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Diary offers rare glimpse into Japan’s early 20th century battles in Russia

Kyodo

A diary kept by a member of the Imperial Japanese Navy, recounting fierce battles in Siberia when Japan dispatched troops there in the early 20th century, was recently unearthed by Kyodo News.

There are few detailed accounts of the war by Japanese troops, with historians relying mainly on official war records.

“A plume of black smoke filled the sky and corpses were washed ashore one after another onto the riverbank,” according to the diary, which also depicts how the Japanese forces set fire to a village and gunned down locals.

A year after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in the October Revolution, Japan fought the battles in Siberia claiming it was seeking to rescue Czech prisoners.

The Japanese forces withdrew from Siberia in October 1922 but remained in northern Sakhalin until May 1925 with the aim of securing oil and coal resources.

More than 70,000 troops were dispatched over the almost seven-year period, with the Japanese death toll topping 3,000.

The diary was kept by Waichi Tanabe, a native of the former village of Sakauchi, which is now part of the town of Ibigawa in Gifu Prefecture. Tanabe died in 1976 at the age of 84.

Mainly focusing on a navy mission to Siberia between 1918 and 1920, Tanabe recorded his nearly 11-year military career in the diary and later compiled it into 36 handmade booklets entitled “North, South, East and West.” The booklets were kept by Tanabe’s family, including his 60-year-old grandson Kazumasa.

Tanabe, who was a crew member aboard the battleship Mikasa, arrived at a port in Vladivostok in October 1918 before moving to inner Khabarovsk and subsequently being deployed in Blagoveshchensk on the Amur River, where he served as an artilleryman supporting ground troops.

A number of railway and communications facilities were destroyed by partisans and some Japanese units were even annihilated.

“An incident could occur at any time,” Tanabe wrote, recounting how he had heard that 31 local people were shot dead by Japanese forces searching for saboteurs and enemy sympathizers.

With Russian forces poised to advance, Tanabe later wrote, “I have only three hours left.”

In Ivanovka, a suburb of Blagoveshchensk, a telegram station was captured by partisans, prompting a ferocious attack by Japanese forces in March 1919 in which around 300 residents were killed.

Recounting the attack, Tanabe wrote the commander ordered “those aiding the radical group to be set on fire and the plan was executed.”

Tanabe’s gunboat sailed up the Zeya and Shilka rivers, the Amur River’s tributary and headstream, seizing control of areas on the riverbanks.

Describing “an extremely accurate attack” by the enemy that nearly hit his vessel, Tanabe noted, “I opened fire again and again as I was ordered.”

After retreating to Khabarovsk between April and May 1920, he experienced urban warfare as communication and supply lines were cut, returning fire from his anchored gunboat.

“With 30 bomb blasts that fell just meters away, the area was filled with smoke,” he wrote.

“The artillery fire from each side came out of the dark of the night. Its fierceness was beyond description,” he said.

Masafumi Asada, an associate professor at Iwate University, said the diary provides “valuable historical material” that offers rare insight into a soldier’s daily life, from the beginning of a campaign to his return home.

“I hope that this discovery will lead to more materials being found that move research forward,” said Asada, whose historical research focuses on Northeast Asia.