Aizawa Interview I

Mr. Hideyuki Aizawa Talks about

His Experiences in Former Soviet Union

as an Internee after WW II Part I

-Taken to Siberia and Current Work for Returnees-

Interview Date: July 14, 2014

Place: Aizawa Law Office in Tokyo  

Interviewee:  Mr. Hideyuki Aizawa

Interned in the former Soviet Union after WWII ended.  After returning to Japan, he became the Director of the Budget Bureau, and was elected as a member of the Lower House nine times.  After serving as the Director General of the Economic Planning Agency, he became a lawyer in 2005.  As the President of the Japan Association of Forced Internees, at the age of 95, he travels to Russia annually to continue negotiations with the Russian government in efforts to ensure that treaty promises are met. Mr. Aisawa dedicates this tremendous effort to pay his deepest tribute to those who passed away and to continue to sustain his commitment to assist their families and survivors.  

Planning/English Translation/Interviewer:  Haruko Oshima Sakakibara

Born in Tokyo.  She has been a lecturer of Japanese in East Asian Language and Culture at University of California, Davis since 1986.  She published the bilingual website, “Japanese in Siberia” in 2015.  Her uncle was interned in Siberia.


Excerpts 1

We were all crammed into cargo trains and did not know where we were heading. They did not tell us.  Then on the 28th, we were told to get off and made to walk for 100 km.  That walk was called, “Death March.”      

Germans were very tough people with tough mind and body.  We just arrived at such an environment and we were totally controlled by them.  They worked with the Russians and took more food for them.

Russia is paying more attention to proletariat even though they say they aim at the government for both farmers and proletariat.

600,000 people were taken.  We have been talking about how this action was against the non-aggression pact and Potsdam Declaration.  On top of that, it is unforgivable that we were treated as hostages although the war was over by then.  Therefore, I met president Gorbachev when he came to Japan and also met president Yeltsin. As a representative of an association, I made two points.  


Interview 1

Sakakibara: Good afternoon.  You became 95 years old on July 4th this year.  It is the Independence Day in the United States.  You wrote in your blog the other day that you always wake up at 8 o’ clock.  How do you spend your time in the morning?

Aizawa: It used to take me only 30 minutes to get ready to leave home before, but now I have aged and don’t need to be in a hurry, so I allow two hours to get ready in the morning.  First, I look around my garden—enjoy the trees and breathe in the air. I listen to the birds chirping. That is the beginning of the day.  Then I wash my face, eat breakfast, and read the papers. I read the Asahi, Mainichi, Yomiuri, Sankei, Nikkei, Tokyo, and the local one. I subscribe to 7 papers.

Sakakibara: You really read a lot !  Is the local one the paper in Tottori prefecture?

Aizawa: Yes.  Nihonkai Newspaper. I am subscribing to seven papers.

Sakakibara: Your morning is quite busy !

Aizawa: Yes, so I only read through the headlines. Then I leave home exactly at 10 AM.

Sakakibara: Then you head for this office?  Do you come to work every day?  I don’t think there are too many 95-year olds who go to work everyday…

Aizawa: That’s true. Much less people these days.  I went to Tokyo Rotary on my birthday on July 4th and attended the birthday celebration for those who were born in that week.  When I said, “I am 95,” everyone said, “Wow !!”

Sakakibara: You are such a healthy 95.

Aizawa: Well, I am curious about the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. I want to see it.

Sakakibara: That would be great if you can watch it !

Aizawa: Then I will be 100 !

Sakakibara: Is that right?  I am sure you will be fine until 100.  There are only five more years to go to the Tokyo Olympics.   

Sakakibara: I have been teaching Japanese at University of California, Davis in the United States for thirty years.  During the experience, I have had opportunities to meet students from Japan and small groups of English teachers from Japanese public schools.  While you were in the finance ministry, you appropriated the national budget to encourage 5,000 elementary and middle school teachers to take a trip to foreign countries.  Recently, you also raised concerns about the decrease of the number of the Japanese who visit overseas to study into half of what it used to be.  With the abundance of your own international experiences, why do you think it is important for Japanese to gain experiences overseas? 

Aizawa: We had the unfortunate experience in the WWII.  However, if the Japanese had more experience internationally, I don’t think that would have happened.  Therefore, I really think it is important to know both the good and bad things about foreign countries, not just about Japan.  At that time, the Army was more interested in starting the war than the Navy.  The Navy knew more about the world since they went around the world once a year.  I don’t k now if they had a thorough knowledge or not, but at least they knew better than the Army. Regarding the allocation of the budget, Prime Minister Tanaka told me, “everyone go visit overseas now, but it is the most important to let school teachers go !”  First, he asked me to consider 10,000, but I told him, “Starting it with 10,000 is a bit difficult.” Then I negotiated with him. Finally, we settled with 5,000 people.

