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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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A symphony to transcend war

Jun. 12, 2017

Beethoven's 9th Symphony, known as "The Choral," was performed in Japan by German prisoners of war about 100 years ago at a POW camp.

At that time, during World War One, Japan and Germany were enemies. Now, the historical performance that allowed people to transcend feelings of wartime hostility is attracting a lot of attention.

During World War I, the POW camp was set up in the western region of Japan, in the city of Naruto.

About 1,000 German soldiers were imprisoned at the camp. They were captured in China during battles with the imperial Japanese military at Qingdao.

The German soldiers used their skills and built cattle sheds and bridges around the camp for the locals. These contributions made the community see them in a favorable light.

The pictures in a book drawn by German POWs depict everyday life at the camp.

One shows POWs competing in a heel-and-toe race while local residents look on cheerfully.

Many locals visited the camp when the POWs held a costume party.

They also formed an orchestra and held a concert almost every week. On June 1st 1918, Beethoven's 9th symphony was performed. It's said to have been the first performance of the symphony in Asia.

According to a document, 45 members of the orchestra played all the movements of the symphony. The performance lasted for 1.5 hours.

To find out how this event is remembered in Germany, we visited the descendants of 2 of the POWs.

Bruno Hake, 86, lives in Wiesbaden in western Germany. His father, Hermann Hake, spent some time at the POW camp in Naruto.

A letter that Hermann sent from the camp to his mother back home describes how he felt when he heard the symphony.

"The performance was a big success. I was especially fascinated by the 3rd movement. It gave me solace and peace of mind," it says.

"My father told me about the concert many times. He told me that we can have friendly relationships with people from different ethnic groups," says Bruno.

There are some who are trying to pass along the memories of this event.

Steffen Claussnitzer lives in Grebin, in northern Germany. His great grandfather, Franz Claussnitzer, was a POW. He worked on ranches in Germany and taught farmers near the camp livestock farming techniques.

Because he was fully accepted by the community, he sometimes stayed overnight at local cattle sheds.

"What impressed me was that, even though there was a war, the locals were very kind and humane. It's inspiring to know that this is possible," says Steffen.

Steffen believes that people can learn from this event. He has a 5-year-old daughter. There are refugee children from Syria at her kindergarten.

He hopes his daughter will grow up to become an individual who respects people from different cultures and religious groups.

"We need to get along with the Syrian refugees. We should not turn away from them. As long as they fit in here, it doesn't matter where they come from," he says.

To commemorate the historic performance of Beethoven's 9th symphony at the POW camp that will mark the 100th anniversary next year, a choir from Naruto City visited Germany in March and gave a concert.

Local people performed with the choir.

About 50 descendants of the POWs were invited, including Bruno and Steffen.

"It was moving to experience this performance 100 years later," says Bruno.

"It's amazing that all this hasn't been forgotten, and that the friendship between Japan and Germany, which began 100 years ago, has lasted," says Steffen.

The performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony by the German POWs serves as a valuable reminder that, even during wartime, hostile feelings between people from enemy countries can be overcome.


Newsroom Tokyo anchors Aiko Doden and Aki Shibuya are joined in the studio by NHK World's Keisuke Mino joins. Watch the video for their discussion of the issue.