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'Lake Baikal is truly astonishing. One of the most ancient geographical features on Earth, it is estimated to be 30 million years old'

...yet still they remember times spent in Siberia with nostalgia

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24 May 2013


Map drawn by Japanese researcher Murayama Tsunoe with the most recent statistics for the number of camps that had the Japanese prisoners of war. Picture: Professor Sergey Kuznetsov

The captivity and internment of Japanese troops in 1945-1956 takes a very important place in the history of Russian-Japanese relations as we are talking about more than 500,000 soldiers and officers of the former Kwantung Army sent to camps in Siberia and the Far East. 

Up to 70,000 alone went to Irkutsk region. Around 60,000 died in the camps and were buried here. Up to 5,000 Japanese died in Irkutsk camps.

The USSR did not report anything about the fate of tens of thousands of soldiers remaining forever in the Siberian land, though Soviet officials admitted that some died in the camps. Two figures were mentioned: 3,957 people died and 26 Japanese cemeteries existed in the USSR.

Later, it turned out that there are 81 cemeteries in Irkutsk region alone.

The Japanese believed that they were held in Soviet camps against the law, since German prisoners of war had returned home long time ago. Their years of captivity were not counted while calculating pensions.  Additionally many Japanese prisoners were convicted in the camps, and in most cases convictions were unjust, but their rehabilitation started only in the second half of the 1990s (after the end of the Soviet era).

Usually, too, those considered prisoners of war in the Soviet Union were not paid for their work.

Siberia through the eyes of Japanese prisoners of war, 1945-1956

Siberia through the eyes of Japanese internees in 1945-1956

Graveyard at Toporok village, Taishet and below obelisk in Shamanka village, Shelekhovskiy district of Irlutsk region. Pictures: Professor Sergey Kuznetsov

The situation changed after 1985 and I was among the Russian historians who first attempted to study the theme of Japanese prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. Having collected the data, and having met with thousands of former prisoners of war, camp administration workers from Siberian and Far East, and communicated with the Japanese in the postwar years, we reached the conclusion that 'the Siberian internment' as it is called by the Japanese themselves is quite a unique phenomenon.

For all the former prisoners of war the years spent in the captivity were a real life tragedy which is common fate of all prisoners of war. However, the Japanese captivity in Siberian stands out. Among other things, its uniqueness shows in the very attitude of former prisoners of war to their years of captivity, to a country where they had to live, the people, customs and culture. 

The paradox is that many former prisoners of war recall this most difficult period of their lives with a fair amount of nostalgia, and sometimes with positive emotions. They did not sympathise with the Soviet government, and are well aware of the tens of thousands of their fellow men who died in Siberian labour camps. They remember inhumane working conditions at 50C below zero in the Siberian taiga or the Far North - yet they remember times spent in Siberia with nostalgia. 

Perhaps this was because of the fact that they were young when they were held in the captivity, and so felt it was the best period of their lives? At least, this is how many Japanese explain their feelings. 'I have for long nostalgically dreamed about visiting and exploring the places where I had the most difficult time of my youth,' said former prisoner of war, Ono Yuzo. Others, such as Ishikawa Shirou - head of  foreign trade of 'Iskra', says that the Siberian camps became his real university of life, hardened his nature, and taught him to survive in any environment. 

Siberia through the eyes of Japanese internees in 1945-1956

Portrait of the labour camp chief, made by the Japanese internee, Taishet city museum. Picture: Professor Sergey Kuznetsov

Nowadays, the majority of former prisoners of war are very old people, whose memories preserve only the most memorable moments of their life in the camp. Much was forgotten, but almost everyone remembers the two Russian words - 'the norm' and 'home'. The first word was related to survival in the camp - producing the daily norm one was guaranteed to get the daily food ration. 'Home' - this was the dream and the hope of prisoners of the Siberian camps.

'The only Russian words that I remember now are 'yes' and 'home', said 88-year-old Honda Ryutaro, 'though I spent two years in Russia'.

Besides these two, the other more important words that everyone would  remember were: 'work', 'come on', 'lets work', 'worked too little', 'boss', 'Madam' (the way of referring to a Russian woman), 'mahorka' (sort of cheap, bad quality tobacco that you roll up to smoke, so-called 'hand-rolled cigarette'), 'very good', 'Campu' ('camp'), 'rest' (in Krasnoyarsk this is how the Japanese called their day off).

The camp workers remember a lot of swear words. One said: 'Every day, communicating with the Russian workers I got well acquainted with the Russian curses. In my opinion - they are a natural result of the Soviet working life and are essential to make better the inhuman conditions of existence of the Soviet people.'

As it often happens, the people united by something create their own language and jokes that are understandable only for them. In an Irkutsk camp when the prisoners were given porridge you could hear them saying: 'Oh its Baikal again. Your porridge is way better, mine is just like Baikal.'

'Baikal' meant that there is more water than oats in the porridge.

Quite a number of prisoners of war learned Russian language in a few years of captivity. 'When I was young I spent five years in Siberia. However, nothing in this life is in vain', said Kato Kyudzo. 'During my years of captivity I learned a lot about Siberia. 

