National / History

Surviving the postwar Soviet detention camps

Emperor Hirohito's surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, didn't end the hostilities for some 600,000 Japanese military personnel and civilians in mainland Asia. We speak to three men who survived the harsh brutality of life behind barbed wire

by Masami Ito

Staff Writer

Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, marked the end of the most devastating global conflict in history.

While millions around Asia put down their weapons, Emperor Hirohito’s broadcast on the radio failed to end the hostilities for some 600,000 Japanese military personnel and civilians in mainland China or on the Korean Peninsula. They were captured by Soviet Union forces and forcibly taken north, their nightmare just beginning.

The Japan Times talks to three former detainees who somehow survived the harsh conditions in the Soviet detention camps and have dedicated their lives to preserving the memories of those who never returned home.

The advocate

Seventy years have passed since World War II ended, but Hideyuki Aizawa is still struggling to leave the past behind.

Aizawa has been working for decades with other former internees to extract an official apology from the Russian government for the detention of former Japanese troops and civilians overseas. He has also been seeking compensation from Russia for the work internees had been forced to carry out during their detention.

Now 96, Aizawa is the chairman of the Japan Association of Forced Internees, which was established in 1989 for former troops and civilans who were detained overseas after World War II. “The Soviet Union basically abducted us — they abducted 600,000 people,” Aizawa says. “Of those who were detained, 60,000 died. We were treated inhumanely.”

Aizawa was in the southern part of the Korean Peninsula on Aug. 15, 1945. At noon, Hirohito’s broadcast crackled over the radio. Japan had officially surrendered.

“I felt a sense of emptiness — so many of my friends, tens of thousands of people lost their lives,” Aizawa says. “The war was completely pointless.”

Aizawa and his fellow officers started preparing to return home. Instead of staying where he was, however, Aizawa headed north to where his commanding officers had set up headquarters to get a clearer understanding of what was happening. It was a decision he would soon regret making.

Shortly after arriving at an army base in northern Korea, Soviet tanks and trucks carrying hundreds of troops entered the compound and detained everyone inside. The Japanese soldiers were ordered to create an inventory of weapons, ammunition, clothing and other commodities in their possession and hand everything over. They did so without question.

“The Soviet Union insisted that everyone it captured until Sept. 2 were prisoners of war but we simply compiled an inventory of supplies and surrendered our weapons,” Aizawa says. “You call that war? It’s absurd.”

Japan does not consider troops who were captured and taken to the Soviet Union after it surrendered on Aug. 15 to be prisoners of war. Instead, government documents refer to them as detainees or internees. For a nation that upheld military directives such as “a soldier must never suffer the disgrace of being captured alive,” this difference is considered extremely important.

Russia, on the other hand, claims the war continued until Japan officially signed the Instrument of Surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2.

Captured at the end of August, Aizawa was taken to a camp in Yelabuga, a town in Tatarstan. Japanese detainees had been sent there to help clear the forest and grow radish, carrots and wheat on an 800-hectare farm.

Aizawa was put in charge of managing supplies, which basically meant looking after food stocks. The Soviets counted the number of people in the camp every day and handed out food based on how much work they accomplished. The internees were frequently struck down by illness, making it difficult to ensure everyone had a sufficient amount of food.

“It has been said that a confrontation can be described as a fierce conflict if 10 percent of the participants die in battle,” Aizawa says. “Ten percent of the detainees in the Soviet Union died outside of battle. People died from diseases such as typhus and tuberculosis, as well as accidents during labor.”

Aizawa was also placed in solitary confinement for four months over false allegations that he had lied about his rank and his activities during the war. They interrogated him for hours at a time, asking Aizawa the same questions over and over again. In the end, he was detained at the camp for almost three years. Like many other detainees, Aizawa heard the words “Damoi Tokyo” (“Home to Tokyo”) too many times to count.

“The Soviet officials kept lying to us, promising us that we would be able to go home,” Aizawa says. “For three years, they fooled me.”

On Aug. 14, 1948, almost three years to the day after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, Aizawa landed at a port in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture.

Since then, he has continued to serve his country, first as a bureaucrat and later as a lawmaker. He worked for the Finance Ministry for more than 25 years and ended up holding the post of administrative vice finance minister, the highest bureaucratic position in the ministry. He then became a Lower House member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in 1976, serving nine terms.

Since arriving back in Japan, Aizawa has continued to fight for his fellow detainees. Every year in September, he travels to Moscow to take part in negotiations over an official apology and compensation.

He also tries to ensure that Russian officials are upholding their 1991 promise to continue giving Japan a list of those who died in the detention camps, maintain gravesites and return any confiscated Japanese soldiers’ belongings.

