Postwar prisoner makes Russia home for final chapter of his life

by Osamu Hirabayashi


Takeshi Tanaka is probably one of only a few repatriated Japanese who returned to Russia to stay despite being held in notorious Soviet Siberian slave labor camps after World War II.

At age 84, having lived in Khabarovsk for the past 16 years as a Japanese-language teacher, he is determined now to complete his life in the Russian city with a mission to regularly visit a graveyard for Japanese soldiers.

“I hear those guys’ voices, saying that you may have survived and live in peace, but we remain here, still wondering why we had to die here,” Tanaka said.

For many Japanese today, the prisoners’ suffering in Siberian slave camps is a distant memory.

About 600,000 Japanese soldiers were imprisoned by the Soviet Union in the wake of Japan’s defeat in the war. They were held up to 11 years. About 55,000 died amid the forced labor, severe living conditions and malnutrition.

Last month in Tokyo, an organization formed by those who made it home alive quietly ceased its 32 years of activity after securing legislation last year for government grants.

The aging of the members was another reason — the average age of the estimated 70,000 surviving former detainees is now 88.

Thanks to the law, Tanaka has received ¥350,000 for his four years spent in three different camps, with a letter of testimonial from the government.

But for him, receiving a grant has not brought the matter to an end. His mission is not only to comfort the souls of deceased Japanese but also to cultivate good relations between Japanese and Russians today.

“It’s true that I had a hard time in labor camps, but I learned a lot there. The camps were my university. There, everybody was equal — professors, company presidents and politicians — you were simply a laborer. And I saw the naked truth of humans, the egoistic behavior for survival.

“But I also remember beautiful things, like a moving sunset in nature. I thought it was too bad to put an end to that part of my life with only bad memories.”

Tanaka, a native of Nagasaki, was drafted at age 18 in May 1945, three months before the Japanese surrender. He spent the next four years in three forced labor camps before finally coming back to Japan in October 1949.

Still in his early 20s, Tanaka was able to re-establish his life. He found a job, married and raised two sons.

But in 1995 at age 68, he moved back to Khabarovsk alone after he was asked to teach Japanese to Russians when he visited the city the previous year for a seminar. His wife had died and his adult sons were on their own.

Tanaka uses Japanese songs as a teaching tool, appealing to Russians’ traditional fondness for singing. He believes songs are also a key to cultivating friendship.

At meetings of Japanese culture advocates and gatherings of retired Russian soldiers, he brings his guitar and sings Japanese songs, and is frequently embraced by his elderly audiences.

He remembers how his wife, who liked fortune-telling, once told him he would have rich days in his late life, but he might not have close kinship.

“She was right,” Tanaka said, “but I am content here at present.”