Background of the Arrest
After the acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, Japan’s defeat in World War II became final. On August 6th, 1945, the Soviet army suddenly attacked Manchuria. As a result, Manchukuo collapsed and the Japanese society in the area went into chaos. Sexual assaults and looting that happened all over made the Japanese women tremble with fear. Amid such an atmosphere, some Japanese volunteers thought about giving a Kimono as a gift to a Soviet commanding officer, and Fumiko was chosen as the translator. Her role was to accurately deliver the message of hope and plead for the Japanese that they all wanted to see the town become peaceful again. After she finished this responsible task, she was arrested by the Soviet commanding officer.
A misunderstanding due to cultural differences sometimes changes a mere unrealistic guess to a seemingly convincing fact. In the Soviet Union, it was a common belief that a foreign language teacher was a professional spy who received special training before the job. That meant, if a Russian taught the Russian language to a Japanese, the teacher was someone connected to an enemy government by an invisible thread. This is the logic the Soviets applied to Fumiko. They thought she was a spy for the Japanese police just because she was a Japanese language teacher. During an interrogation, she even came close to being sexually assaulted by the inspector. Becoming totally desperate after two months of confinement, she was put into another prisoner transfer vehicle without any judicial decision. For a woman from the defeated country, no system worked in her favor. That was the beginning of her extensive lonely battle of ten years in Siberia, where there was no law that would protect her.
She was then taken to a temporary prison in the former Mitsui building in Shenyang. It was there she faced inhumane conditions, such as having to use a bucket at the corner of the room to relieve herself, while only being able to dump it twice a day, in the morning and in the evening. There was also an awful incident when a drunken guard came in and took out her Chinese roommate. Assaults and rapes toward female prisoners by prison guards and surveillance soldiers were very common at that time just like how things were back in the Imperial Russian period during the early 1900’s. Another big problem was hygiene. During the three months of capture in Shenyang, she could take a bath only once. This led to uncomfortable situations, such as a lice infestation. Then she was crammed into a transport train for horses where her daily routine was to kill lice in the middle of the unbearable smell of horses. She gradually realized they were heading toward the Soviet Union because the only thing she kept seeing was snow and ice day after day. She heard about two Chinese men captured and gunned down after their attempt to escape from a window of a slow-moving train. On the seventeenth day, when the train finally stopped, she saw hundreds and thousands of Japanese prisoners in the field covered with snow. Only three of them were women. She was taken into a red brick building, and then packed into a truck to transport prisoners again. The next place she got off was a jail in Chita. She was put into a room that was abandoned and ruined. After her belongings were checked, she was left there only with a futon bed and clothing. However, shortly after he was put into a hospital since she developed a fever over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That became the time of a truly sad farewell to other Japanese who were very kind during a difficult journey together. This separation was the beginning of Fumiko’s extremely lonely hardships.
A few days later, Fumiko returned to her cell alone, dragging one bag of her belongings. The following is from her book. “I passed through many long hallways and stairs. Then I arrived at some heavy iron doors. The head of the prison guards opened one of them, making so much noise with his keys. No matter how many times I heard it, I hated that rattling noise. That sound from hell gave me a chill. When I heard him say, ‘Go in!’ I noticed about ten female prisoners looking up all at the same time and staring at me, a newcomer. Just by one glance, I understood what the room was like. A shining floor of concrete, a raised floor on both sides of the central path, where female prisoners were sitting. (omission) The head of the prison guards looked around the room first, talked to a Tatar woman who was wearing a filthy read head cover, and left the room. Later I found out that this woman, Masha, was a theft, and he told her not to touch my belongings”.
The day in the cell began with roll call at eight in the morning. All the female prisoners lined up almost naked. The same roll call was repeated at nine at night before going to sleep. There was no forced labor between that time except for washing down the floor in the room. The three meals provided during the day were always the same. It was 600 grams of rye bread per day that came with soup for breakfast and dinner. At lunch, she got thin rice porridge of wild oat. In the soup, there was salted cabbage, potatoes, and the bones of salted trout. They also got a teaspoonful of sugar a day. Since Fumiko had a stomach condition, she took time eating the rye bread. In summary, she did not have to engage in forced labor, and got meals even though they were poorly prepared. She could also sleep. However, she faced unbelievable agony with the fact that she did not have the freedom of going to the toilet when she needed. The door of the cell was opened twice a day for that purpose, but timing for excretion did not come just as planned by the schedule. Therefore, she had to keep worrying about it all day because they were told those two times were the only possible time for it. She wrote, “even chained animals have freedom for excretion, but we did not have that”.