In 1993, then-President Boris Yeltsin apologized for the mistreatment of detainees. None of the detainees, however, has received any compensation from Russia for the work they performed during their detention. They have only received a few special benefits provided by the Japanese government in 2010.

Japan and Russia have yet to sign a formal peace treaty that ends hostilities between the two nations, making it difficult to resolve the demands of the former detainees. Both sides claim ownership of four islands in the Northern Territories near Hokkaido, an ongoing issue that’s unlikely to be resolved soon. Aizawa, however, refuses to give up.

“I have been given the opportunity to live while many of my friends died,” he says. “I consider my life to be an unexpected gift, an extra chance, and I have to live this life for those who died as well. I will not give up. I will continue to do whatever I can, for as long as I can.”

The storyteller

The room at the Memorial Museum for Soldiers, Detainees in Siberia and Postwar Repatriates in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward is packed with people of all ages. Tomio Narita, 85, stands in front of the audience and begins a picture-story show about his experiences after World War II ended, recalling his days of forced labor in Siberia.

Using colorful hand-painted pictures, Narita takes his audience on a journey through Japan’s painful past.

“I want people to see how different war and peace really is, to see how wonderful it is to be able to live in a world that isn’t about winning or losing a battle,” Narita says.

Narita was just 14 when he joined the volunteer youth army after graduating from elementary school.

Leaving his family in Hyogo Prefecture in March 1944, Narita was sent to a training camp in Ibaraki Prefecture where he was supposed to acquire agricultural knowledge but says he only went through military training and sang army songs.

“We waved our hats and the Hinomaru flag to young pilot trainees that flew nearby,” Narita says. “We thought we were winning the war but that turned out to be far from the truth.”

In early May 1945, Narita was finally sent north of the Korean Peninsula to Manchuria. There, far from violence and death that was taking place in Okinawa, he looked after farm animals. On rare days off, he and his friends would practice horseback riding or go to a nearby river to fish. The watercolor paintings that Narita was using to capture this scene were full of vitality, depicting a life that was far removed from the cold reality of war.

“June and July were absolutely beautiful in Manchuria,” Narita says. “The flowers were in full bloom and the weather was perfect. It truly was like paradise.”

This tranquility, however, did not last long. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on Aug. 9, 1945, and invaded Manchuria the same day.

Upon hearing news of the attack, Narita dug a small trench on the side of a hill and hid, carrying only a heavy bolt-action rifle and a sticky anti-tank bomb for protection. Fortunately, Narita never found himself in a position in which he needed to use his weapons — he didn’t even know how to load a rifle, let alone fire it at someone.

Two days after Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, Narita was captured and forced to carry all his personal belongings on a long march north toward Siberia. On the march, he was forced to walk past piles of dead Japanese soldiers that had been left rotting in the sun.

“Dead bodies littered the landscape. There were maggots everywhere and the clouds of flies looked like tornados,” Narita says. “I wanted to bury them but all I could do was put my hands together and pray for them as I walked by. What I saw that day will stay with me forever.”

Narita was only 15 when he “entered Siberia, or hell on Earth,” he recalls. He was instructed to clear the forest surrounding the camp, leaving at 7:30 a.m. every day and returning 12 hours later. The young man suffered from hunger, malnutrition and the cold. During the day, he would sometimes find small bugs, which he would cook in a fire and eat.

When he had appendicitis, he put snow on his stomach and put up with the pain. He pulled cavities out with a piece of string if they became too bad. He was allowed two baths in eight months because of lice. The outhouses were located about 100 meters away from the detainees rooms. Most internees avoided using these in temperatures that dropped to minus 40 degrees Celsius in winter.

Narita would often wake in the morning to find the person sleeping next to him dead. Thirty people died during the first winter from malnutrition or accidents.

“I had seen too many people die to be afraid of death,” Narita says. “I was just so desperate to go home.”

Luckily for Narita, he was transferred to a camp in Orenburg near the Kazakhstan border the following spring. The weather and conditions at his new camp were not as harsh as those he encountered in Siberia. For another 2½ years, Narita worked at various construction sites before he finally made it back home in November 1948.

Narita has donated his original water-color paintings to museums in Shinjuku, Maizuru and Uchihara. About eight years ago, a fellow detainee found out about his activities and came to one of his shows. The fellow internee informed Narita that a group of former Japanese soldiers who had been detained in Siberia visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on Aug. 9 every year.

When Narita first started participating in these visits seven or eight years ago, dozens of people showed up. This year, however, only three former detainees, including Narita, turned up.

“Because I was younger than the other detainees, they took good care of me and that is why I was able to come home,” Narita says. “I come here every year to express my gratitude to those who lost their lives. I don’t know how much longer this can continue, but I will keep coming back until I am the last man left.”