Sakakibara: Is that right?  You made a great policy !

Aizawa: By then, I had already been allocating money to assist such visits for principals and vice principals.  When I mentioned that, he said, “Let’s not do that any more.  They are the old bunch.”

Sakakibara: So he meant to send more younger people?

Aizawa: Exactly! We should send younger people.   So I said, “I’ll do that since I totally agree with you.”  Then within two weeks, I received an itinerary from the Ministry of Education.  According to the plan, participants were going to be visiting schools from morning till night. 

Sakakibara: Jam packed schedule? 

Aizawa: Yes.  So I had to tell them, “They should be spending time seeing other things! Going to visit schools will be enough if they go to one or just a few.”

Sakakibara: More freely.

Aizawa: Exactly, I told them to plan half of their time for sight seeing.  Then I was asked, “Is it all right?”  I said to them, that is what it means to go and experience foreign countries.

Sakakibara: You are right. You told them something really important.

Sakakibara: You have had a long and an amazing career.  You started out serving in important roles in the Ministry of Finance, then became a member of the Lower House, and was elected nine times. After you were appointed as Director General of the Economic Planning Agency, you started to work as a lawyer at age eighty five.  Today, I would like to ask about your experiences before that period, during the six years during your youth, when you were in the WWII and in the internment camp in Siberia.

Aizawa: Sure.

Sakakibara: I am afraid it may be difficult for you to even recollect what happened during that period, but what you will tell us will be very helpful for our generation without any knowledge of the war. / In addition, your talk regarding your internment experience in Siberia is very valuable for people who speak English since it is a historical fact.  This interview will be translated into English since there is not enough information there.

Aizawa: The war ended on August 15th, 1945.  I was in North Korea then.  We imagined we were going home because the war ended.  That’s when the Russian army came in.  Because of the treaty over there, we were told to guard along the railway until all the Japanese expatriates returned home.  After that, in the fall of 1945, we were on a boat, which we thought was taking us home to Japan. However, the boat went toward the west, and the Big Dipper was seen in the east. We thought it was strange, but before we knew it, we arrived in Posyet.

Sakakibara: Posyet is a port in Russia, right?

Aizawa: Yes. When we complained that we were supposed to go back to Japan, they told us a lie, “We are going to load fuel here.” / We were told to get off there.  They deceived us.  Our understanding was that the Potsdam Declaration clarified Korea was supposed to send all the Japanese home. The Soviets had already signed it.  

Sakakibara: There was a non-aggression pact between Japan and the Soviets as well.  It was supposed to last for five years.

Aizawa: Yes, there was. They disregarded it.  The Potsdam Declaration guaranteed everybody to be returned home once the war was over. Therefore, China returned everyone home.  /Only the Soviet Union did not, and took 600,000 Japanese soldiers from Manchuria, North Korea, Sakhalin, and Tsushima.  It is a clear infraction against the Declaration !!  Therefore, we have our argument in regards to our position.  We were in internment, and were not POW.  Our understanding is that we were all totally deceived and taken there to Siberia.  In addition, it was such a cold place.  In the middle of the freezing weather, we were forced to do hard labor.  

Sakakibara: I understand where you experienced the forced labor was the camp at Yelabuga.  This is the book you published, “Volga Far Away” in which you wrote about your valuable experiences at that time.  We can read detailed information around the time when the war ended and how you were taken to the Yelabuga camp.  I am going to translate some part of it into English later and upload it onto this website.  Today, would you tell us what you were thinking about and what the situation was like while you were being sent to the camp? You were crammed into cargo trains for twenty-three days, right?

Aizawa: That’s right.  We were all crammed into cargo trains and did not know where we were heading. They did not tell us.  Then on the 28th, we were told to get off and made to walk for 100 km.

Sakakibara: You had to march in the snow?  How many degrees below zero was it? 

Aizawa: Probably between 10~15 degrees below zero.

Sakakibara: Between 10~15 degrees below zero… and you were walking in deep snow.

Aizawa: The snow was about two-meter high.

Sakakibara: Did you keep walking like that for four days.

Aizawa: There was barely a path for people to walk in the snow, but wolves were running around within our sight. We kept walking like that for four days.

Sakakibara: On top of this, you had no idea where you were going.  You didn’t know if you were going to walk for four days or one week.  Some people must have fallen exhausted.

Aizawa: People who fell down, began to fall asleep in the middle of the road, but they would have died if they actually fell asleep.  When we tried to wake them up, they didn’t get up and said, “Leave me alone!”  Then we tried to talk to them to keep them awake, but many didn’t wake up.  Before long, we became so exhausted and realized we would be no good if we kept trying to help those guys.  Although that walk was called, “Death March,”  there were not a lot of people who died there.

