Japan searches for Scot who modernised nation

HE GAVE Japan its national anthem and its first brass band, playing a key part in the country's modernisation.

But for more than a century, John William Fenton's role in westernising the country has gone unrecognised in Scotland, where many believe he died.

Now, after years of searching, the Japanese are soliciting the help of Scots in trying to track down the brass band leader's final resting place.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In Japan, Fenton is seen as one of the country's father figures.

He arrived in Japan in 1868 as a bandmaster of the 10th Regiment of Foot 1st Battalion. It was the year when Japanese modernisers overthrew the shogun system and replaced it with a constitutional monarchy.

Fenton's regiment was deployed in Yokohama to protect a small foreign community from samurai diehards opposed to the presence of foreigners.

During his stay, the bandmaster set up the country's first military brass band, ordering the instruments from London to replace old ceramic trumpets.

It was also here that Fenton discovered the empire lacked a national anthem and told members of Japan's military band of Britain's God Save the King.

He stressed the importance of a national anthem and proposed to compose the music if someone provided the words.

The band members, after consulting with their director, requested Artillery Captain Oyama Iwao to select the lyrics.

The British bandmaster then put his own music to the words and the first Kimi Ga Yo - translated as Imperial Reign - anthem was the result. It was performed before the Emperor in 1870.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The melody has since changed, but as a tribute to Fenton, his version is played annually at Yokohama's Myoukoji Shrine - a monument erected by the Japanese in his honour.

Toshio Akiama, the head of the Japanese Band Directors' Association, says the country wants to know Fenton's final resting place.

"We consider Fenton to be our father and we all want to know how our father died and where his grave is," he said.

"He must have been an extraordinary man with great patience. He had to teach people who had never even seen or heard brass instruments," said Ryu Saito, president of the Yokohama Arts Foundation. "He brought them to the level where they were good enough to be Japan's first military band."

The Scotsman has discovered that after leaving Japan in 1877, the Irish-born bandmaster moved to Angus.

Documents at Scotland's Register Office show he was 50 in 1881 and lived at 18 George Street in Montrose.

He is described as a "bandmaster pensioner", married to Philadelphia-born Jessie Pilkington, then 47.

His family also included daughters Jessie Woods, 17, and ten-year-old Maria Corser born in Miaaouei Tabo, Japan.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

His name is last recorded in 1883 when he appears to have left a teaching post with the army in Scotland.

However, no death certificate has been found so far and the Japanese are keen to locate his grave and track down any living relatives or descendants, whom they hope to invite to Japan.

Stuart Wilkie, special project manager at Angus Council, launched an appeal to all those who may know anything of what happened to the bandmaster.

He said: "I am delighted to hear this latest historical link to Montrose and Angus.

"The council is developing an 'ancestral tourism' initiative to exploit the culture and heritage of Angus.

"This will add to a growing list of people born in or linked to Angus who have made significant contributions to inventions, science, the arts and Scotland's heritage.

"I would invite anyone who knows more about John William Fenton to contact The Scotsman."

A short song with a long history

JAPAN'S Kimi Ga Yo is one of the world's shortest national anthems in current use.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Kimi roughly means "Our lord", referring to the emperor of Japan. The lyrics first appeared in an anthology as an anonymous poem and date back to the 12 century.

Since the Second World War, the words of the anthem have been subject to criticism for its association with militarism and the virtual worship of the emperor as a deity, which some see as incompatible with a democratic society.

Although Kimi Ga Yo has long been treated as Japan's national anthem, it was only legally recognised as such in 1999 with the passing of the Law Concerning the National Flag and Anthem.

Related topics: