My Experiences during the Detainment in Siberia

My Experiences during the Detainment in Siberia
Ishin Miyazaki, resident of Hokkaido

1. Defeat in the War Followed by the Detainment in Siberia

We had to spend our period of youth in the middle of World War ll. Because of that, our hope, like the blue in the sky and the tranquility of the green in nature, were all repainted to grey under the expression, "for the sake of our country." In the middle of our schooling, we had no choice but were drafted for the so-called "sacred war." We had tears in our eyes as we got involved in it, but nonetheless, we were full of passion for our country and kept running into it with our youth without any idea that the war was going to have a miserable end. The youth we lost will never come back to us again. And now, we are already in our old age. We should enjoy the rest of the springs and autumns that are left for us, accepting this age, but without being spoiled by the fact that we are old, receiving favors from others.

Just before the end of the war, the Soviets revoked the non-aggression pact established with Japan, and attacked Manchuria, Sakhalin, and Kurile Islands with the force of surging waves. Then, the Japanese soldiers in those northern lands became captives and were sent to Far East Siberia. There, tens of thousands of them died frozen in the extremely cold weather and suffering from hunger. Many lads endured this hard toil, only by dreaming of one day going home.

Orion is high above us and the air is totally transparent. I look up at the constellation in the intense cold. The glittering moon brings more sadness.

There is complete silence in this foreign town. The cold air soaks into the body. Dispirited, I look at this land. Far away, I hear a wild old barking.

The long nights in Nicolai. Oh, this frozen snow on the land – the figures of the the captives stepping on it in the cold wind, standing on it with exhaustion.

At dawn I pray. May the day of return come as soon as possible. The moment I think about how much I miss Dad and Mom, dear brothers and sisters.

My running tears suddenly froze on my face.

As the days and months pass and the year keeps changing, there is no hope of return to my home country. Many of my friends fell down, but I could not do anything for them. When the bed-ridden elderly soldier realized his end was coming, he handed me his important charm of Kannon, the Buddhist deity of mercy, and asked me to give it to his family in Japan. My tears dropped as I recognized how thin his chest was and how slender his hand was. Even after such a death, we were not allowed to pick up his bones. The corpses was carelessly carried away like luggage. Then, Soviet solders fished for the articles of the deceased, and put a watch, a fountain pen, a mirror and a photo of a grinning woman in his pocket.

The desolate wilderness of Siberia, the days of longing for home at every sunrise and sunset, the months and years of enduring distress.

I heard the steam whistle of the ship for the demobilized soldiers. I saw the mountains--mountains of Japan! I saw the port, and then the town. I saw the Japanese flag. Shouts of joy broke out! My eyes were full of tears looking at the mountains and rivers of my beautiful country. Everything was dazzling. The Japanese flag, with the outline of the sun was blowing – oh, I finally came home. I cried and cried talking about the comrades who died and could not come home together, and with the family and friends who came to welcome me home – ah, my days of detainment and how regretful it was to see the ends of precious lives.

Only one draft paper came to each home, and soldiers were gathered and told to fight for the sake of the Japanese empire. Without war buddies, we wouldn't have made it. We were able to endure mean-spirited treatment by some senior soldiers and put up with other miserable experiences only because the support from the war buddies kept us going. Amidst such suffering, we gave comfort, wiping each other's tears. We also shared our daily lives, and became profoundly compatible beyond the differences in ideology or preferences. I still have three of them in my current life. It is an extremely enjoyable time when I get to see them.

When we were drafted, we received an instruction, "All human beings have to die once. If so, the greatest ambition as a man is to die in the war for the sake of the honor of his country." Here are some unforgettable records from the past written on September 1st, 1991.

Home Unit: The 88th division Number 306 in charge of correspondence (from Odomari, Sakhalin)

Rank: Private (e-1) in the army, enlisted on June 28, 1945. The war ended on Aug. 15 of the same year.

What does "captives" mean? They are the soldiers kept in double barbed wire all around, always under surveillance. Their lives depend on how a foreign country will handle them. Thus, they barely keep living with poor food, coldness, toil, malnutrition, the pechka that does not get fired up, using comfort stations without any partitions. In addition, there is no reward for such horrible experiences, even if they make it back home alive.

Here is my personal history.

