WAKKANAI, HOKKAIDO - Chieko Kuriyama, 86, looks at the photos of her nine former colleagues and puts her hands together in prayer.
“I’ve become so old, while they remain young,” she says on the verge of tears.
The women killed themselves on Aug. 20, 1945, at a post office in Maoka (modern-day Kholmsk, Russia) in Japanese-controlled Sakhalin, then called Karafuto, when Soviet forces seized the town.
They were the members of a 12-person team of female phone operators who took cyanide because they feared being raped by soldiers from the Soviet Red Army.
While the tragedy has been handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, some wonder whether it could have been prevented. The incident is fading from public memory. Even in Sakhalin, few people know of it.
“I would have taken poison if I had remained there,” Kuriyama said. She had left the office a few days before the Soviet invasion. “I want to tell people of the time when there was only a paper-thin margin between life and death.”
Kuriyama later married a farmer in the town of Wassamu, Hokkaido, and moved on with her life. But the tragedy remains with her. She hopes one day to visit Maoka again.
On Aug. 9, 1945, the Soviet Union unilaterally abolished the neutrality treaty with Tokyo and invaded Sakhalin.
More than 400,000 Japanese civilians were living in southern Sakhalin before the invasion.
Japan surrendered to Allied forces on Aug. 15. But fighting between Japanese and Soviet troops continued at least until Aug. 25. There are no firm figures, but it is thought that around 4,000 Japanese civilians died in that period.
Shortly before the Soviet invasion, the Japanese government ordered civilians in Maoka to head for mainland Japan. But the Maoka post office reportedly asked some of its workers to stay until the very last minute.
Female residents of Sakhalin believed that invading Soviet troops would rape them. While post office workers had cyanide for that eventuality, it remains unknown how they obtained the poison. Various accounts circulated, including the suggestion that military police had provided it to them.
Historians say there were 12 female staff and a number of men at the Maoka post office when the Soviets invaded. The figure is supported by NTT Corp. documents. NTT succeeded the postal and communication businesses from its publicly run predecessor.
The women were in their workroom on the second floor on the day of the suicides. They held out until Soviet troops seemed about to take the building, whereupon the eldest took cyanide and others followed suit.
Male colleagues ran up from downstairs and intervened, but nine had already taken the poison and only three survived.
Some of the last people to speak to the women were colleagues at a post office in Tomarioru (present-day Tomari), a town about 90 km away. They urged the women, by phone, not to do it.
One of the Tomarioru workers was Ahiko Sasaki, who remembers the conversation well.
One woman said, “I’m going to die as a virgin. Goodbye, goodbye,” Sasaki recalled.
The phone operators apparently decided on suicide the day before. “My sister cut her long hair the previous day to leave for my mother,” said a younger sibling of one of the victims.
A lingering question is whether anyone could have dissuaded them.
Workers at the Maoka post office would have known that Japan had surrendered five days earlier. Documents say male co-workers raised the white flag in surrender to the Soviet soldiers.
Although the Soviet military killed a large number of Japanese citizens in Sakhalin, survivors at the Maoka post office were treated well.
The three surviving telephone operators were allowed to continue working.
Maoka postmaster Toyozo Ueda was reportedly absent at the time of the incident.
In his memoirs, Ueda insisted he had not ordered the telephone operators to stay in the office. He went on to praise them as representing the “spirit of telecommunications workers.”
This smacks of gloss, says historian Yasuo Kawashima, who has published an account of the tragedy. Ueda probably intended to “beautify” the tragedy in his memoirs, he said.
He believes the suicides could have been prevented “if a postmaster with reasonable judgment had been there.”