The guardian

On July 29, Shoji Endo walked into the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward carrying a big white box in his arms. Inside the box were the remains of unidentified Japanese soldiers and civilians who died while being detained in the former Soviet Union.

Endo, 89, led a group of government officials, families of the deceased and university students on a two-week trip to Russia in July. Two other missions visited Russia’s Khabarovsk and Irkutsk regions and, together, the remains of 157 Japanese citizens were returned this summer.

As a former detainee himself, Endo has been engaged in collecting the remains of fellow Japanese citizens who died in the Soviet Union and Manchuria after World War II. He has been traveling around the former Soviet Union at least once a year for more than 20 years.

“The people who died and are still in the former Soviet Union are my friends and my fellow soldiers,” Endo says. “There is no way I can turn my back on them. It is my duty as someone who made it back alive.”

Endo was 17 when he joined the Imperial Japanese Army in January 1944. With just one week of introductory training, Endo was sent to Jinan where he spent three more months in training for armed combat. It wasn’t long before he was fighting Mao Zedong’s communist army.

“It was kill or be killed,” Endo recalls. “I made my mind go blank and just focused on killing the enemy.”

When he first arrived in China, the Japanese army cremated each dead soldier and put the remains in a box with their identification noted on a piece of paper. When the number of boxes reached a certain amount, they were sent home.

By early 1945, however, the situation had changed drastically. “When you are losing a battle, you run. No one has the time to stop and take care of dead bodies any more,” Endo says. “My older brother was killed in China, but all my family received was an empty box that had a piece of paper with his name on it. That is war.”

When Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, Endo was in northern Korea. His division had been ordered to return home to defend Japan but couldn’t find a ship to take him. He heard Emperor Hirohito’s broadcast over the radio but there was too much static to discern clearly what he said. Some officers in the division believed it was a message that was trying to encourage the troops to continue fighting and a fight almost broke out amongst themselves.

Endo and his fellow soldiers waited for a ship to come but, to their surprise, Soviet troops turned up instead. Surrendering their weapons, the Japanese officers were ordered to board the ship with as much food as they can carry. The ship, they were told, would take them back to Japan.

Endo joined 3,000 other soldiers on board the ship, believing he was on his way home. Once they were out to sea, however, he realized something wasn’t right.

“We didn’t have maps at the time, so we all knew how to read the stars so that we knew where we were,” Endo says. “It was obvious we weren’t headed toward Japan because we were going in the direction of the Big Dipper. Before we knew it, we had reached Vladivostok.”

Thousands of Japanese soldiers arriving by land and sea were separated and sent to various detention camps. Endo was among 200 internees who were sent to Dalnerechensk, formerly known as Iman.

Endo was put in charge of clearing the surrounding forest. Working with two other detainees, he was ordered to cut 18 logs that were more than 1 meter in diameter and 1-2 meters in length every day. At the end of each week, Soviet troops would count the number of logs they were able to cut down and give them some food — a piece of black bread and some watery potato soup — depending on the percentage of the quota they achieved.

“We never managed to make the quota. It was usually between 30 and 50 percent, so that was as much food as we were given,” Endo says. “Of course, 100 percent wasn’t that much to begin with.”

Winters in Siberia were torturously cold. The clothing that had been made in Japan was of little use because the freezing air would go right through the fabric. At minus 40 degrees Celsius, Endo says that he could barely speak and lost all of his eyelashes.

Many people died from malnutrition and the cold. Endo buried many of his friends in a foreign land and didn’t believe he would ever see Japan again. He was detained in Siberia for almost three years and returned to Japan in May 1948.

In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, then-leader of the Soviet Union, visited Japan and handed over a list of about 38,000 Japanese citizens who died in postwar detention. From that year, the government began sending representatives to collect their remains.

Endo joined the mission from 1992 and has been participating ever since. He explains that the bodies are usually buried within 500 meters of the former detention camps and are about 1 meter deep in rows of five. A Russian expert looks at the remains and determines whether they are Japanese or not.

In the past 20 years, Japan has succeeded in bringing home the remains of 18,101 Japanese nationals from the former Soviet Union. However, the remains of about 33,100 are still unaccounted for.

Endo is preparing to visit Russia for the second time this year in order to take some bereaved families to the graves of Japanese soldiers. Although he will turn 90 next year, Endo says he hopes to continue the search as long as he is able to take care of himself.

“My friends died in Siberia. I go because I can’t forget,” Endo says. “So many innocent people sacrificed their lives because of war. I feel from the bottom of my heart that it should never be repeated.”

Related story: Museum preserves dark chapter of history for future generations