'The more I thought about it, the stronger was my desire to study Siberia'.

Back in Japan, Kato Kyudzo became a well-known researcher of ancient cultures of the Middle East and Central Asia and has written a book on the history of Siberia and Central Asia. Siberia forever remained not only in his memory but also became his profession.

Siberia through the eyes of Japanese internees 1945-1956

Chuna village museum, Japanese soldier war helmet. Picture: Professor Sergey Kuznetsov

After countless interviews with former prisoners of war, we have came up with a story about how the lives in the camp were.

'As we were captured, they put us into the carriages and took somewhere. We were wondering whether they were taking us to the north or south. If south, then we were going home. But it turned that we were going north. In Siberia, and it was very cold in the winter and spring, and the summers were cold as well. The food was very bad, we were mainly given bread and the hot water. The work was very hard. Supervisors were bad and rude.'

But the former prisoners would become more optimistic when it came to talking about the local people, and often 'Madam' would appear in their stories. 'Russian woman were particularly nice to us.  I remember well a woman named Marusia, who worked at the salt factory with me every day', recalled former prisoner Kunio Saito.

Japanese man marrying Russian girls was not a rare thing. In Kansk, Krasnoyarsk region about 50 former soldiers wed local women. According to estimations of the Krasnoyarsk journalist Volgin about 500 Japanese man were 'lost' in Siberia. Most likely they did not want to return home and stayed on in Siberia.

Many of the Japanese who remained in the Soviet Union were convicted for anti-Soviet activities and remained in the camps like Tetsura Ahiko.

He was born on the island of Hokkaido, but lived almost all entire adult life in Karaganda region. By origin he was Japanese but by mentality he became a Soviet person. After the death of Stalin there was a massive amnesty of political prisoners. Tetsura Ahiko was released as well.

Barefoot, in his camp robes, he was able to reach only the nearest village. He wrote letters to Moscow, and to Japan, explained the circumstances that he was stuck in. But no one at that time wanted  to think about a single Japanese person lost in the huge country. Not for a single letter got answered.

At that time Tetsura met a woman who became his wife. They had children: a daughter, Irina (with the stress on the last syllable) and son Teroo. Tetsura got a job as a welder on the concrete products plant and believed his life was completely successful. Only in the early 1990s did Tetsura's relatives find him.

After 50 years of his life in exile, he came back to his native Hokkaido. 

Siberia through the eyes of Japanese internees 1945-1956

Cremation of the remains of the Japanese prisoners of war in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia, year 2002 . Picture: Professor Sergey Kuznetsov

One former prisoner of war, Yukio Yoshida, believes that mutual understanding between the Japanese men and Russian women was not surprising.

'During World War II, the Soviet Union lost a lot of men. And young, energetic and strong soldiers would come. It is clear that the Russian women were very excited. On the other hand, the Japanese guys had not interacted with females for a long time, and yearned for big love. So amorous feelings which sparked between the Japanese solders and Russian women is easily understandable and explainable.' 

The Japanese were delighted that Russian women worked alongside men.

In the coal mines of the Krasnoyarsk region, where the Japanese were working, the trolleys carrying coal would fall of the rails very often. 'Then it would began! Noise, shouts, screams! But the 'Madams' would gather together around the trolley, using the power of their large bottoms and try to put the trolley in it's place.

'The force of the 'Madams' bums is amazing and wonderful. Usually shouting 'One, two, push!' they would manage to eliminate the accident. The Russian 'Madams' are all fatties and strongly built,' recalled Yukio Yoshida. 

Siberia through the eyes of Japanese internees 1945-1956

Siberia through the eyes of Japanese internees 1945-1956

Japanese prisoners of war with childen at Olkha graveyard; Japanese prisoners of war together with the citizens of Novochunka village. Pictures: Professor Sergey Kuznetsov

Another war prisoner Takasugi Ichiro recalls on how he once met Soviet children. 

'Once I was followed by a crowd of kids. We Japanese were a novelty. I noticed that all children, even the girls had short hair cuts; the boys were in a pioneer uniforms with big red pioneer ties'.

'Orphanage kids', I thought. I heard that the educational system in orphanages was very politicised.

'Always Ready!' - I shouted their cheerful slogan.

'Are you a Communist?' one of them asked, looking at me with surprise. 

'Long live Stalin!' - I said even more cheerfully. 

'But Stalin was bad',  said a little girl suddenly. I was very surprised.

'Why was he?'

'Because there was no bread,' she answered calmly.

Hard work, an unusually cold climate of Siberia and the Far North, a and bad food led to the fact that many prisoners ended up in hospitals. 

According to former prisoners of war, the equipment, drug supplies, material conditions of the hospitals were poor, while the methods of examination and treatment caused surprise. The medical examination at the camp hospitals when the doctor would 'pinch the prisoner's body to see how much meat is on the body and how it shines' is described in so many memoirs. 