1) I was born in Unezaki, Zenikame villege in Kameda county. I entered Uga elementary school in April, 1932, and transferred to Tobuchi elementary school in January, 1936. I graduated in March, 1940.

2) In April of the same year, went to Tokyo alone, went to the evening cram school while working during the day, and then transferred to an evening middle school in April of the following year.

3) In Feburary 1941, WWII began. After graduation in March, 1945, I went home. In June of the same year, I was enlisted as an active duty soldier in Odomari. In August, 1945, the war ended. In October of the same year, I was taken to Siberia as a detainee.

4) In August, 1947, I was demobilized. In April, 1948, I was employed at the office of Sahara village. I retired in December, 1986.


2. Memories of My Life during the Siberian Detainment in Summer and Winter

In Siberia, I was hospitalized twice--once for two months because of frostbite, and six months after that because of malnutrition. Before the hospitalization, all of my hair was shaved off to prevent the outbreak of lice. It was unbelievably painful when the nurse in apprentice who looked sixteen years old tried a shot into a blood vessel, missing it several times. She seemed to be practicing on me, but she looked really sorry each time she missed it. She was a charming girl.

I had difficulty with the toilet. There was only one place for it and there was no division for men or women. Once I opened the door and a female doctor was inside. I was scolded. (in 1946)

"Vse, hleb yest?"--"OK. Do you have bread ?" the manager of the interment camp asked us after we got on the truck. "Yest, yest."--"There is, there is." we responded loudly all together. He said "Rabota, horosho, skoro domoy."--"Work, good, going home soon," smiling with his yellow teeth showing completely. When the engine started, our truck shook in the fresh summer morning and went off. From above the truck, I saw white walls of houses where people were still enjoying their morning sleep, tanned faces of blue-collar workers going to work at factories, carrying hammers in their hands, reddish-brown chimnies for pechka, a chubby madam still in her pajamas, opening the curtain, and piglets running around here and there. All those things of a morning scene were quickly left behind as the truck kept running. Finally, the truck arrived at a brick factory. That was where we were supposed to work for the week.

"Zdraste."--"Hi."--our deep voices without any emotion, sounding like flattery. "Zdraste! Zdraste!--"Hi! Hi!" --women's lively, bright and clean voices. Work began right away. The women were female prisoners who were transferred from a far away place, the Ukraine. They were working in the nearby kolkhoz - a collective farm. They were also pushed inside the detention facility surrounded by double barbed wire entanglements, and were commuting to that place every day. I heard that they were political criminals who helped the enemy during the war with Germany. It had been three months after we came to this farm, and it was covered with green all over the place. When the lunch break came, a single piece of rye bread was the total amount of lunch we brought in our duffel bags. There were some people who ate this single piece of rye bread for lunch during breakfast. For those people, lunch was only half the amount of soup that filled a duffle bag.

A horse-drawn coach rider came to pick up bricks. He told us he would get wages according to how many bricks he carried. When I talked to him, "Vse."--"hello," he immediately responded saying,"Yoboy mat!"--"Mother fucker!" I asked him why he got so mad, and he explained to me it was because he would lose his count of bricks. Even though I told him I would be able to count everything after he finished stacking them, he did not believe me. So, I actually showed him how to do that and told him to count again when he took them down for confirmation.. When he came back, he said "Horosho! horosho!"--"Good! good !" and wanted to shake hands with me.

The following day, after he finished stacking, he said, "Yaponskiy soldat idi syuda."--"Japanese soldier, come over here." "Yeshe raz."--"One more time." He asked me to show him the counting method one more time. He looked very puzzled as he watched how I did it. I was not sure if he got it. I realized he did not know how to calculate 45x12x8.

He told me that they were not allowed to own their own horses. Their horses were all loaned to them by their country.

I wonder if the day I return my home will really come or not. The day I can step onto the land of my home country, the day I can just lay across the floor on the straw mats in my own house, and the day I can do anything I want to do without anybody complaining to me... When I thought about those things, tears rushed out of the inside of my closed eyelids, and they slowly dropped down to my cheeks that were blazed down on. (in August, 1946)

On days off, a mournful melody would start to be heard from a corner of someone's bed. Then everyone would begin to sing together.

As the dusk drew near, my endless anguish came back

Your shadow comes back to my disturbed heart.

Oh how much I miss you! Your lips do not fade away.

