Under the regime of Stalin in the Soviet Union, millions of Soviets became the victims of a forced-labor camp system for approximately forty years. They were made to be a force of free labor based on false accusations by the secret police. “The Gulag Archipelago” (1973) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tells us this story. During the years of war with Germany between 1941 and 1945, the Soviet Union sacrificed 25,000,000 of their own people and had to cope with a war-torn land and suffering economy. For compensation, an additional 3,000,000 German hostages were sent to the gulag (concentration camps) to make up for the demand.
In the meantime, approximately 600,000 Japanese men were abducted to Siberia and spent bitter days in the same prison camps as soon as World War II ended. Their experiences are not well known by the world, however. Their ordeal was also a part of the story of the Gulag Archipelago. The returnees in Japan maintained a long silence for various reasons. Stephen Karner, an Austrian researcher, predicts the total number of people who were taken to the prison camps in the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1956 was approximately five million, including foreign prisoners of war and common Soviet citizens.
On August 15th, 1945, a radio broadcast announcing the acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration and the end of the war declared that the Japanese lost. As they listened to this, Japanese military personnel who were stationed in North Korea and Manchuria at that time believed they would be able to go back to Japan. There were different circumstances, however – between Japan and the Soviet Union, there was the Soviet-Japan Neutrality Pact signed in 1941, an understanding that “both countries will maintain peace and if one country goes into a war, the other will maintain neutrality.”
On July 17, 1945, when the Potsdam Conference was held in a suburb of Berlin among the three leaders of the US, England, and the USSR, Stalin’s name was not mentioned in their joint declaration – only the US, England, and the Republic of China. Japan was urged towards unconditional surrender. While they were waiting for Japan’s reply, the US dropped the world’s first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Following that, on August 7th, Stalin ordered Vasilevskiy, the commander-in-chief, to begin attacking Japan at midnight on August 9th. The peace treaty meant nothing.
On August 9th Japan time, the Soviet Army suddenly attacked Manchuria and Korea. In the midst of the battle, the Kwantung Army headquarters and the government body of Manchukuo moved from Changchun to Tonghua, which was closer to the border of Korea. At the same time, the emperor of Manchukuo resigned, and it was thus the end of the Manchukuo that flourished as Japan’s puppet government since 1932 (1,500,000 Japanese lived there). Among them were the Volunteer Army of the Young Pioneers in Manchuria and Mongolia, which was a group of young boys from sixteen to nineteen years old who were recruited from Japan as a part of a governmental plan to increase pioneer numbers in Manchukuo. When the Soviet Army invaded Manchukuo, not only the Japanese soldiers who were waiting for disarmament but civilian men, including the above young boys, were taken to Siberia by Soviet soldiers. Thus, women and children who were left behind in Manchukuo lost their chain of command. They had no choice but to flee without any protection, facing looting and violence. The Soviet Army also attacked the Southern Kurile islands such as Sakhalin, Etorofu, and Kunashir islands (Northern Territories). Because of the fierce battles there, a lot of Japanese civilians became victims. Later, Stalin clarified that the occupation of Sakhalin and Kurile islands was an act of revenge by the USSR for the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5).
The life in the gulag of Siberia was beyond imagination. The prisoners were not used to the climate at all. The hell of starvation also caused malnutrition, and such sufferings led people to a mental imbalance. All the while there was a demand to complete a strict quota of forced labor each day. Prisoners were threatened that the amount of food for the day would be decreased if this quota was not met. The freezing weather below 30-50 degrees centigrade was another ordeal. Such starvation, forced labor, and cold weather are defined as the “three main hardships in Siberia.” The forced labor covered all sorts of work - hydroelectric power generation, the construction of government offices, houses, and theaters, all aspects of coal production, cutting wood in snow fields, risking life and transferring logs, farming, etc. The food they received for the unending labor was only one piece of rye bread and salty soup that had a leaf of cabbage in it. Not being able to bear with the hunger, they looked for any food anywhere, in the fields and in the mountains. They even ate pieces of potato they found on the ground. Malnutrition meant sickness and then death by starvation. In the middle of such conditions, there was unfairness in the way prisoners received their daily ration. It was because of military class distinctions still used in their daily life in the gulag. Higher rank officers snatched the same amount of food as lower-rank soldiers even if they did not work as hard. Another aspect of hardship to note is that Russian food was not immediately suitable for the Japanese, who were used to eating rice and miso soup. In addition, the extremely freezing winter in Siberia was very harsh for the Japanese to endure, since Japan is a country of typically warmer weather. Therefore, there was an unexpected death total of 5,000 in the first winter from 1945 to 1946, which was eighty percent of the total death figure of 6,200.
Most of those who lost their lives so unexpectedly in Siberia were Japanese who were hoping to go home to their families after the war ended. Each of them was an ordinary citizen. For their families in Japan, who were waiting for them to return safely after the war, the Siberian internment was a shocking news. In Japan, after they lost the war, the chaos of daily life was nothing they could predict. There was not enough food and no jobs. Facing poverty, everyone was desperate. The families of the Siberian internees had to keep waiting for their bread winners to return home in order to get their lives back together. Yet correspondence was not normally allowed and it was very difficult to know what happened to their families in Siberia. In the meantime, the Japanese taken to Siberia did not realize how quickly their destinies were changing. When they thought they were in trains and ships to finally go back to Japan, they realized the destination was not Japan. When they noticed they were heading north, the joy of going home suddenly changed to a nightmare.
To look into what has happened in this history of Japanese internment is an important step in order to understand the dignity of each life that was tossed around during that period. We cannot choose when and where we are born. Also, there is no guarantee that the human experience of suffering will not repeat. The victims of conflicts of people in power are the weak, and they are not given any room for choice. In the current world, where some people are still living in the horrors of war, there may be some people who are in similar conditions like these Japanese internees were. Seeking only the benefit and prosperity of a country results in such misfortunes. It is our responsibility to think deeply about human limitations and seek with a quiet thought process, little by little, to establish world peace.