The Memorial Museum for Soldiers, Detainees in Siberia and Postwar Repatriates was founded by the Ministry of International Affairs and Communications in November 2000 to pass on memories of World War II to future generations.
The museum seeks to preserve this dark chapter of history through exhibitions of personal belongings and dioramas of scenes at detention camps. The museum’s website also has video footage of survivors recalling their experiences at the camps.
“Although it’s called a memorial museum, we don’t cover the entire war,” museum guide Yoshinari Seko says. “For instance, we don’t include any exhibits focusing on the nuclear bombings or air raids.”
Seko, 77, first experienced hostilities in his hometown in Mie Prefecture when he was in elementary school.
“The air raid siren went off right before summer vacation. I wore a bōkū zukin (a helmet made from cotton) to protect myself,” Seko says. “I also remember my house shaking at night from the bombardments. We stayed in a dark shelter lit by a single candle until it stopped.”
The museum is divided into three zones. The first zone is dedicated to soldiers, featuring a display of items owned by Japanese troops that includes an akagami (red-colored draft order).
“The official name of this document is rinji shōshū reijō (warrant for temporary convocation),” Seko says. “The government began distributing such warrants when the war began, as more soldiers were required than ever before. (Once anyone received the letter), there was no escape or, otherwise, they were believed to be unpatriotic.”
Placed on the wall is a sen-nin riki (literally, the power of 1,000), which is a Hinomaru flag that bears the handwritten Chinese character chikara (power) 1,000 times. Although most characters look alike, they’re believed to be written by 1,000 different men in an attempt to give its owner strength and good fortune.
Women typically gave departing soldiers sen-nin bari (literally, 1,000 needles), which is an amulet that has 1,000 knots sewn onto its surface.
The second zone is dedicated to detainees in Siberia and features a diorama of living quarters in a Soviet detention camp. The beds are made from hay, the windows are cracked and the log cabin has massive gaps between the timber, despite the fact that temperatures often dropped to minus 40 degrees Celsius during winter in Siberia. Four gaunt mannequins glare at a colleague slicing a loaf of bread.
“That tiny loaf of bread and a bit of soup was the only food they usually received per day,” Seko says. “They shared bread meticulously. Some even crafted a ruler so the portions were exact.”
Besides frostbite from extreme cold, hunger was the primary cause of death for many of the detainees. The overcoat on display is missing both of its sleeves, as it was exchanged for food. Also on display are well-crafted spoons, forks and knives, items that Seko says were also manufactured to be traded for food.
The postwar repatriates zone primarily focuses on the women and children who were dispossessed after Japan’s defeat in World War II. Although many didn’t survive, roughly 3.2 million repatriated from overseas. A model of the Hakuryu Maru, a ship that carried Japanese repatriates from Koro Island, Manchuria, to Hakata Harbor is exhibited with photographs taken by the passengers.
The museum was bustling with groups of students, on account of the fact that I visited in the middle of summer vacation. A number of them listened attentively to the explanation Seko was giving me.
“I’m not sure how much students actually understand, but it’s important for the museum to pass on the memories to future generations,” Seko says. “I’d just like to continue lecturing so that the memory of people who donated such valuable items to us is preserved.”