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A Welshman Adrift in East Asia

A Welshman Adrift in East Asia

Darren Swanson tells the remarkable story of Captain David Henry James, a British resident in pre-WWII Japan

On a bitterly cold morning on 5 December 1904, 23-year-old David James surveyed a hill in Liaodong Peninsula in Northeast China littered with the frost-covered bodies of Russian and Japanese troops. Nicknamed the ‘203 Metre Hill’ because of its elevation above sea level, the area was of tactical importance as a vantage point over Port Arthur—a harbour ferociously contested by both the empires of Russia and Japan, and a turning point of the Russo–Japanese War of 1904–1905. Recalling the devastation in his book based upon the siege of Port Arthur, James wrote:

the stupendous magnitude of the concentrated horror, impressed itself indelibly into the utmost recesses of my unaccustomed brain … and shame me for my very callousness that I ever did look upon it. 

War correspondent, gold prospector, soldier, author, Captain David Henry James lived a life that would not have been out of place in the pages of a Boy’s Own Annual, a life full of tragedy and heroism in equal measure. From his early teens onwards, the young Welshman thirsted for adventure, leapfrogging around the globe from one experience to the next with an ambition that nearly cost him his life on several occasions.

Photograph of K.R. & A.C. Intersport Soccer Team, 1910

K.R. & A.C. Intersport Soccer Team, Papers of Harold S. Williams, 1867–2000, MS 6681, 

The eldest of eleven children, David James moved with his Welsh parents to Kobe, Japan, a city that was one of the three main centres of foreign commerce in the region at the peak of the Meiji enlightenment. After spending his formative years at boarding school in England, James returned to Kobe, but the young firebrand was ill-suited to the sedentary life of the port. After a short stint at sea, he enlisted with the 38th Illinois Volunteers during the Spanish–American War in the Philippines at the turn of the century, but was discharged without seeing much action after contracting a virus.

After a brief recuperation period in Kobe, he sought fame and fortune as he latched on to the tail end of the Alaskan Gold Rush. Two difficult years later, in the harsh climate of the Yukon, James returned penniless to Japan, beaten but never despondent. He was soon off once again, this time as a Customs Officer for the Chinese Maritime Customs, a position that allowed him to travel widely and pick up Chinese along the way.

During the years that James had been away from Japan, the country was fast becoming an Imperial power. This was the dawning of a new international order and James readily thrust himself into the thick of it. If James had been seeking military adventure in his travels up until this point, then he surely found it on the front lines of the Russo–Japanese War of 1904–1905.  

The Destruction of Russian Torpede Destroyers by Japanese Torpede Destroyers at Port Arthur

Ryõzõ Tanaka, The Destruction of Russian Torpede Destroyers by Japanese Torpede Destroyers at Port Arthur, 1904, chromolithograph, Library of Congress,

As a war correspondent for The Japan Chronicle, London Daily Telegraph and The New York Herald, James accompanied the Japanese 3rd Army led by General Nogi to the most notorious battle of the war, the siege at Port Arthur. His fluency in Japanese gave him unrivalled access to the conflict as the only foreigner at the front. James wrote that his communiqué in the press and privileged counsel with General Nogi caused a great deal of animosity between himself and the ‘real’ war correspondents like Jack London and Richard Harding Davis, neither of whom got anywhere near the action. Yet London’s account of the war, and that of nearly every other correspondent, has gained more recognition than James’ own book, The Seige of Port Arthur: An Eyewitness Account, published a year after the war ended.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, Japan was free of the shackles of extraterritoriality under which the Kobe foreign community had thrived for over 30 years. Although foreigners such as the James family had enjoyed a certain degree of social mobility in Japan that would have been difficult to achieve at home in Britain, the BIJs or Born-In-Japans, as they were derogatorily called, were sensitive about their status betwixt and between the British Empire.

At the outbreak of the Great War, James, like many Australians, felt compelled to fight for King and Country on the battlefields of France. It was here that he received the Military Cross for his actions as the leader of a band of disorganised and officer-less troops during the Battle of the Somme. Under intense German shelling, his entire troop was wiped out, with James escaping severely wounded as the only survivor. 

Prisoners Sitting Around at Camp, Changi, 1942–1945

J.N.D. Harrison, Prisoners Sitting around at Camp, Changi, 1942–1945, watercolour, nla.obj-141850458

Remarkably, in 1941, at the age of 60, he rejoined the British Army (Intelligence Corps), seeing active service in Sarawak and Malaya. In Singapore, James was dug in with members of the Australian Imperial Force during what he referred to as the ‘Singapore debacle’. As a lifelong soldier, James was perhaps a stickler for tradition, and the more casual approach to discipline in the AIF did not impress the older officer. He did, however, concede that in terms of fighting spirit they had ‘a record equal to that of any other’. Little of this would matter for, as soon as the Japanese had secured the island, James, and every other member of the Allied forces, was rounded up into the notorious Changi Prisoner of War camp, where nearly 850 PoWs would lose their lives—a relatively small number compared to the fate of those interned elsewhere. Nearly 30 per cent of those who passed through Changi died either of malnutrition or brutality at the hands of the Japanese. In 1943, James was shipped back to Tokyo without explanation to serve the rest of the war in the even worse conditions of the Omori camp.

Once again, James found himself back on home soil, but this was a different Japan from the one he had left over a decade earlier. Never one to bemoan his fate, James busied himself in the camp by starting a ‘news service’. But his efforts soon brought him to the attention of the camp lieutenant, Matsuhiro ‘the Bird’ Watanabe. According to James, Watanabe tried very hard to end his life, subjecting him to six months of relentless mental and physical torture, and would have been successful if Watanabe had not been posted to another camp. By strange coincidence, James had known Watanabe’s relatives, a well-to-do family from Kobe—reason enough for James to be singled out for particularly brutal and harsh treatment that only ceased when he suffered a heart attack.

After surviving three years of prison, James’ war finally ended. Unfortunately, so too did his relationship with Japan. His bitter experience of the sadism of his captors irrevocably changed his opinion of a people and country he had come to understand so well. Throughout his life, James was driven by an insatiable appetite for adventure and a refusal to be pigeonholed. Adrift in the Far East, he lived a remarkable life that would not be possible today.

Darren Swanson was awarded the library’s Japan Study Grant earlier this year. He has written several articles on the expatriate experience in Japan. He is currently finishing his PhD at the University of Sydney.