But the night advances again, only with my tears overflowing.

The titles of other songs I remember dearly are "The Town on the National Border," " Adoring Your Shadow," "The Life in a Back Alley," and "Everyone Longs for Home." "The Hill in the Foreign Country" I think was a hit in the year I came back. (1948)


3. Actual Conditions of the Labor

In the middle of October, 1945, I was put onto the cargo ship at the port of Odomari in Sakhalin, and was taken to Nikolaevsk in Northern East Siberia. That is where I was detained. It was at the mouth of the river Amur, but I did not know the real name of the area where the facility was located. I heard there were altogether about three thousand Japanese soldiers from the units in the Northern Kurile Islands, Northern Manchuria and Sakhalin. I remember there were boys who were members of the Courageous Pioneer Group who went to Manchuria from Japan to cultivate the land. It seemed that they were not able to escape from Manchuria with their families at the end of the war, and were forced to wear the military uniforms in order to add to the head counts.

On the day we arrived the river Amur froze, which meant there would be no method of transportation until the snow melted in the following spring. The first labor was to cut firewood for pechkas. We had to use a huge saw we had never seen before, and to reach the quota for the day. If we didn't reach it, the amount of supper was going to be affected. Another labor was to break the big frozen logs in the river, pick them up and carry them to a factory. The shivering coldness was indescribable. Thus, the first winter was just impossibly harsh. When the temperature was below minus thirty centigrade, the labor outside was cancelled. However, if the temperature rose even a little bit, we were taken to the labor for carrying logs into the factory and to scrape off rust on ships. That labor was called "the repetitious crawling job."

After the war, we were still wearing second-hand underwear, long underpants, spats, military clothes and military boots. Because the Russians did not like lice, they made efforts to prevent them. For that purpose, we had "bathing" time every fifteen days. We were given two bucketfuls of hot water, just enough to wash off our dirt. It only took twenty minutes. When we got out of the bathroom, we were to wear the same underwear that were sterilized while we were bathing. After they were washed, they were steamed in a very high temperature to kill all the lice. To my surprise, lice would never been seen until we came back home. All the underwear were the ones originally made for the Japanese army.

When the ice in the river melted and the ships began coming into the port, loading and unloading labor began in two shifts, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Assorted grains, flower, sugar, dried vegetables, and tobacco were the main items. By far, flower to make bread was the most in quantity. When I became so hungry, I used to make a hole at the bottom of the flower bag, take some flower out and put it into my mess kit, knead it with the river water and eat it. After continuing it for a few days, I ended up with diarrhea. Sometimes, a ship full of coal came from Sakhalin. At such times, we put a big sheet at the ship's hold and pulled it up to the wharf. Russians were in charge of operation of the machines. When we finished the task, everyone's faces were all tanned.

We also took care of the roads in town. After snow melted, there were quagmires all over the place. Our job was to dig that area, filled it with gravel, and lay rocks that we cut out of the nearby mountains. Whoever was experienced in carpentry and plastering was taken to house construction. Others without any particular skills were put into the labor of digging holes. In any job, we were given a quota for the day, but it was impossible to attain it 100%.


4. Management of Everyday Life

We all believed that people who worked hard would get more food. Because of that, gradually, we were pushing ourselves too much. Nonetheless, what we got for supper was only soy beans, pinto beans, kaoliang, and mash for horses. In the beginning, we were sharing one mess kit full with four of us, and then soon, the same amount for six of us. While someone was dividing it into equal amounts, others were staring at it holding their breath. In addition to this, all we got was a little half mess kit of salt soup with a small portion of herring and vegetables.

Staple foods such as soy beans, kaoliang and mash changed every three days. For breakfast and lunch, the only thing we got was three hundred grams of rye bread and half a mess kit of herring soup. We found field grasses such as onion and Japanese mugwort to mix in it. Breakfast and lunch for the following day were given after the supper, but we all ate everything before going to bed. Then on the following day, we only had soup for breakfast and lunch. In the middle of starvation, reasoning abilities were lost, and our stomachs continued to be totally empty on top of the complete fatigue after the labor day after day. The dawn came after such a sleepless night.

Starvation moved away human ethics and stealing others' bread was nothing. While everyone was out for labor, they exchanged their belongings such as watches, fountain pens and mirrors in order to get a piece of bread. Sometimes finding frozen potatoes on the road was a good luck. Humanity became the victim of the illusion of starvation. While longing for going home, the only thing we could do to feel our stomachs full was dream.