'The doctor tried to grab the lower part of the body and pull. The ones who had rounded bottoms were not that sick.  And if a person was weak, his ass was like a fallen balloon. In that way the camp doctors without any instruments, just feeling the meat on the body of a prisoner, would determined whether he was 'healthy'. It was quite a common method in Soviet medical practice of understanding how toned the muscles were. 

There were many people among Japanese interneers who knew how to draw, and some of them turned out to be truly talented painters and graphic artist.

An album of drawings by Shizuo Yamashita shows four years of his life in Taishet, an Irkutsk region camp. It was drawn 25 years after he got back to Japan with an ordinary ball pen and was based on his recollections of his life in Siberia. 

Siberia through the eyes of Japanese internees 1945-1956

Obelisk in Novochunka. Picture: Professor Sergey Kuznetsov

It was published 'to please the souls of the deceased', as the publisher Omura Toshiya put it. The former prisoners of war who become acquainted with the album said that their life was exactly the way it is shown by the artist.

'Yamashita vividly recreated the life in and around the camp: Russian soldiers and prisoners of war, Russian women and children, the construction work on the railway, the sadness,  the death of the fellow prisoners, the taiga.' 

At the beginning of the album Yamashita wrote about his years of captivity: 'In the early days of captivity, when it seemed that I fail to understand myself, one Russian soldier asked me where did my Japanese pride disappear.

'These words kind of woke me up. Inspired by them, I turned to my friends calling to try to survive and return to Japan. Then, when I was about to die, as I was seriously ill, an elderly Russian woman  saved my life, throwing wood into the fireplace all night long not letting the house to cool down. And in July 1949, when we were about to go back home, one Russian man in Chukshe (176 km from Taishet) took me by the hand and said gratefully: 'Thanks to the Japanese Siberia is much better. I want you to come here again in future, next time as a guest'.

'I'll never forget the feelings of these people. I think that is largely due to the harsh experience of life in Siberia, I was able to create my little family and put all my energy in the restoration of post-war Japan.'

Many former prisoners of war agree on one thing in their recollections and memoirs: life in the Soviet Union, the country that won the war, was much worse than in the defeated countries. Hama Hisaiti wrote: 'I guess Japan that lost the war had in fact a bigger variery of products than the Soviet Union'. 

Siberia through the eyes of Japanese internees 1945-1956

Obelisk in Nevelskaya. Picture: Professor Sergey Kuznetsov

Difficult life conditions forced people to do things that are impossible to imagine for the Japanese in normal life. Former prisoner of war camp number 32 (in Irkutsk) Kunio Saito, described the situation when he was instructed to change the bulbs in the street lighting on the outskirts of Irkutsk. He would climb on the poles but would leave the old bulb in it's place and then exchanged the new bulbs for bread from local residents. 

It did not cause any problems in Russia; in fact, it was considered perfectly natural. Moreover, some of the locals were surprised how low the bulb prices was and advised the Japanese to raise the price, which he did.

The Japanese have noted the 'flexibility' of Russian people and their adaptability to any conditions.

'In contrast with the Kwantung Army, with its constant following of the rules, the Soviet Army, in my experience, is more flexible and adapted to the real situation, which helps it to fight. And this is another reason of the victory of the Soviet Army over Nazi Germany'.

We should admit that all the good feelings and memories that the former Japanese prisoners of war have for Russia and the Russian people have developed not because of, but in spite of the efforts of both the camp administrations and Soviet policy in general.

A 'Siberian internment' became an important factor in the making of the public opinion of the USSR in the post-war Japan.

Professor Sergey Kuznetsov, Head of World History and International Relations department of Irkutsk State University, Member of Irkutsk State University History Faculty Academic Council, Visiting professor of North-East Asian Research Centre of the University of Shimane, Japan (years 2001, 2003, 2004); Visiting professor of Northern Cultures Centre at the University of Hokkaido (years 2007-2008). 

additional reporting: Kate Baklitskaya, Ann Liesowska 

Comments (8)

Humans have been cruel to each other, yet still some kindness remains. Decades after the war, the modern Japan is changing its constitution and rearming itself. History repeats itself.
Andrew Yew, Singapore
29/12/2022 14:32
I have heard about Japanese POW in Russia , But i had never really come across individual stories like those mention in this article , very interesting.
Valery, France
14/03/2019 09:47
wow . It's a amazing story.
glsoken, Brazil
12/05/2015 00:20
Good article, well written, very informative - - may we hear more from this reporter?
Arklight, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
08/06/2013 03:36
Speechless. I never realised this aspect of history of Japanese PoWs in Siberia.
Ben, Netherlands
24/05/2013 22:15
Such an amazing article !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Mao Oliver-Semenov, Krasnoyarsk
24/05/2013 22:08
Why doesn't this show on the front page?
Mao Oliver-Semenov, Krasnoyarsk
24/05/2013 21:23
An absolutely fascinating piece about an aspect of the war and its aftermath about which I knew nothing. Many of the stories are inspiring.
Martin Barlow, Wales, UK
24/05/2013 15:39

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