Cyril Birnie: From Melbourne to Meiji Japan

In 1889, at the age of 21, Cyril Montague Birnie moved from Melbourne to Japan to help his uncle, Henry St. John Browne (from Launceston), manage a trading company in Nagasaki and Kobe. They were among a group of Western and Japanese entrepreneurs who helped build Kobe from the ground up, a Foreign Concession which rapidly grew into one of East Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities. Deeply invested in the life of the city, Henry and Cyril helped establish the first international hospital in Kobe, and helped to develop the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club – the oldest sporting club in Japan – which introduced football, rugby, hockey, cricket, bowling and rowing to the country. Later, a golf links would be built on Mount Rokko in Kobe, bringing the game to Japan.

A mention of Birnie in the golfing pages of The Australasian in 1907 captures the culture of leisure among foreigners in Kobe at the time and also the peculiarities of one Australian’s first impressions of Japan. In a letter from Yokohama postmarked the 19th May 1907, a sojourning member of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club wrote:

[T]here is nothing very wonderful in Japan. One is a bit disappointed at the start, as the scenery is not what you are led to expect, but Japan grows on you, and the manners and the customs of the people are very interesting … you see very few beggars going about, and no loafers. The Japanese are workers and are a wonderful race – much behind in some things and far ahead of us in others, and always anxious to learn.

He was not, however, ambivalent about the Kobe Golf Club. As he goes on to explain:

What I particularly wanted to write about was the Kobe golf links … situated right on top of the mountains. The golf house stands 2,700 ft. above the city, and you walk up … [Y]ou get a most delicious hot bath, and after your round you want it … You play all along the top of the hills, driving across great ravines, with the course cut out between a tangle of bamboos … C.M. Birnie, an old Melbourne Grammarian, is a keen sport, and will always welcome golfers and give them a game. It was a great pleasure to meet him at Kobe and he gave me an awfully good time, so if any of the Royal Melbourne fellows come for a trip to Japan and go to Kobe, give them C.M. Birnie’s address and they will play on one of the most sporting, and – taking all matters into consideration – the most extraordinary links one would ever wish to play upon.

“Golf Gossip,” The Australasian (Melbourne), 29 June 1907

Meeting the Birnies became a rite of passage for Australian visitors to Kobe, but it was not all golf. After the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 (the greatest pre-war disaster to befall Japan), Cyril helped coordinate Australia’s aid response to the calamity.

For half a century Cyril Birnie lived in Japan. There he married an English woman named Margaret Mary Dannatt and raised two children. Cyril’s son, Eugene St. John “Bill” Birnie, would join the Indian Army, serve in the Third Afghan War, climb Mount Everest (yet fail to reach the summit), only to rise to become military secretary to Muhammed Ali Jinnah, first President of Pakistan. But that’s a story for another day.

Everything changed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Retired from Browne & Co., by 1941 Cyril Birnie lived in a lakeside home in Hakone (near Mount Fuji). Cyril was then, above all, dedicated to the preservation of the local countryside from the ravages of rapid development and became a pioneer of conservation in Japan. Then came the Kempeitai. Birnie was arrested, kept in solitary confinement for three months in Yokohama by forces he later described as “the Gestapo”. His family’s properties and assets in Kobe and Hakone were seized by the Imperial Government, and Cyril’s lakeside home sold to a magnate from the Japanese railways. Then the impossible happened. Cyril became one of only two interned Australian POWs that the Japanese would exchange during World War II. Others had to wait until the war was over and many did not survive. Perhaps someone in the Japanese government had intervened on behalf of Birnie, in recognition of his half a century of service to the nation? And so the Birnies were repatriated to Australia via Mozambique, then neutral Portuguese territory. Cyril arrived home in Melbourne, having not lived there for 50 years. 

After the war, Birnie returned to Japan. His properties in Kobe had been levelled by Allied bombing, yet his home in Hakone remained standing (albeit housing US occupation forces). Cyril would remain in Japan until his death in 1958 and lies buried in Yokohama Foreigners Cemetery. Even today, every 23rd of November, there is an annual “Birnie Festival” in Hakone to commemorate his life and legacy as a conservationist. Cyril’s long association with Japan, from 1889 to 1958 is not only the story of an incredible Australian life, but also the tale of Australia’s turbulent relations with Japan, from the opening of ties during the Meiji Restoration, to the darkest hours of war, to the birth of a deep friendship in the postwar era that continues to this day. This year I will be attending the Birnie Festival on the 23rd of November in Hakone and continuing my investigation of Cyril’s extraordinary life and work. He was my great-grandmother’s uncle.

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