5. Democratic Movement

Until our food conditions came under control, communism and democratic movement did not come up, except for certain people. Our place was a quiet area in the middle of democratic movements in other parts of the detainees' camps. The so-called "Japan Newspaper"– a propaganda rag for communism in the name of "information on Japan"– was only circulated among us once in a while.


6. The Deceased

It was impossible to work in the freezing cold weather below minus thirty degrees centigrade. In the area of the river Amur, it would even go below minus forty degrees centigrade. The only thing we could do to survive in that weather was to keep stamping while standing. In such bad conditions, we still had to work, and cases of frostbite grew one after another. Mitsuhiro Tamagawa, my war buddy who was the same age as I was, died on Dec.25, 1945 because of the frostbite all over his body. There were many others who died due to injury, acute pneumonia, malnutrition, and scurvy. During the two years up to the day of the return to Japan, almost a hundred and fifty people died, I heard. Russians took away the corpse of my buddy, Tamagawa, carelessly as if it was luggage or something. There was a comrade who was made to dig a hole for him in the snowy wilderness. I never heard that a grave-marker was made for him.


7. Residence

The detention facilities had been used as prisons for ordinary local people who were sentenced to more than ten years of imprisonment with hard labor in Siberia. The facilities seemed to have been repaired a little bit so that we could come in. They were made of logs, and the walls were painted with mud both inside and out in order to prevent a draft. Staying inside was, therefore, rather comfortable.

During winter, I think there were about five hundred people kept in one house. It was communal living with some pechkas and firewood. The toilet was about thirty meters away from the main building. A hole of three meters in depth was dug, and a piece of plank was simply placed without any partition from other people. Since the length of the building was about thirty meters long, thirty of us could line up all at once to take care of our business. 


8. Break and Medical Facility

May Day, National Foundation Day, and War Victory Memorial Day were considered holidays. Those were the days we did not have to work. Regarding the medical facility, there was a clinic inside the camp where a Japanese military phisician and a Russian physician were stationed. People who needed hospitalization were taken to the hospital in a town.

I was one of the victims of frostbite. Due to that, my big toe on the right foot was amputated three centimeters. As I watched it happen, I was expecting to see the same operation on my left foot as well, but, luckily, it did not occur. I was really relieved. In retrospect, the right toe did not have to be amputated. The medical facility, tools, and techniques were amazingly inefficient compared to what I was used to in Japan. I remember the stethoscope used to examine my chest had a simple horn shape a child might use as a toy. I had to stay in the hospital in town first for two months due to frostbite. Then, six months later, I went back there again because of malnutrition. I stayed there for three months then.


9. Personal Belongings

After the disarmament, some of my personal belongings were taken away by Russian soldiers. It happened while I was away for forced labor. In addition, as I was going in and out of the hospitals, almost all my personal belongings got lost. As a result, my only posession was a canteen when I arrived back in Japan.


10. Recollection

On January 7th, 1989, the Showa emperor passed away, and the long Showa period came to an end. Every mass media outlet reported how his life ended with a recollection mentioning the virtue of his long life with complicated twists and turns.

The following day, a new era began with the new name of Heisei. As I watched the TV and witnessed a lot of people crowding all over the place in the Nijyubashi plaza in front of the palace, I had new thoughts about the deceased emperor. Many of those who patiently waited for their turn for the registry in order to show their sadness for the death were from many different local areas in Japan. They apparently made special trips to Tokyo for that purpose. It was totally unlike the action obeying the order which came from up above during the war because everyone was there of their own will, showing their true sadness on their faces. They must have thought about the emperor's face full of affection. The look of the procession of grief touched my heart as it showed the tender and genuine love Japanese citizens had for him. It seemed to me that the majority of people in the procession were born in Meiji, Taisho, and the early period of Showa.

Now, I am looking back my own memory – the awful experiences of hell called war, the misery of defeat in it, and the final return to Japan from Siberia after I was detained there for a long time. Suffering from a long captured life as a prisoner, becoming so thin due to malnutrition, a demobilized soldier came back home to Japan, only to find a homeland that suffered the terrible horrors of the war.

