For vet, Soviet labor camp as bad as war


24th in a series

One of the phrases Tokuro Inokuma, 80, first learned to write in school was “Forward, forward, the army goes forward.” One of the first songs went “I love soldiers. When I grow up, I will ride a horse, bearing a gun and a sword.”

So it was natural for Inokuma, who was born in Tokyo in 1928, to enlist in the Imperial army air corps at age 15.

“I had dreamed of becoming a soldier and devoting my life to my country,” he said. “My generation wasn’t forced to go to war. The atmosphere around that time made us think it was a natural thing to do.”

But looking back, Inokuma believes he had been brainwashed, just like the other youngsters who believed in the state’s militarist propaganda.

Marching off to war “is even more scary” as a volunteer than as a draftee, he remarked.

“I participated in the war believing it was the right thing to do. This is horrible because I truly believed in it, and it wasn’t just me and my friends, but a lot of children believed it was a just war.”

Inokuma was only 9 when the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge Incident happened. Japanese and Chinese soldiers exchanged fire when the local Chinese forces were alarmed by Japanese night maneuvers carried out without prior notice. The incident triggered the Second Sino-Japanese War and four years later Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, resulting in a full-scale war with the United States and its allies.

But what prompted the young Inokuma to sign up was the news that the Japanese army was withdrawing from the key island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons.

Looking at an army recruitment ad in the newspaper, Inokuma did not hesitate to volunteer — a decision he would forever regret.

His father was against it.

With Inokuma’s three older brothers already drafted, his father did not want to send his youngest son, who was only 15, to the battlefield. He tried to persuade Inokuma to go to a military academy instead.

But for Inokuma, studying for four or five years at a military school would be a waste of time while others were actually fighting at the front.

After arguing for four days, his father finally gave in and told him to take care of himself.

“I still remember my father’s expression. He was so reluctant,” said Inokuma, adding he himself was happy he had swayed his father.

“My older sister asked quietly, ‘Are you going?’ ” he said, calling her question a subtle expression of opposition to his choice because overt disapproval in that climate was impossible. “This is a great regret in my life.”

For Inokuma, going to war was not about dying for the Emperor. It was about protecting his hometown and family.

“No matter what happens, even if I die, I thought I have to protect my family.”

So he joined the army in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, in 1944, a year before Japan’s defeat.

Military life turned out entirely different from what he had imagined.

The training he could bear, learning Morse code and how to use communications equipment, and building telegraph poles. But the bullying by senior soldiers was unbearable.

In the morning, trainees had to fold their blanket, get dressed and line up outside the barracks within three minutes. If they were late, a senior soldier would beat them with a bamboo sword.

“A senior soldier would say I’m slacking off if I put my hand in my pocket, and force me to put it in cold water in freezing winter, for example,” he said. “There was not one day we were not mistreated.”

Some recruits committed suicide.

“There was one guy who jumped into a plane’s propeller. But we couldn’t tell his parents he committed suicide.”

In April 1945, Inokuma joined an air corps unit in Changchun, the capital of Jilin Province in northeastern China.

Fortunately for Inokuma, the war ended that summer before he saw any fighting.

But that was when his real nightmare began.

The end of the war brought chaos to the city, with Chinese out for revenge attacking Japanese soldiers.

“I was only thinking about how to survive each day. I couldn’t think about anything else,” he said.

Some recruits wanted to march to the coast and make their way back to Japan to avoid capture by the Soviet Red Army, which was driving into China, he said. He and other soldiers talked for three days about whether to stay or join them. In the end, the original group took food and guns and left in the night.

“The rest of us saw them off from the second floor of our barracks. I saw them salute us. We saluted back, crying,” Inokuma said. “Nobody in that group made it back to Japan.”

Weeks later, the worst fears of Inokuma and 10 other recruits came true when the Soviet forces took them prisoner.

On Sept. 16, 1945, he was ferried across the Amur River.

“I remember it well because it was my 17th birthday. I wondered if I would survive and thought about why I became a soldier. And I remembered my father’s face when he approved my decision to go to war.”

At that moment, he steeled himself to survive and return to Tokyo no matter what.

“I couldn’t die. I had to go back home and wanted to do something good for my father,” he said.

Inokuma spent two years as a slave laborer in a prison camp in Sivaki, just across the border from northeast China in the Amur region, where life was just as tough as wartime. He estimates about one in six of his fellow inmates died of malnutrition, typhus or exposure.

“People held prisoner in Russia don’t want to talk about their experience because they didn’t help each other survive,” he said, adding they were even happy when someone died so they could steal his food and belongings.

Inokuma was one of the few Japanese who survived, but by the time he managed to return to Tokyo at age 19, his father had passed away.

“That was the saddest thing,” he said. “I couldn’t get to see him. I really regretted it. Because of the war, I couldn’t do anything good for my father. I cannot describe how sad that is.”

The war took away not only his youth but also his future.

As a returnee, he was regarded as a communist because he had been freed from a Soviet labor camp. He changed jobs 14 times, working as a plumber, mechanic and even an accountant.

After 64 years, Inokuma is worried that both conservative and liberal politicians, most not even born until after the war, are leaning toward revising the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution.

“I want politicians to think about the foundation of the Constitution, which states we will never participate in wars, and maintain it,” he said.

“It’s horrible that you can kill thousands of people by pushing a button, and do so without feeling,” he said.

As long as he lives, Inokuma is determined to hand down his war memories to younger people. “I don’t want them to make the same mistake I did.”

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.