Beethoven in Japan

December 2020

During a time of great turmoil and suffering in WWI, Beethoven was brought to Japan, and the country found a source of peace and joy which has thrived in the years that followed, and which remains today.  Although Western music was first brought to Japan in the 16th century by Jesuit missionaries, this introduction did not last once Christianity was banned from the country.  The beginning and more substantial impact ran from the 1850s up until around WWI.  Around this same time was when Beethoven’s music also made a long-lasting impression on the culture.  During the war, some German POWs were being held in Naruto, Japan, where they formed an amateur orchestra and performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  This sparked a cultural tradition of concerts which feature this famous work, specifically the last movement.  Beginning during the first World War and continuing to this day, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has a tremendous cultural influence on Japan and serves as a reminder that even in the darkest times, peace and joy can be found in something beautiful.

In 1914, Japanese soldiers invaded a major German military base located in Tsingtao, along the shores of China.  When the Germans refused to surrender, they were captured.  About one-thousand of them were taken to a camp in Japan.   At first, many Naruto citizens were hesitant at the thought of having soldiers held in their town.  But Col. Toyohisa Matsue, director of the Bando camp, was not a cruel man.  He ran the camp with sympathy, even though his leadership received negative reviews from others, including some of his superiors.  It is speculated that Col. Matsue behaved so humanely as a result of his own difficult childhood, when he became well-versed in defeat and felt compassion towards those who underwent similar experiences.  The Bando camp was known to be an unusually positive experience for POWs.  Unlike many camps during the war, the Germans at the Bando Camp were allowed to interact with the Japanese citizens.  Although the people of Naruto were not convinced of the prisoners’ occupancy in their town, they eventually accepted the situation, and all proceeded to make the best out of it.  The soldiers taught the locals their trades and learned native trades in return.  The soldiers set up their own newspaper and enjoyed walks in the town.  As another way to pass the time, the Germans formed an amateur orchestra, nicknamed the “Bando orchestra”, after the camp’s name.  Over one hundred concerts were organized by the POWs and performed for the community.  Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was a favorite among the prisoners, and it became a staple in their many concerts, laying the foundation for the Beethovenian tradition which would develop in the coming years.

When the war had come to an end, the same group which first performed the Ninth Symphony played it one more time for another audience, just outside the camp.  Although the first concerts were limited to an audience inside the camp, word of the Bando orchestra reached a major patron of Western music in Tokyo, named Yorisada Tokugawa.  They played the last movement for him at another time, and the musical patron was impressed with the amateur orchestra’s enthusiasm.  Even with a group of inexperienced musicians, Beethoven’s music rang through the darkness and left a ray of hope.  The German soldiers had come into Japan as prisoners, but by the time they left, they were a group of musicians who had brought something beautiful to the country in a time filled with fear and hate. 

Time passed, and WWII arrived, carrying more violence and darkness.  The peaceful interactions between the German and Japanese soldiers during the first war were quickly forgotten in the troubles of the second war.  Many years later, after both wars had come to an end, the German POWs from WWI returned to visit Japan.  They reunited with the Naruto citizens in the 1960s.  In honor of the special connection between the countries and in commemoration of its cultural heritage, 1972 saw the founding of the Naruto German House.  Even though the years filled with war and unrest did not always have positive connections between nations, the unique relationship with German POWs and the Japanese soldiers and citizens tells a story of hope in a world so often filled with darkness.

When Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was first introduced to Japan, the citizens of Naruto quickly and affectionately gave it the nickname “Daiku”, which translates to “Big Nine”.  More and more musicians, instrumentalists and singers, were inspired to play and sing this piece.  The final choral movement, also known as “Ode to Joy”, was adopted in a particularly fond way.  Roughly forty years after the Ninth Symphony was introduced to Japan, concert halls were consistently sold out for performances of Beethoven’s music.     

The first performance of the symphony by Japanese musicians took place in 1925 at what is now the Tokyo University of Fine Arts.  Concerts continued and the number of programs featuring the Ninth Symphony grew tremendously in the next decade.  On December 31, 1940, a Polish conductor led a Japanese group in a live radio performance of the symphony.  This special concert was to commemorate the creation of the country, fitting with the celebration of nature and humanity which Beethoven expresses in his Ninth Symphony.  Another particularly memorable and sentimental event was in 1982 at the newly built Naruto Bunka Kaikan hall.  A performance took place consisting of the amateur Tokushima Symphony Orchestra and a choir made up mostly of Naruto citizens.  There were three hundred and seventy-seven singers.  A more unique tradition came to be when singers and former mayor Toshiaki Kamei led the way to an annual concert held each first Sunday of June.  This tradition is known as “Naruto Daiku”.  Aside from this tradition, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is typically featured in performances during December, as a celebration of the year which is ending and in anticipation for the one which is about to begin. 

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was introduced in WWI, and still influences Japan today.  The “Daiku” tradition stems from a positive connection made by enemies in a war but shows that even during such a terrible time in the world, there can be peace.  Beethoven wrote this famous symphony as an expression of joy in life and embracing humanity.  The communion between nations in a time of global conflict epitomizes what Beethoven intended to prove with his great music.  Having amateur musicians and POWs playing and singing to start this Japanese tradition is living proof that Beethoven’s music has touched the hearts of the ordinary people in their ordinary lives.  Naruto citizens who went about their various ways before the Germans introduced the great symphony suddenly became involved in something almost mystical in the desire to learn and perform the famous “Ode to Joy”.  The influence of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony began in a terrible time, but it has brought about decades of peace, joy and unity among many.

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