Sakakibara: But quite a number of people had trouble with their toes and lost arms and legs due to frost bite? 

Aizawa: Yes, frost bite.  Once one gets frost bite, the area has to be cut off.  It would become dangerous otherwise.

Sakakibara: How was the distribution of food in Yelabuga?

Aizawa: As I wrote in my book, there was a daily standard for food.  If they actually gave us food based on that standard, it would have been over 3000 calories per person.  However, it did not happen. For example, when 300g of meat was supposed to be given, it was 300g of bone.

Sakakibara: Somebody had taken the meat off the bone?

Aizawa: That’s what it was.  It came as food distribution in the category of “meat” though.

Sakakibara: In reality, there was no meat to eat.

Aizawa: Exactly. That’s why we had no choice but to chop up the bones with an ax and boil it to make soup. We received sugar properly though.

Sakakibara: But distributing sugar evenly among everyone was a very difficult task, wasn’t it?

Aizawa: Yes it was.

Sakakibara: Everyone must have wanted sugar very badly.

Aizawa: That was actually very difficult.  This is what happened.  Our place used to be the residence for German officers.

Sakakibara: You mean the compound at Yelabuga was used as a camp for German officers?

Aizawa: Yes.  They were very tough people with tough mind and body.  We just arrived at such an environment and we were totally controlled by them.

Sakakibara: Then more food went to them?

Aizawa: Yes, they worked with the Russians.

Sakakibara: They cooperated?

Aizawa: In order to fight back, we launched a so called “Japan-German War,” trying to chase away the Germans, but we lost.  We wanted to insist on “Establishing the working condition for eight hours a day, and “securing food as is indicated in the standard.”  Then in our representatives’ meeting , we decided to challenge them and threatened that we would go on general strike if the requests were not met.  However, I think there was a spy among us. The following day, our plan leaked and our leader was taken somewhere else.

Sakakibara: Such a thing happened?  Those kept in Yelabuga were ten thousand commissioned officers?  

Aizawa: Yes, the total number of internees at A and B gulags was 10,000.  About the same as the total of the South and North Kwantung Army.  So there were 5000 in my area, which was A gulag.  Among the commissioned officers, there were about 400 field officers. There was no general except for one.  The rest were company officers.

Sakakibara: I understand there were various kinds of forced labor in other gulags in Siberia such as physical labor and cutting trees in the forest.  What kind of labor did you have in Yelabuga?  

Aizawa: After I came back and read various books and hear other stories, I realized that our place was a little different since we were managed by the government in Moscow directly due to the fact that it was a facility for former officers.  Nevertheless, we were supposed to work until the weather went down to as cold as 20 degree below zero.  When it was below 20 degree, we could stop the work.  Also, they made us “volunteer” to sign on to their five-year economic plan to show our willingness to cooperate.  They had to watch how to handle us because we were commissioned officers.  According to the Geneva Convention, they were not able to “force” us to work.  Instead, they wanted us to “volunteer.”

Sakakibara: Then you were made to give consent to volunteer working for five years even though it was actually forced labor?

Aizawa: First, I was asked to sign the consent to cooperate with their contract for five years. I rejected it.  Then they asked if I would work for the purpose of self-support, which meant field work to get crops for food, working in a cafeteria, baking bread, laundry, power plant, automotive repair etc. I consented to that because I had no other recourse.

Sakakibara: Then that was the type of work you did.

Aizawa: Yes, it was considered as work for self-support.

Sakakibara: But there were some other things as well, I understand.  By the way, you experienced various aspects of Russian culture while you were interned. You must have found many differences between the Russian and Japanese culture. Do you have any episode you can share?

Aizawa: Well, regarding Russian culture, there were many Russian literature lovers in Japan.  I was one of them and was an avid reader of Tolstoy etc.

Sakakibara: You have really read so much Russian literature.  I understand you read all of them while you were in college?

Aizawa: Well, I have read it to a certain extent.  You know Russia is a county of socialism, and Japan isn’t.  They believe in working according to their ability, and distribute according to the amount of their work.  The idea is good, but if you look deep into the reality, Russia is paying more attention to proletariat even though they say they aim at the government for both farmers and proletariat.  Therefore, it was so obvious that farmers were not in good condition.  While we were interned, the Russian currency changed.  The new value of the currency became one tenth of the previous ruble. To my surprise, the wages at factories stayed the same.  That made me realize how Russia gives priority to the proletariat.   

Sakakibara: You were in the Yelabuga camp for two years?

Aizawa: Two years and a half.

