Photo/IllutrationGermans take part in the performance of Symphony No. 9 in the Bando POW camp in Tokushima Prefecture in 1918. It was the first time that it was performed in Asia. (Provided by the Naruto German House)

Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, arguably the most popular classical choral symphony in Japan and now an integral part of the nation's year-end traditions, was first performed here on June 1 exactly 100 years ago.

The performers were German prisoners of war at a World War I POW camp in Tokushima Prefecture.

One POW wrote home to the effect, "The performance was a resounding success ... It filled me with indescribable peace and comfort."

About 1,000 German soldiers, captured during the Siege of Qingdao in China, were being held at the Bando POW camp in what is now the city of Naruto.

It appears that the prisoners formed an orchestra to relieve the misery of their prolonged incarceration. And surprisingly, they were allowed to organize all sorts of cultural activities as well.

There were lectures on German history and other subjects, given by POWs themselves, who also published a newspaper and books in German.

The situation was said to owe to the Japanese camp commander's belief in respecting the prisoners' autonomy. But there was something else there as well.

"The Japanese military during World War I understood that Japan had to comply with international laws in order to prove itself a civilized nation," explained Saburo Kawakami, a former director of the Naruto German House, a museum dedicated to the history of the Bando POW camp.

So, the Japanese military did have the decency, back then, to respect their prisoners' human rights.

It was during World War II that the military indoctrinated their troops with the precept that they "must die rather than suffer the humiliation of capture."

Marginalizing the lives of their own people and those of POWs were two sides of the same coin. Japanese soldiers were sent on suicide missions, and POWs were subjected to atrocities.

I keep thinking that, had the mind-set that allowed the performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 in 1918 taken root in Japan over the ensuing decades, probably many lives would have been saved.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 1

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.