Japanese soldiers who survived the slave labor, starvation and bitter cold of Siberian prison camps after the war could count themselves lucky, but not count any significant cold cash for their ordeal.
It is estimated that 55,000 out of some 600,000 Japanese prisoners taken to Siberia died in captivity, and those lucky enough to return home were in many cases just barely alive.
Instead of redressing their hardships, the government established the Public Foundation for Peace and Consolation Incorporated Administrative Agency to ease their pain and suffering. Silver goblets, official letters from the prime minister and 100,000 yen were given to those who applied — as a gesture of “comfort.”
But Fumio Kyuma, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s General Council, said it is time to put an end to the drawn-out consolation prize.
“It is true the (Siberia) prisoners suffered immensely, but that was in the Soviet era under (Joseph) Stalin,” Kyuma said. “There is no point in reiterating the pain they suffered, to people who were not involved. . . . This 60th anniversary (of the war’s end) can be (the chance for) a new beginning.”
Kyuma said the LDP plans to submit a bill to the current Diet session or the expected fall extraordinary session that will dissolve the government-affiliated foundation.
In 1984, a panel of academics and business executives handed in a report on issues regarding postwar management to the government, concluding all necessary compensation for war damages inflicted on the Japanese public has been paid.
However, it said that considering the tremendous pain and suffering of three types of war victims, a fund should be established to remember their hardships.
The three categories were nonpensioned war veterans who served in the military for less than 12 years and therefore were ineligible for pensions, postwar prisoners of Manchuria and Siberia, and repatriates who were forced to leave their property and possessions abroad.
The Public Foundation for Peace and Consolation law was thus passed in 1988. Under it, the peace foundation has since been actively involved in collecting, preserving and displaying materials and documents related to war survivors as well as presenting mementos to nonpension veterans, postwar prisoners and returnees.
For the Siberia returnees, a lump-sum payment of 100,000 yen was also distributed.
In a room on the 31st floor of a skyscraper in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, the foundation also established the Exhibition and Reference Library for Peace and Consolation — Remembering the Misery of War.
Various scenes of the harsh ordeal endured during and after the war are re-created at the museum, which also displays military uniforms, old newspaper articles and a list of those who died in Siberia, portraying the cruel captivity.
“We want the Japanese people to know the importance of peace and to make sure such tragedies never occur again,” said Hiroshi Kira of the peace foundation. “The preserved documents and materials will be handed down to the next generation so the Japanese people do not forget about the hardships of war.”
But in June, the LDP announced plans to end the foundation, which is under the jurisdiction of the Public Management, Home Affairs and Posts and Telecommunications Ministry.
“Over the years, the foundation has become a place where government officials retired to in order to continue being paid salaries,” Kyuma said of the practice of “amakudari” (descent from heaven). “It is a waste (of money).”
If the foundation is dissolved, the museum will close and the displays will be stored elsewhere, possibly another museum or a digital archive, Kyuma said.
The LDP also plans to return half of the estimated 40 billion yen fund to the government. The rest will be converted into travel vouchers or mementos to be distributed to nonpensioned veterans, postwar prisoners and returnees.
Postwar prisoners will be given 100,000 yen worth of travel vouchers that will only be valid for the holder or a commemorative keepsake worth 80,000 yen.
“Money is not an option because it seems (unethical) to share the fund, which was originally meant as consolation,” Kyuma said. “The travel vouchers are our way of supporting people who may want to see Siberia again or other places.”
But the Siberia returnees do not accept this.
“We are all very old and it will be very difficult for us to travel,” said Zenzo Suzuki, a Siberia returnee and chairman of a national group of returnees and kin of those who died. “Even if we do go on a trip, we would need other people’s assistance, and that would just cost more money. Being paid in travel vouchers is just not practical.”
Under the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, the two countries renounced the right to demand war damages.
“True, it is unfair” for the detainees not to be compensated for their suffering, Kyuma said. “But it cannot be helped. (The government) has decided not to pay any sort of war-related compensation because if it pays for one, many others would follow.”
But unpaid war-related compensation is only one of the unresolved issues regarding the Siberia prisoners, he said.
The term “postwar detainees” must be accepted officially by Russia, Suzuki said, because the captivity went against the 1945 Potsdam Declaration to which both Japan and the Soviet Union agreed.
“During war, prisoners are a matter of course,” the 83-year old Siberia returnee said. “But we were held captive after we laid down our weapons and the war was declared over. This means we were not prisoners of war. We therefore should have been paid for our labor (in Siberia.)”
In July, the Democratic Party of Japan, the Social Democratic Party and the Japanese Communist Party submitted a bill to the Lower House calling for Siberia returnees to receive 300,000 yen to 2 million yen as “payment” for their labor.
Suzuki also slammed the government for failing to attempt an accurate count of those held prisoner in Siberia, including the dead.
The present estimate — that around 600,000 were taken from China to Siberia and 55,000 died — is far below the mark, Suzuki suspects.
“The government can easily determine those numbers,” Suzuki said. “But it is reluctant because if it finds the actual number is much higher, it could cause an uproar.”
Suzuki said the foundation must continue to exist as a symbol of the hardships of war as well as to ensure the government continues to try to address and redress ongoing issues pertaining to the Siberia returnees.
“The government may think all of the war issues have been resolved,” Suzuki said. “But nothing has been yet. And we will continue our activities until they are.”
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