Sakakibara: After that, you moved to Kazan in the Republic of Tatar.  You became in charge of food supplies, and there, “Domoy” came.  “Domoy” meant “going back home” right?  Meaning “going back to Japan?”

Aizawa: That’s right.  “Moy” is “mine” and “Do” means “to.”

Sakakibara: Then does it mean “to me” in Russian?

Aizawa: Right. Or “to my home.”

Sakakibara: Oh that’s what “Domoy” really means. I have seen the expression of “Domoy Japan” so many times in Siberian materials. You exprienced “Damoy” at the camp in Kazan.

Aizawa: In short, “Damoy” means “to mine.” 

Sakakibara: Then it seems to imply “to my home” or “to my place.” 

Sakakibara: What’s this?

Aizawa:  Cigarette case.

Sakakibara: Mt. Fuji is here.  Is this “A”?  A for “Aizawa”?

Aizawa: Yes.  A German made it for me.

Sakakibara: A German in the Gulag made this for you?  I can not open it.

Aizawa: It got stuck!

Sakakibara: This is the tobacco holder.  Were you smoking Machorca?

Aizawa: Not only Machorca but cigarettes afterwards.  Here is something interesting.  Russian soldiers took our watches away. So I intentionally broke the glass surface of my watch.  (Showing a watch.)

Aizawa: Because of that, they did not take this away, saying, “it is broken.”

Sakakibara: They thought there was no value without the glass?

Aizawa: Right. That’s why it was saved.  It is a Hamilton.  

Sakakibara: This is the watch you took from Japan.  Hamilton.  Then you made the glass again after you brought it back to Japan?

Aizawa: That’s what they thought.  And this is a shaver I took from China.  It is a Gillette. 

Sakakibara: From China?  Gillette.  When they finally got to Vladivostok in the end before coming home, returnees were all taken to three or more places for inspection where they were made to take a shower etc.  I read that their belongings quickly vanished, but these things survived?

Aizawa: Yes, I was luckily able to bring back all these.

Sakakibara: I am amazed at how you could do that!

Aizawa: This went to Russia and came back with me.

Sakakibara: That is an amazing shaver.  You should save it in a special box.

Aizawa: I also brought a few photos home, but I couldn’t find them.  I sewed them on the back.

Sakakibara: Right there in the back?

Aizawa: On the back of the collar. 

Sakakibara: You were so innovative !

Aizawa: Another place was on the back of the belt. I made a small bag to put there.

Sakakibara: That way, nobody checked.

Aizawa: Right.  Even if they tapped on it, they could not tell.

Sakakibara: Thank you so much for showing me such valuable items.

Aizawa: There was more. I was carrying around a knife which was prohibited.  I regret I could not bring it back because it was a nice one with my name on it. 

Sakakibara: I heard that your sword was taken away.  I am so sorry.

Aizawa: Back then, everyone prepared a service sword that passed generation after generation in the family, and took it to the war.  I also took the service sword that came from the Kamakura period that was apart of my family possessions.

Sakakibara: You mean, really from Kamakura period?

Aizawa: Do you know Masamune, the famous sword smith? He had ten capable sword makers.  Mine was from one of them, Kunimune.  That was taken away.

Sakakibara: It is very questionable if the Russians could tell the value of such a sword.

Aizawa: They know.

Sakakibara: Really?  I wonder where it went!    

Aizawa: Gorvachev promised in his treaty that belongings would be returned.  So I asked them about my sword last year and again this year, but they said, “We have never seen it.” 

Then the next explanation the other day, was that they broke and melted it.

Sakakibara: You have been writing in your blog a lot, and I found this blog you wrote on Sep. 26, 2013.  Would you please read it or talk about it to sum up this interview 1?

Aizawa: What did I write?

Sakakibara: This is what you wrote.

Aizawa: Oh, yes.  600,000 people were taken.  We have been talking about how this action was against the non-aggression pact and Potsdam Declaration.  On top of that, it is unforgivable that we were treated as hostages although the war was over by then.  Therefore, I met president Gorbachev when he came to Japan and also met president Yeltsin. As a representative of an association, I made two points.  First, I asked him to make a formal apology for the violation of the international pact.  Second, I demanded the compensation for the forced labor. 

Sakakibara: But there is no reply.  So you are going to Russia again this September for the negotiation.  Are you going to Moscow?

Aizawa: Yes.  I am determined to keep going there as long as I am alive.

Sakakibara: You have such a positive and determined attitude, and you keep up with it for your own sake and also for all of the people who were regretfully taken to Siberia. Your live voice is extremely precious because it reflects ninety-five years of living that has been accumulating like annual tree rings. Thank you so much for letting us hear your talk today.