International Symposium: The First World War and Japan

Last Saturday I attended the international symposium at KU Leuven, spread over three days. The symposium welcomed speakers to give a presentation about Japan’s new role in a changing world, during and after the First World War, and its relationship with Belgium and Europe. In this post I will discuss three highly interesting presentations.

1. Impact of ‘Food War’: Agricultural Policy in imperial Japan and after the First World War by Prof. Dr. Fujihara Tatsuhi

symposium - turnip winterDuring the First World War, Germany suffered from a severe food shortage, causing the starvation of 600.000 Germans in the so-called “Turnip Winter” of 1916-1917. This food shortage directly influenced the world market. In Japan we see a rise of the rice price and less production of the japonica rice (or sushi rice). Therefore, rice was imported mainly from Buruma, Indochina and Thailand to feed the lower class. The high rice prices however provoked rice riots (米騒動) in Kobe, Okayama and Nagoya. The government became aware of the farmers’ value, not only as soldiers, but as providers for food. They started to control the price of food.

symposium - german hunger

Stimulating the planned food economy in Germany.

The Japanese newspapers reported about the German Hunger and as a result, the government changed their own imperial food policy. They recommended not to peel potatoes anymore for instance, to eat ducks and not to feed meat to their pets. Japan imported more food from the neutral countries. The Allied took their chance to spread false propaganda about the Germans: they would produce oil from dead bodies and eat dogs. This was not the case, how extreme the circumstances may have been. In Germany a wartime food policy by Herbert Backe came into existence, featuring imperial self-sufficiency. Japan analysed this food policy and books were written on the topic. Inspired by Germany, Japan sought to improve their production (“involution”, typical to Japan according to Tessa Morris Suzuki). Where there was no japonica rice before in Taiwan and other areas, Japan now brought seeds to these colonies and grew “imperial varieties” (蓬莱米).

2. A “remote” World War as Secondary Experience? Japanese Mass Media and the First World War by Dr. Jan Schmidt

In the period 1905-1914 the number of recipients of mass media rose, due to an increased education level. Various media were used to write about and depict the First World War. Not only papers and magazines discussed the War, photography exhibitions and many lectures were also held to inform people about this topic. According to Dr. Schmidt, approximately 10 percent of the daily newspaper was dedicated to war news. Commercials reacted to the state of war as well and eye-witness statements were often published in magazines. Even paper lanterns had prints with references to the war, and new kabuki shows on the war topic were performed.

source: asahi shimbun

source: asahi shimbun

How was Belgium depicted in the Japanese media? The Japanese people admired the brave Belgian king, who refused passage to the Germans and was present at the front line together with his soldiers. They also pitied these “poor Belgians” on learning of the destruction of many cities like Leuven. There was certainly an emotional connection between Japan and the victimized European countries. It was not rare, for example, to find the cinema filled with crying Japanese people. They took the war very serious: especially Japanese women criticised in pamphlets their own sex for being inactive in the war, unlike the English women. As a result Japanese women were sent to take care of injured soldiers. Australian citizens of Japanese origin who participated in the war were applauded in newspapers. The media proudly presented these actions as to show that Japan played a role as well and profiled itself as a rising world power. We can conclude that, however often forgotten, Japan was not really detached from the First World War, and influenced the aftermath.

3. The Japanese endowment to the Leuven University Library, with special emphasis on the role played by Adachi Mineichiro by Prof. Dr. Willy Vande Walle

After evading Belgium, the Germans were particularly suspicious of sniper actions. When they noticed shooting (which was probably done by another troop of Germans) they planned a retaliation action. On the night of 25 August 1914 the Leuven University Library was completely burnt down and 250.000 books were destroyed. Not one book was left intact. Throughout the world this was seen as an act of barbarism and a blow to civilisation. Many countries offered help. The United States rebuilt the library for free, and in the stones you can see the names of American Universities which donated money.

symposium - bibJapan responded as well and joined the international committee. Especially the Japanese Minister to Belgium, Adachi Mineichiro, played an important role in the mediation. The Belgians preferred money over material donations for the restoration, but Japan feared its donation would be considerably smaller in comparison with the US and felt the urge to spread information about their own country and culture in Europe. Here the motive to enhance national prestige plays an important role again. They requested one room exclusively reserved for books concerning Japan and the Far East. The books would be organised according to 26 categories. Around 3200 titles in 14.000 volumes were sent in 6 shipments to Belgium. Even though the committee faced many problems collecting books, especially after the loss of books during the Japanese earthquake in 1923, they persevered and stored the books in the newly rebuilt library. Rich families and the imperial family as well donated books. In 1936 an orientalist institution was established in Leuven.


During the Second World War, the library was burnt down again. The Japanese collection, however, survived miraculously. Except for 26 items, which disappeared in a strange way. Up till now, it is not clear how they disappeared and where they are now. It is striking that these objects are precious books, and it requires expert knowledge of Japanese to recognise their worth. Were they taken by the Germans? Were they brought to Louvain-la-Neuve and never retraced? Were they accidentally transferred by experts on Indian and Chinese Buddhism to a different library? A mystery is going on here…


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