After a while, three Japanese were transferred to the same cell, and in total, there were four Japanese women. One was Ms. Kawamura who was arrested in Shenyang. Ms. Yamamoto and Ms. Tanaka were both arrested when they were in kimono and were sent from the prison in Chita in the same attire. Both were in good physical condition, but Ms. Tanaka, who was stricken severely during investigations, ended up developing tuberculosis. She said, “I was with them only for a short time, but we comforted each other, enjoying singing Japanese songs. We noticed the bread for the Japanese was often snatched in the room where over thirty women were packed. At that time, we acted together and got our bread back. Underneath the watchtower where the guard was watching, four of us frequently walked together. However, each of us was taken to another prison and I had to part from all three of them in a very short time”. For the next coming ten years, she never saw a single Japanese in her life.
After she became alone again, Fumiko began to do embroidery and the quality of her work stood out. Russian women love embroideries. In an environment where needles and threads were prohibited, they still managed to make threads out of their socks. The women imprisoned with Fumiko included ones addicted to opium, tobacco, and ones that had syphilis.
She described the situation as follows, “I got along with the other women in the cell to a certain extent, and did not get into fights too often, but I did not become close with anyone at all. Women prisoners were transferred so often that we were faced with parting quickly after we became close. The closer we became, the harder it was to face such sadness when separated. Therefore, it was a way of living for a prisoner to live a simple life, letting go of the destiny to whatever happens, and stay feeling like flowing water. YES! Nothing was going to be solved even if we lament, worry, get angry and mad. Therefore, my strategy was to laugh”.
She continued, “There were only four kinds of food that came into my mouth during half a year in this cell. They were rye bread, soup, thin rice porridge of wild oat, and sugar. In addition, I tasted a small amount of food Natasha received from the free world. It was very nice of her that she even gave me a spoonful whenever she got something. That’s why I became restless when she received things. I felt ashamed as I looked forward to something to be given from others, but I simply wanted to be a part of them. It was not because I was eager to taste something delicious in the free world. When a spoonful of milk was shared with me, I was so relieved to feel I was the same as others. The reason why the food was so limited was not because of a particular maltreatment to us but was due to the limited condition of the way people in the Soviet Union lived in general at that time”.
“One of those days, when I climbed up to a small window, I was able to see a group thirty or forty Japanese. They were the Japanese soldiers who were captured. We could not exchange any words, but I was suddenly filled with fond feelings, and felt it would be nice if someone could tell my Japanese family that Fumiko Akabane is still alive.”
In the middle of June, a sudden summons came. When she entered the room, a Soviet man in a military uniform was standing in front of a desk. She was asked to sign a document. He read the document and stated it was a judgement paper. It read, “Article 58th, Item 6th. Name: Fumiko Akabane Prison term: 5 years Release Date: October, 16th, 1950”.
There was no court. There was no question allowed, no process of recognition of crime nor summoning of a sworn witness. Without any answers, she was asked to sign on the paper.
Fumiko wrote, “I had no energy to even respond back. Looking back, I have no recollection of how I signed, nor what that military officer said. The steps to go back to my cell felt like I was walking at the bottom of hell, and my head felt like it was shattered by an iron hammer. After I went back to my room, I got into my bed. Tears gushed out and I cried uncontrollably, it was impossible to stop. I was brought all the way to Chita and I was aware of a possible sentence. Therefore, I was preparing for the method to prove my innocence, but there was not even a court hearing. A five-year term was sentenced without any proof. How cruel! So harsh! In five years, I will be forty-one years old. As I pictured the faces of my aging parents, I burst into tears again. Just to think about making my parents worry for five more years made my heart ache. Even now, they must be so worried about me as I vanished into the Soviet Union. Their agony will continue for five more years. How sorry I was! I just could not stop my tears.”
That summer, one piece of paper changed Fumiko’s destiny from an innocent Japanese to a convicted prisoner.