This modern tradition has its roots in the First World War, when Japan entered on the side of the Allies following the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.
Japan's entry carried an initial, overt goal of restoring the German Kiautschou Bay Concession to Chinese sovereignty. The Siege of Tsingtao, the administrative centre of the German concession, ended in the surrender of the German garrison. The 4,700 prisoners of war were then transferred back to Japan and until the end of the war, in generally good conditions.
The Germans were eventually consolidated at Banto, Tokushima, on the island of Shikoku. To pass the time during the war years, the German camps set up various activities, comforting themselves with sports but also cultural events. Each camp organised performances of classical German music - including Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.
They entertained fellow German prisoners, but eventually also the Japanese locals.
On 1 June 1918, while the First World War still raged in Europe, the small town of Bando on the island of Shikoku witnessed an extraordinary event. German prisoners of war in the nearby camp staged the first full performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on Japanese soil. According to the programme, this was the second symphonic concert by the Tokushima Orchestra and it was assisted by a choir of 80 men and four soloists under the baton of Herman Hansense, a military band master.
- Mehl, Margaret. Not By Love Alone: The Violin in Japan, 1850-2010. The Sound Book Press, 2014.
Many Germans had begun working in Japanese society, where they were reportedly paid fair wages. Thus by the time the Germans were repatriated in 1920 and 1921, strong ties to the local community had been established. The Germans and their performances as well as cultural exchanges left its mark on Japanese society.
After the prisoners were repatriated, the people of Tokushima started a tradition of playing the ninth symphony on New Year's Even in memory of them. This tradition spread across the country and Beethoven's music is played in every town across the country to celebrate the end of the year. Beethoven's ninth has been the focal pion in historical and popular studies of not just prisoners in Japan but of the Japanese collective memory of the First World War.
- Murphy, Mahon. "Brucken, Beethoven und Baumkuchen: German and Austro-Hungarian Prisoners of War and the Japanese Home Front." Other Fronts, other Wars? First World War Studies on the Eve of the Centennial (2014).
This established the tradition of performing Beethoven's Ninth to usher in the Japanese New Year.