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CALL-UP, CAPTURE, COLD HARD LABOR

Aug. 13 field draftee fast-tracked to Soviet gulag

by Jun Hongo

Fourteenth in a series

For Yoshiro Yazawa, the misfortune of being drafted just two days before Japan’s 1945 surrender ended up costing him three years in a Soviet concentration camp.

“I was drafted by the Imperial Japanese Army on Aug. 13, 1945,” said Yazawa, 80, recalling the fateful day. Japan announced its surrender only two days later, but its decision to do so was believed made prior to his conscription.

“I never expected to live through my time in the Soviet Union. I later learned that back in Japan, my mother had already arranged a gravestone with my name on it,” Yazawa said of his years following Japan’s surrender.

Although the war’s physical destruction was clearly visible, the psychological ordeal its survivors underwent often was not.

Yazawa’s life suffered a bolt from the blue when he was drafted in Manchuria two days before Japan’s surrender.

Born in Tokyo in October 1927, Yazawa was 15 when he moved to Benxi, Manchuria, with his parents and two older brothers. His father, who worked for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as an engineer for the bureau of waterworks, was sent to help Benxi manage its infrastructure.

Weak and skinny, Yazawa managed to avoid the draft and instead landed a job at a local steel company after finishing school, whereas 20 of his classmates enlisted as youth soldiers, only to be torpedoed and killed at sea near Korea.

Then came that fateful day when, at age 17, he was conscripted into the Kwantung Army, which ran Japan’s puppet state of Manchukuo.

“A civilian employee of the army came to visit me, and I was handed the order,” Yazawa recalled. Surprised to be drafted at his age, he was ordered to appear at the local recruiting station by the end of the day.

“Everyone was heading to war, so I didn’t think being drafted was unlucky,” he said, adding that he exchanged words with his father at the station out of fear that it would be the last time they’d speak. “I told him that I was ready.”

Carrying little more than his clothes, he took a train to Shenyang on Aug. 16. Although riots were a daily occurrence in Manchuria at the time, he was told the war was Japan’s attempt to liberate Asia from Western colonialism, and defeat was not an option.

But 10 days after being drafted, Yazawa’s infantry unit was captured by Soviet forces in Shenyang.

“There was nothing we could do but hold up our hands and surrender. We were surrounded by tanks,” Yazawa said.

The surrender was followed by over a month of marching eastward. Some 600,000 soldiers of the Kwantung Army are believed to have been captured and sent to concentration camps in Siberia at the time, but Yazawa, along with about 1,000 comrades, was ordered to head to Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent.

Sick soldiers who could not keep up with the others as they marched eastward were harassed by local Chinese and stripped naked. Those who were ill were inevitably left behind. Once on the train, prisoners were only given enough space to sit, not to lie down.

“Some of my colleagues never woke up in the morning. They had died while asleep, sitting down. I helped bury several bodies along the tracks when the train made stops,” Yazawa said. The food provided during the procession tasted atrocious and he learned in September amid the despair that Japan had surrendered to the Allied forces.

By that time, Yazawa had not only given up hope of returning home but had also become certain that the Soviets would eventually kill him.

His life was spared, but hardships awaited him at the camp.

It was November by the time the prisoners arrived in Uzbekistan. Their first task was to clean up a local military factory as the mercury plunged to minus 40, then return to their wooden bunks in the camp.

In the spring, they were sent to dig a canal from the Caspian Sea, using shovels and buckets.

As the weeks turned into months, however, Yazawa learned the local language and was able to speak with the Russians. By the second year at the camp, he was allowed to write his mother for the first time since being drafted.

Yazawa was freed in June 1948 and boarded a ship for home in Nakhodka port in eastern Russia.

“There was nothing to say, except to tell each other how surprising it was to find we had survived the war,” he recalled about reuniting with his family back in Tokyo. “Frankly, I was just surprised I made it out alive.”

Following his return home, Yazawa married at age 25, but had difficulty finding a job. The government was and still remains reluctant to compensate him for his labor in Tashkent, while many companies were unwilling to hire a returnee with no practical job training.

Frustrated with the treatment he was receiving, Yazawa opted to launch his own printing company in 1959.

Today, he has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His company, Kenbunsha Printing, Co., relocated from Tokyo to Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, and is currently run by his son.

While many of his classmates and colleagues are among the war dead honored at Yasukuni Shrine, Yazawa has chosen not to visit the contentious Shinto landmark, which also enshrines Class-A war criminals. Instead, he has visited local elementary schools in the past several years to speak of his experiences.

“They say there’s a righteous war and a wrongful war, but it’s all about killing other human beings,” he often tells his students. Although his colleagues gave their lives for what they believed in, he feels it is unnecessary to visit Yasukuni, he said.

Yazawa does not hold anyone accountable for the hardships he endured, because those who lived through the era were all forced to make sacrifices for the war.

But had his draft notice been delayed for just two days, his life would have been completely different, he reckoned.

“I’d probably have spent my life another way, working on a lathe or something. I would have chosen a job similar to what my late father did,” Yazawa reflected. “The war devastated everything.”

In this series, we interview witnesses of Japan’s march to war and its crushing defeat who wish to pass on their experiences to younger generations.