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The Japanese Red Cross Mission to England

The Japanese Red Cross Mission to England

The Museum of Military Medicine has recently acquired a photograph album that had a touch of mystery about it. Some research later, however, and it is revealed to be a unique record of humanitarian co-operation between nationalities in a time of conflict. This unique collection of photographs was compiled by an Army medical officer, and focuses on the time he spent at the famous Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley, near Southampton, and is of particular historical interest for the number of photographs, both informal and official, that highlight the work undertaken there by members of the Japanese Red Cross Relief Mission, which had travelled to the UK as part of the nation’s commitment to the Allied cause during the Great War of 1914 to 1918. Perhaps less well documented and recognised today, Japan’s contribution to WWI earned it a place at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, and the work of their dedicated and skilled medical teams played a vital role in medical relief during the war.

The efficient medical services provided by the Japanese red Cross had already been proven during the Russo-Japanese War, recognised by foreign observers including senior officers in the Royal Army Medical Corps. So much so that the establishment of the Voluntary Aid Detachments was modelled on the work of Japanese Red Cross nurses. The album provides a visual record of this little-known collaboration.

The Japanese Red Cross Society sent three detachments of a Relief Corps, to Russia, France, and England, with the UK party consisting of two highly experienced doctors: Chief Medical Officer Dr Jiro Suzuki and Dr Tsuneyoshi Oshima, as well as two chief nurses Sister Katsuta and Sister Yamamoto, the interpreter Mr. Otsuka, Mr. Kuwabara the secretary, and 20 nurses. All were allocated to work at the newly constructed Red Cross Hospital at Netley, providing vital support for their British counterparts.

Originally intended to last for only six months, the mission’s work was highly valued and the British Government requested an extension of the mission’s stay. When they did leave, all members received gifts from Queen Alexandra and the two doctors and the two chief nurses were decorated by King George V at a ceremony in London. A search of contemporary newspaper archives provides a number of positive articles about their work and mission, and at the time their work received considerable media attention.

The album was carefully compiled by Dr. William Burt, MCRS, LRCP. MB. BS (1889–1928), who trained at St. Thomas’s Hospital, London, and worked as a medical officer at the Red Cross Hospital at Netley between May 1915 and March 1916, after receiving a commission into the Royal Army Medical Corps. (He later joined 2/1 Home Counties Casualty Clearing Station). Although there are earlier and later photographs, those relating to the time he spent at Netley have for the most part been neatly annotated giving names of those depicted, and the activities being undertaken.

The album begins with a number of more general photographs recording family life, possibly university days, and early military and medical training. In all, about 75 images in the collection highlight civilian life outside of the army. The remaining collection depict nursing and medical staff, hospital buildings, and a couple of images of surgical operations in progress. A large panoramic shot shows the whole of the British Red Cross tented hospital, which had been constructed in the grounds of the Royal Victoria Hospital. The photographs portray life for the wounded at the hospital, with the staff and patients chatting together, playing skittles, dressed for a ‘mock wedding’, a couple of photos capturing ‘Hunts Cyclists Battalion’, and a number recording the official visit by Queen Alexandria. The international scope of the conflict is also reflected, with some of the photographs showing Indian and Canadian wounded.

The images that capture the time spent at the camp by the Japanese mission are the most striking, and they shine a light on this overlooked and today little-known collaboration. Most are formal ‘staged’ group photographs, showing either the nurses, or the two Medical officers, sitting together with patients and/or their British counterparts, either in the ward or outside medical huts. One of the larger mounted images, for example, shows a Japanese nurse seated in a ward with several patients. Dr. Suzuki appears in a number of photographs.

Three items, in particular, are worthy of note. The first is one of the mounted images, which shows the whole ‘Japanese Contingent with wreath for Florence Nightingale’s grave’. All of the medical staff are included in the image. A similar image reproduced in The Sphere newspaper at this time features the names of all the nurses: Back row, from left (all standing): Sister Katsuta, Hosoya, Kamijo, Osaka, Hisayasu, Murata, Iwata, Kotaki, Kondo, Oshikiri, Ono, Hirose; centre row, from left (sitting) - Sister Kiyooka, Mr. Otsuka (interpreter), Dr. Suzuki, Dr. Oshima, Mr. Kuwabara (secretary), Sister Yamamoto; front row, from left (sitting) - Sister Kasai, Matsuzono, Kasama, Matsuda, Miyahara, Ogasawara, Nishiyama, Amano. The caption went on to say, “This efficient unit, sent by our Far East ally, consists of two doctors, a secretary, an interpreter, and twenty-two nurses, making twenty-six in all. Their smart white head-dress and glossy raven-black hair give the nurses a most distinctive appearance.”

The second particularly striking item found amongst the additional loose items is a calendar for 1916, mounted on card ruled in gilt, and with gold silk hanging tie, and which includes a framed photograph of a Japanese woman dressed in traditional dress. This was given as a gift, and brought over by the contingent to give to hosts.

The final portrait is a mounted studio portrait of Dr Jiro Suzuki, the Chief Surgeon of the Mission, and as revealed in an article in the London and China Express (Friday February 5th 1915), late Surgeon General of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The portrait was inscribed in Japanese, and signed in English, by Dr. Suzuki, and a translation reveals that it was given as a gift to ‘Mr William Burt’. Burt must have worked closely with the Japanese Relief Corps, in some liaison capacity apparently.

Dr. Gordon Daniels wrote an account of the Japanese Red Cross Mission to Netley, published by the Hampshire Field Club and Archaeological Society in 2016, and this booklet, along with the photograph album itself, can be seen at the Museum of Military Medicine.

Purchased with support from the Arts Council England/V&A Purchase Grant Fund

The museum is also grateful to the Friends of the Museum of Military Medicine for its continued support.


1916 Calendar gift

BRC Netley

Dr Orkina

Fire Drill at Netley

Japanese RC at FLs Grave

Japanese Red Cross Nurses Netley

Locket Agnew Hut BRC Netley

Officers Sitting Room Netley

RVH Netley from Pier

RVH Netley

Skittle Alley Netley Alt View

Skittle Alley Netley

View down Piccadilly Netley

William Burt

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