WEYMOUTH historian Greg Schofield has spent several months piecing together the history of Portland’s relationship with the Land of the Rising Sun and his discoveries make fascinating reading. He agreed to share what he found with Looking Back readers. This is the first part of his investigation – more to come in future weeks.

PORTLAND Naval Cemetery lies on the north of the island and overlooks Portland Roads, the anchorage of Portland Harbour.

There, incongruous alongside the Commonwealth War Grave Commission stones and earlier Christian memorials, is a thin column of stone shaped to appear as a bamboo cane, the traditional Japanese grave marker.

In 1897 and 1919 there were Japanese ships anchored in Portland Harbour and Petty Officer Harada died during the second visit, possibly of Spanish influenza. But what were Japanese ships doing there and what was their impact on the local community? Also, what caused Harada’s death?

That the Imperial Japanese Navy had strong associations with the Royal Navy is fairly well known and the first Japanese visit to Portland took place in 1897.

At this time, the Japanese were still incapable of building modern steel warships themselves and the battleship Fuji was ordered from the Thames Iron Works, London in 1894.

The work was supervised by a team of 240 engineers and naval officers from Japan, including future Prime Ministers Saito Makoto (then a captain) and Kato Tomosaburo (then a lieutenant).

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Review of the Fleet took place at Spithead on June 26, 1897, and alongside the ships of the Royal Navy were representatives of other nations’ navies, including the Fuji, which had arrived at Portland on June 23 to receive final works before commissioning.

It was on this occasion, during a gunnery exercise, that one of the British ships fired a live shell between the funnels of the Fuji; what the Japanese thought about that is not recorded in Britain, although there may be a comment in Japanese records, if they still exist!

When war broke out in 1914, Japan swiftly committed itself to the allied cause. However, given Japan’s imperial ambitions and desire to build a trading empire, they also clearly hoped to profit territorially from German Imperial possessions in the Pacific such as the Bismarck Islands and Papua New Guinea. That ultimately they didn’t, is another story.

The Japanese were next in Portland in 1919. Although an armistice was agreed in November 1918, there was always the danger that war would break out once again if the Germans found the terms of the Treaty unacceptable and in the short term, the Japanese sailed to Scapa Flow to help with taking the surrender and decommissioning of U-boats.

By early 1919 the U-boat fleet was safely under allied control and the German surface fleet was lying at anchor under British guns in Scapa Flow; the naval threat no longer existed and the Japanese fleet could safely go home.

However, before they did so, it was agreed that they should pay a courtesy visit to Britain and in early January 1919 they arrived in Portland Harbour, together with 14 U-boats, of which they had accepted the surrender. One of the ships to visit was the Izumo.

In this more worldly-wise age, with greater mixing of the races and more constant exposure of different peoples and cultures on television, it is difficult for us to gauge the impact of thousands of Orientals descending on a small town like Weymouth.

That the impact was significant can be judged by the tone of the newspaper reports, some of it tinged with condescension and mildly racist comments which would be unacceptable in this more politically correct age: ‘Their facial uniformity has been the cause of many amusing incidents’ and ‘Although somewhat small of stature, the men, in uniforms strongly resembling those of British Tars, strike the observer as being particularly alert and businesslike.’ For the Japanese too it must have been a strange experience and, whereas sailors visiting foreign ports would normally be expected to make for bars or brothels and inevitably there would be some disorderliness,: ‘Sailors of many nationalities have landed at Weymouth, but none have left behind them such a good reputation for temperance and orderliness as those from the Far East.

‘Despite the cold weather they have thoroughly enjoyed themselves and made many friends.

‘The Japanese have haunted the shops, particularly the drapery establishments. A curious trait is their utter indifference to danger in regard to the street traffic.’ That they were well behaved and disciplined was echoed by the Mayor: ‘As Chief Magistrate of the Borough he was delighted to place on record the fact that the behaviour of the Japanese sailors during their visit to the town had been most orderly and exemplary in every respect, and he felt sure that Weymouth would keenly miss their presence when their duty called for their withdrawal from our midst.’ Although anchored in Portland Harbour, the main focus of their shore leave, and those of other navies, appears to have been Weymouth: ‘...the streets, till lately thronged byAmerican bluejackets have been perambulated by the sailors of our Far Eastern ally.’ The fact that Portland seemed to be missing out in terms of visits and profit from visiting sailors appears to have been noted and resented: ‘It does not redound greatly to the credit of Portland that no official recognition of the visit of our gallant ally has been accorded by the civic authorities of the island, and, as far as we know, similar apathy was displayed at the time of the visit of the American Fleet last month.’ However, Weymouth at least appreciated the presence of foreign sailors and a special effort was made.

Mr Albany Ward, a local impresario invited Rear Admiral Sato, his officers and 600 of his men to witness the first performance at the Jubilee Hall.

Also invited were the Mayor and other prominent military and naval officers.

They were welcomed by Mr Harold Hilliard on behalf of Mr Ward: ‘...though Weymouth had been privileged from time to time to extend a welcome to many foreign fleets... to no fleet hitherto visiting Weymouth was a more heartfelt welcome extended...’ This was warmly endorsed by the Mayor and then the evening’s entertainment commenced, wisely, of an illusionist and a pigeon show, which required little or no translation.