando POW Camp, is known for his humane treatment of the POWs there. Born in Aizu, where a fierce battle between the imperial army who fought for the establishment of the new Meiji government and the Aizu samurais who remained loyal to the Tokugawa Shogunate took place, Matsue was well aware what it means to be on the losing side of a war. His humane treatment of German soldiers at the Bando POW Camp is said to have been his way of living up to Bushido, or the way of samurais, which required compassionate and merciful treatment of the fallen enemy warriors.

As a matter of fact, Bando became a bustling hub of cultural exchanges between German soldiers and local residents. German soldiers ran a printing shop, a bakery, even a restaurant, and enjoyed playing sports such as tennis, football, and cricket on the Bando POW campgrounds. As for local residents, interacting with German soldiers was an eye-opening experience to be exposed to many wonders of Western culture, for many of them had never seen foreigners, let alone things like German bread and cake. Some German soldiers were invited to local schools to demonstrate Western sports and gymnastics. While they were no doubt POWs kept at a POW camp, German soldiers at Bando even went out of the prison campgrounds from time to time for hiking on the nearby mountains and beaches, interacting with local residents wherever they went.

The legacy of Bando as a model for humane treatment of its prisoners and as a model for friendly interaction between prisoners and local residents lives on in the form of sister-city relationship between Luneburg, Germany, and Naruto City. Another important legacy is Daiku-no-hi, or the Day of Ninth, which the citizens of Naruto City observe on June 1 as a special day every year. The word “Ninth” here refers to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which was performed for the first time in Asia on the Bando POW campgrounds on June 1, 1918.

Performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a prison camp? That must have been an enormous feat, considering the high technical demands this symphony asks of the performers, including the synchronization between the orchestra and the choir in the final movement. What about female soloists and female choir? With no female prisoners being kept there, we are told that the first performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on June 1, 1918 was done with all-male soloists and choir. To commemorate the centennial of this first performance, a special performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with all-male soloists and choir took place on June 1, 2018, followed by the performance of the full-orchestra version on June 2 and 3.

An important lesson we learn from the continuing cultural exchange between the citizens of Naruto and the citizens of Luneburg, where some of the German prisoners came from, is that a prison can indeed be a place where prisoners can feel at home and free. This reminds us of Thich Nhat Hanh’s message given to prisoners when he visited the Maryland Correctional Institution on October 16, 1999. His talk given there, which was made into a book titled Be Free Where You Are, tells us that we can be free and happy no matter where we are. By freedom, Thich Nhat Hanh means “freedom from afflictions, from anger, and from despair.” And the message Thich Nhat Hanh conveys to us is that “You can practice freedom every moment of your life. … When you eat, eat as a freeperson. When you walk, walk as a free person. When you breathe, breathe as a free person. This is possible anywhere.”2

If it can be done in prisons, that practice for freedom Thich Nhat Hanh talks about can be conducted anyplace, even in English public schools. Indeed, if prevention is the best medicine, reforming schools should be the priority, as John Ruskin had written in his essay, Unto This Last, first published in 1860: “Let us reform our schools, and we shall find little reform needed in our prisons.”

  1. See: “Naruto-Daiku,” Naruto City-Official Homepage, www.city.naruto.tokushima.jp. 
  2. Nhat Hanh, Thich, Be Free Where You Are, Parallax Press, 2002, pp. 16-17.