Cyril Birnie: From Melbourne to Meiji Japan

Cyril Birnie: From Melbourne to Meiji Japan

Note: This arti­cle is a brief overview of a wider research project I am under­tak­ing on the life of Cyril Mon­tague Birnie and the his­to­ry of Aus­tralia-Japan rela­tions. I wel­come any con­tacts from those with direct or indi­rect knowl­edge of the life of C.M. Birnie.

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 in Tas­ma­nia), 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. 

Doc­u­ments issued to Birnie, grant­i­ng access to Japan

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. 

Fish­ing on Lake Ashi in Hakone

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 Kan­tō Earth­quake of 1923 (the great­est pre-war dis­as­ter to befall Japan), Cyril helped coor­di­nate Aus­trali­a’s aid response to the calami­ty. The quake struck two min­utes before mid­day on the 1st Sep­tem­ber 1923. Over 100,000 would per­ish, the major­i­ty of casu­al­ties in Tokyo and Yoko­hama. Mul­ti­ple after­shocks and a tsuna­mi left more dead and wound­ed and over a mil­lion home­less. Firestorms raged across cities. Hor­rif­i­cal­ly, scape­goats were soon found for post-quake law­less­ness and loot­ing, with Kore­ans accused of start­ing fires and poi­son­ing the wells. In an arti­cle enti­tled “Poor Japan! An Australian’s Sto­ry: He Knew the Dead,” a Syd­ney jour­nal­ist described meet­ing Birnie in the wake of the devastation:

When the Syd­ney Guardian saw Mr. Birnie, of Kobe, Japan, he asked that his name should not be men­tioned. But he has done so much to try to aid the Japan­ese in their present anguish that his request has not been acced­ed to. A retired busi­ness­man, with inter­ests in Japan, nat­u­ral­ly hit hard by the earth­quake and fire, he qui­et­ly com­mu­ni­cat­ed with the Fed­er­al author­i­ties and offered his ser­vices, free, in the dis­tri­b­u­tion of Aus­tralian relief for the suf­fer­ers. With no thought for him­self, he made his plea. Aus­tralia, he thinks, should send blan­kets, and more blan­kets, then mon­ey, for food will be avail­able, and the win­ter months are draw­ing near. 

For half a cen­tu­ry Birnie lived in Japan. There he mar­ried an Eng­lish woman named Mar­garet Mary Dan­natt and raised their 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. After Mar­garet’s death, Cyril Birnie would remar­ry and had anoth­er son in Japan, named Fred­er­ic, with Ellen Cather­ine (known as Nell).

Eugene St. John Birnie & Madge Birnie

Every­thing changed after the Japan­ese attack on Pearl Har­bor. Retired from Browne & Co., by 1941 Cyril Birnie and Nell lived in a lake­side home in Hakone (near Mount Fuji). 

The Birnie Garden

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. 

View across Lake Ashi from the Birnie home towards the Emper­or’s Sum­mer Palace

Then the seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble hap­pened. Cyril became one of only two interned Aus­tralian civil­ians that the Japan­ese would exchange dur­ing World War II. Oth­ers had to wait until the war was over and many did not sur­vive. As Pro­fes­sor Christi­na Twom­ey of Monash Uni­ver­si­ty elab­o­rates in Australia’s For­got­ten Pris­on­ers: Civil­ians Interned by the Japan­ese in World War II:

The first and only exchange of civil­ians between Aus­tralia and Japan took place ear­ly in the Pacif­ic War. The British and Japan­ese gov­ern­ments nego­ti­at­ed the agree­ment, to which Aus­tralia was par­ty. Nation­als of British and Allied coun­tries res­i­dent in the Japan­ese empire, or in parts of Chi­na and Siam con­trolled by Japan, were exchanged for Japan­ese nation­als from the British empire. The exchange occurred in Por­tuguese East Africa (Mozam­bique), at Lourenço Mar­ques (Maputo), in August and Sep­tem­ber 1942 … Out of the total of 1800 Allied nation­als who arrived at the port … a mere thir­ty were Aus­tralian … Sev­er­al had been under house arrest, but only two of the repa­tri­at­ed Aus­tralians had been actu­al­ly interned. The head of the Aus­tralian Pres­by­ter­ian Mis­sion in Korea, Dr. Charles McLaren, was one. The oth­er was an elder­ly busi­ness­man, Cyril Birnie, who had spent more than fifty years in Japan and a few final months in a Yoko­hama prison … No fur­ther exchanges occurred despite exten­sive nego­ti­a­tions in the remain­ing years of the war. (36–37)

And so Cyril arrived home in Mel­bourne, hav­ing not lived there for 50 years. 

Cyril Mon­tague Birnie

After the war, the Birnies returned to Japan. The prop­er­ties in Kobe had been lev­elled by Allied bomb­ing, yet the home in Hakone remained stand­ing (hav­ing briefly housed US occu­pa­tion forces). Cyril would remain in Japan until his death in 1958 and lies buried in Yoko­hama For­eign­ers Ceme­tery along­side his beloved wife. 

Grave of Cyril Birnie & Ellen Cather­ine at the Yoko­hama For­eign­ers Cemetery

Today, there is an annu­al “Kaempfer and Birnie Fes­ti­val” in Hakone each April to com­mem­o­rate Birnie’s life and lega­cy as a conservationist. 

Man­ga Birnie

In his thren­ody for “Lost Japan”, Alex Kerr — a lat­ter­day Cyril Birnie — lament­ed that, “apart from show­pieces such as Hakone Park, Japan’s coun­try­side has been utter­ly defiled” (Kerr, Lost Japan, 46). To no small degree, the preser­va­tion of Hakone’s great nat­ur­al beau­ty is a lega­cy of Cyril Birnie.

In 1922, Birnie raised this plaque along the Tokai­do Road, exhort­ing the peo­ple of Hakone to pre­serve their nat­ur­al environment.

Birnie’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 the Pacif­ic War, to the birth of a deep friend­ship in the post­war era that con­tin­ues to this day. A lega­cy of peace. He was my great-great-grand­moth­er’s brother.

Memo­r­i­al to Birnie in Hakone (right) and to Engel­bert Kaempfer (left)


In Novem­ber 2018, I made a trip to Hakone and spent a glo­ri­ous long week­end with the Japan­ese men and women who keep the mem­o­ry of Cyril Birnie alive. They con­tin­ue to fight to pre­serve the nat­ur­al beau­ty of the region and to safe­guard it against the rav­ages of hasty devel­op­ment and envi­ron­men­tal ruin. I will have more to say about them soon. For now I will con­clude with Birnie’s  exhor­ta­tion of 1922. In many ways, his words remain as rel­e­vant to Japan today, as they did almost a cen­tu­ry ago:

“In the intro­duc­tion to Kaempfer­’s His­to­ry of Japan, pub­lished in Lon­don the 27th April, 1727 (The 12th Year of Kyoho, in the reign of the Emper­or Nakamika­do), the fol­low­ing is writ­ten: ‘It gives an account of a Mighty and Pow­er­ful Empire. It describes a Valiant and Invin­ci­ble Nation, an Indus­tri­ous and Vir­tu­ous Peo­ple, Pos­sessed of a Coun­try on which Nature hath lav­ished Her Most Valu­able Trea­sures.’ You who now stand at the point where the Old and New Ways meet, so act that this Glo­ri­ous Father­land be trans­mit­ted to pos­ter­i­ty ever more beau­ti­ful, ever more meritorious.”