A long time ago, in 1943, there was a national funeral for Isoroku Yamamoto who was a general of the combined fleet. I had a complex feeling remembering that occasion. Admiral Yamamoto was a pacifist. He said Japan would only last two years or so in the war. I heard that the Showa emperor himself became very concerned when he passed away. After his passing, the emperor was particularly worried about the situation in the war. To his surprise, the former Soviet Union that had had a non-aggression pact with Japan, which nobody imagined attaking us, declared war all of a sudden, breaking through the Japanese Kwantung Army and the border of Sakhalin. As a result, a part of Sakhalin became a battlefield. On August 15, 1945, regardless of the claim by radio broadcast accouncing the end of the war, wartime fire continued around Maoka, the border. Many people died there.

I remember thousands of people who gathered in Odomari port, making lines for boarding for the evacuation boat in silence. They were all tryng not to be late for the departure of the boat that would at least save their life. They were the people who were chased away from their homeland. People in Sakhalin had not had any difficult experiences like people in Hiroshima and Tokyo until then. They were the ones who were able to continue rich and peaceful living. They did not know why they had to leave their land all of a sudden. Everyone was having very complex feelings. I cannot believe all this happened half a century ago.

On August 18th, 1945, I glanced at my mother and younger brother at Odomariminami. At that time, how much I wished to board the ship heading Hakodate, my parents' home, but it was impossible to escape from an organization, let alone as a soldier.

However, it was the crossroads of my destiny, and I had no idea I would become a prisoner and be taken to Siberia later. By the way, there was another crossroads of peoples' destinies. The ship that took my mother and younger brother arrived safely, but, Taishinmaru, the next ship that left Odomari port, was attacked by a Russian submarine, and it ended up sinking offshore of Rumoi.

On February 7th, 1990, I visited Tobuchi village, which was my second hometown, after forty five years. The town was called "Muraboebo" in Russian. The rugosa roses on the seashore and the stream of the lake was never changing, but to my surprise there was no trace of the village I used to know, and it just looked like a remote place that had no reflection of civilization. If it continued to be a territory of Japan, the place would definitely have become a center for sightseeing. Even the hamlet white Russian people used to live in was completely gone.

According to the people who still lived there, they became missing after the Soviet soldiers came in for occupation. The white Russians from the days of Imperial Russia came and began to live there after the Russo-Japanese War. Because they were living with the Japanese population, their destiny was not agreeable with the policy of the Red Army.

There, I was breathing the fresh air and was watching the horizon far away without an end. I thought about how I was born in the era of Taisho, worked so hard under the the upheaval of the Showa era, and had to experience the hell of the war and becoming a hostage. How limited my experiences were because all I could talk about was my experience during military service and the detainment in Siberia. I still have friends from my Sakhalin days in Hakodate and other places in Hokkaido and on the mainland. As our spouses pass away one by one, I feel really sorry for the ones left behind. A husband and wife still living together would not be able to understand how lonely it is to lose a partner. Even if we can imagine such a day will come sometime, the true loneliness will never be comprehended by those who have not faced it yet.

Nobody knows how many more years of life are left for us, so we should really cherish the remainder of our days.

We would finally know the value of parents, husbands and wives, and friends when they pass away. They all become parts of the stars in the sky, and there is not a star we can go to yet. We have no idea when any star becomes available for us.

As I thought about the above things, all of a sudden, I thought about my parents. My mother passed away at the age sixty-five on September 10th, 1961, on account of a sudden accident, and now I am older than that age. I will never forget the fact that she migrated to Sakhalin in the beginning of the Showa era, raised eight children in poverty, and went through the hardship of salvage. At her funeral, I kept crying leaning on her coffin. After that, my father endured loneliness even though my sister and brother took care of him. After being sick for a year, he finally went up to heaven on December 21st, 1970. It was the early morning when the stars in the big sky began to disappear one by one. He was watched by all eight children, and left his earthly life at the age of seventy-eight to go to where his wife was waiting.

I truly belive we owe the health of all eight siblings to the protection of our dear parents in heaven.


Foundation for Peace
Oral History of the Hardships by the Japanese Interned in Siberia Volume 15

Published in March, 22nd, 2005

Independent Administrative Corporation
Special Foundation for the Project for Commemoration of Peace
2-6-1 Shinjyuku, Shinjyuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Printing: Bunshodo Printing co.