Beethoven concert to fete students’ wartime sendoff


Staff writer In Japan, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has become a standard for yearend concerts. Amid events featuring the masterpiece scheduled across the country this year, concertgoers will find one, slated later this month in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward, that is rather different — not least in that only the third and fourth movements will be performed. The concert will be a revival of a performance a half-century ago for college students on the eve of their departure for the front lines of World War II. “I wanted to listen to the Ninth Symphony as the last thing before I died,” said Yoshiro Kurisaka, 72, who organized the concert in August 1944. “Joining the military meant I was going to die.” Kurisaka, a resident of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, was a student draftee. Faced with severe troop shortages on the battlefronts, the government broke the sanctity of the ivory tower in October 1943 and lifted the draft moratorium for college, high school and vocational school students, making all students 20 years and older eligible, except for those majoring in natural sciences and teaching. While the exact figure remains unclear, the Japan Memorial Society for the Students Killed in the War, better known as the Wadatsumi Society, estimates 300,000 students were drafted. In August 1944, Kurisaka was a first-year law student at the University of Tokyo, and his class was soon to join the ranks of student soldiers. Because Kurisaka’s father was a tatami dealer doing business in Southeast Asia and his uncle was Taiwan Bank’s New York manager, Kurisaka had access to substantial information — beyond the government propaganda — on Japan’s actual strength. “Our family was convinced that Japan would definitely lose the war, given its relative status, capability and resources in the world,” he said. Certain of his country’s ill fate and doubtful of its cause, Kurisaka did not want to go to war. However, it was strictly taboo to express such individual views, he said. “At that time, the state was absolute, and I had no choice but to go if it told me to.” Before setting off to sacrifice his life, however, he wanted some memento to take to his death. The Ninth Symphony came to mind. So he appointed himself the organizer of a pep rally for University of Tokyo draftees and approached the director of the Japan Symphony Orchestra to ask that the piece be performed at the rally. The director declined, explaining that such an energy-consuming piece was impossible when orchestra members were suffering from the summer heat, a food shortage and the constant fear of air raids. However, with the doggedness of a man facing death, Kurisaka did not turn tail. In stead, he proposed a compromise — that the orchestra skip the first and second movements. The concert was planned for 2 p.m. on Aug. 6, 1944. It was a sweltering day. The classroom used for the venue at the university’s Hongo campus was packed with 800 students. Ice columns were erected on stage to cool the room. The concert reached its climax when the choir of female students from a music school sang, with many sobbing, Schiller’s An die Freude, led by a baritone. Listening to the music, Kurisaka said he felt all humans were brothers and sisters and wondered why they had to do “such a stupid thing” as kill each other. Even the abbreviated version of the symphony taxed the strength of the orchestra, and a violist collapsed from exhaustion. The concert, however, ended with a thunder of applause. A month later, Kurisaka entered the Imperial navy’s accounting school and was assigned the following year to logistics work at ports, where he secured supplies for battleships. Japan surrendered before Kurisaka could be sent to the battlefront. “We were almost the last class of student draftees,” he said. Many students picked up in earlier drafts died in battlefields overseas. After the war, Kurisaka went back to school. Upon graduation, he went to college in Wisconsin, and later became a newspaper reporter for the daily Asahi Shimbun. When he became the national daily’s Washington bureau chief during the administration of President Richard Nixon, he was saddened to see young Americans drafted for the Vietnam War. “(The Ninth Symphony) is not merely music for the yearend. I hope people will appreciate the symphony with an understanding of its lyrics, which sing of love for all human beings.” To keep the spirit of Kurisaka and his classmates alive, the Japan Beethoven Society will sponsor the revival concert on Dec. 14, and Kurisaka will speak on the wartime concert. “The theme of the Ninth Symphony is ‘Freude’ — joy. Beethoven said those who do not know the real hardship do not know the real joy, either,” society spokesman Sadamitsu Ishii said. “I hope young people will listen to the experiences of people like Kurisaka and learn about the hardship they have gone through.” The concert starts at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 14 at the Sumida Triphony Hall. Admission is 3,500 yen. For more information, call the Triphony Ticket Center at (03) 5608-1212.