National / History

List of 121 Japanese women held as POWs in Soviet labor camps after WWII discovered

Kyodo

A list of Japanese women who were held in Soviet labor camps after the end of World War II was located in Russia in what could be the first discovery of its kind, a professor at Osaka University has said.

The list contains information such as names and years of birth for 121 women who were likely nurses assigned to a military hospital in what was then Manchuria, according to Michiko Ikuta, a professor emeritus at the university and the person responsible for the discovery.

It also includes the names of three German women believed to have been the wife of a German envoy and her attendants.

Japan’s government estimates that about 575,000 Japanese were detained in the Soviet Union and that 55,000 of them died in Siberia and Mongolia, many from starvation or exposure to the cold.

The vast majority of the detainees were military men. The number of women who were held as prisoners of war remains unclear, with few official records available. Some Japanese accounts put the number at a little over 200 while others claim around 2,000. Russian records cite 450 Japanese women as having been detained.

The list, discovered by Ikuta in the Russian State Military Archive in Moscow, could give researchers a clearer picture of how many women were detained.

“Until now, there had been no records specifically listing women who were held in Siberia. This document will likely help us verify anecdotal accounts. In that regard, it’s a very important find,” Ikuta said.

Ikuta said the names on the list match up with nurses in Unit 791 of the Imperial Japanese Army who worked at a hospital in the city of Jiamusi, in what is now northeastern China. The majority of the women were in their teens and early 20s at the time of the war.

Immediately after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on Aug. 9, 1945, Unit 791 attempted to travel by boat to Harbin. The women in the unit disguised themselves as soldiers, wearing uniforms and cutting their hair short to look the part.

In one account, a woman describes being handed potassium cyanide by the hospital’s director, with orders to commit suicide if she was raped.

“So this is what it means to lose a war, I thought,” she is reported to have said.

The unit was captured by Soviet forces and taken back to Jiamusi before being sent to the Soviet city of Khabarovsk, where they were forced to do menial tasks like gathering firewood, carrying food and cleaning toilets.

The women lived in constant fear of being raped, or worse. One woman who was taken away by Soviet soldiers in a car was later found dead, one of the accounts says.

Many Japanese men in labor camps across Siberia died that winter, prompting the Soviets to send the women of Unit 791 to work as nurses at the camps.

There the women would transfuse their own blood into ailing POWs, but the care they offered often proved futile. Some became friendly with their Soviet captors and were invited into their homes.

Most of the women were detained for two to 2½ years before being sent back to Japan.

“The experiences of men have dominated discussions about POWs in Siberia. But we also have to shed light on the women if we want to understand the issue in its entirety,” Ikuta said.

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