Street in Istanbul named after Japanese sailor

The Japanese who refused to hand over Turkish soldiers to Greece

In 1921, Japanese commander Yukichi Tsumura refused to hand over a thousand Turkish soldiers who were repatriated to Istanbul to Greece . A century later, his heroic gesture was brought to the screen.

A street in the Beykoz district, on the outskirts of the Asian side of Istanbul, will be named after Commander Yukichi Tsumura in homage to the feat that this Japanese sailor carried out during World War I, when he led more than a thousand Turkish soldiers to Istanbul and refused to deliver them as prisoners to the Greeks.

In 1921, in the middle of the Turkish War of Independence between Turkey and Greece, Lt. Col. Yukichi Tsumura transported 1,012 Turkish soldiers captured by Russia during World War I to Istanbul on the Heimei Maru ship, and refused to hand them over to the Greeks when his ship was intercepted in the Aegean Sea.

It is estimated that more than 65,000 Ottoman soldiers were captured by the Russians in the front of the Caucasus, and several of them were sent during World War I to camps in Vladivostok, the easternmost port city in Russia. When Japan occupied Vladivostok in April 1918, taking advantage of the Bolshevik revolution, the Japanese took over the Ottoman prisoners who were there.

Once the war was over, Japan and the Turkish authorities of the time entered into negotiations so that these former prisoners – some of whom had married in Japan – could return home; in 1921 the Ankara government handed over 48,000 pounds for the repatriation, and the Japanese government commissioned the mission to Lt. Col. Yukichi Tsumura, who left with the Turks aboard the ship Heimei Maru on February 23, 1921.

Commander Tsumura refused to hand over the Turkish prisoners to Greece

The ship crossed the Suez Canal at the end of March to enter Mediterranean waters, but on April 5, when it was sailing across the Aegean off the island of Lesbos and was preparing to enter the Dardanelles Strait, it was intercepted by a Greek warship, which required Tsumura to hand over all Turks on board as prisoners, to which the Japanese commander flatly refused.

Greece, at the request of the United Kingdom, then forced the ship to sail to its territorial waters, and Heime Maru remained captive in Greece for 6 months creating a serious diplomatic and international incident between Greece and Japan, which always refused to hand over Turks. Finally Italy proposed ending the crisis by having the Turks land on the island of Asinara, between Corsica and Sardinia.

On the island of Asinara, the Turks remained confined for several months waiting for a solution, and many of them ended up dying of diseases, since Italy and other European countries refused to return them to Turkey and saw the conflict as a dispute over supremacy in the Mediterranean. Finally, in June 1922, the Turkish steamboat Ümit was sent to embark the former prisoners and take them back to Istanbul.

A story that was taken a century later to the big screen

The story of the heroic resistance of Lieutenant Colonel Yukichi Tsumura, commander of Heimei Maru, was brought to light in a documentary directed by Turkish director Hayriye Savaşçıoğlu, under the title Vatana Giderken: Heimei Maru (Road to the Homeland: Heimei Maru ). The feat is one of those that explain the close relations of friendship that Turkey and Japan have maintained for centuries.

The proposal for a street in Istanbul to receive the name of the Japanese sailor was made on July 1, 2019 by Sadullah Kabahasanoğlu, councillor for Beykoz. “The Japanese commander did not give our soldiers to Greece, showing a great example of courage. I ask with all due respect that Lieutenant Colonel Tsumura’s name be given to a street in our district,” said the petition presented then, and that has now been approved.