Welcome to this Website !!
The tragedy of approximately 575,000 Japanese men whose lives were treated without dignity after WWII ended is relatively unknown outside of Japan. Their experiences were not even told openly within Japan. Therefore, English-language documents are hard to find. This English translation of the website "Japanese in Siberia" is my effort to fill in the information gap by presenting the English translations for the Japanese version of this website. War creates cruel destinies for many. Even though emotional wounds linger for a long time, learning what happend would be a way to pay respect to those who suffered. In this page I would like to describe why I chose this project and why it is important to me.
1) My Motivation
My late uncle, Takeo Kuba (Takeo Oshima before he was adopted), came back from his internment experience in Siberia in 1952. My other uncle who went to find him at the port of Maizuru for his long-waited return said his brother's face was difficult to identify since it had totally changed - and because all of his front teeth were gone due to the bullet that hit his mouth toward the end of the war, before he was taken to Siberia. Even though he was one of the fortunate to come back alive from Siberia, the rest of his life was covered with a dark shadow until he passed away of lung cancer. I remember my father's deepest concern about uncle Takeo for his life's continuing difficulties and my father's feelings of helplessnes for his dearest younger brother.
This year commemorates 70 years since the end of World War II, and the impact of the war and Japan’s place in history will continue to be discussed in the international arena. However, we must remember that there are decisions made at high government levels when any war takes place, the decisions which within the political leaders seek “merits” in their own eyes. What would then happen to the infinite numbers of innocent people who really don’t have any choice? They are made to become involved as soldiers and victims—and their lives are changed forever.
The period in which I grew up in Japan was after the war. Many families were still in deep sadness and pain after the loss of their loved ones. They were experiencing emotional and economic difficulties after losing the main workers for their households. In addition, to their dismay, a number of husbands, fathers or brothers still had not returned home because they were taken to Siberia for forced labor. Some of them never returned. Why did such a thing happen? After the war was over on August 15, 1945, soldiers became civilians. Then weren’t they supposed to come home to Japan from Manchuria? Why were the Soviets breaking the Japan-Soviet Union non-aggression treaty confirmed in 1941, which was to last for five years? By taking Japanese men to Siberia, they planned to construct their own land. They needed compensation for their losses in the war against Germany – without any consent, they recruited Japanese people to work for them, for they had a severe manpower shortage. Japanese men had disciplined work habits and good skills that they could rely on for fixing hydroelectric plants, building offices, homes, and theaters, taking charge of all the labor for coal mining, risking their lives, cutting wood in freezing weather, undergoing heavy physical labor for transporting logs and such with only a piece of rye bread and salty soup with small bits of cabbage leaves in it for their daily sustenance. They desperately looked for anything to eat in the fields and in the mountains – sometimes they even picked up something that had been dropped on the road. Malnutrition caused disease and starvation. In addition, they were easy to handle because they kept the Japanese military order of obedience – cruel destinies ruined Japanese men’s lives. They had to watch their share of the small amount of food divided equally among higher officers who did not work as much and the ones who were working daily until complete exhaustion.
How many people outside of Japan know about this unknown history of about 57,500 men who could not come back home, and were abandoned in Siberia (precisely speaking, all the areas in the Soviet Union) , facing unknown ordeals of the worst physical and psychological nightmare of their lives after their duties as soldiers were over? There were also some civilians taken from Manchuria just because they were there. This “Siberian internment” continued from 1945 to 1956. 55,000 died. Now the remaining former forced internees in Japan are 90 years of age or older, but how many young people within Japan have heard about their hardships that existed before Japan was able to form the peaceful society they live in?
The reason why the facts about the Siberian internment have not been talked about much and have been almost “buried” in Japanese history are numerous. Dr. Andrew E. Barshay at UC Berkeley, one of a handful of researchers on this topic outside Japan, states, “Japanese gulag returnees themselves were never silent: just ignored, at least until they began to organize themselves into a number of (sometimes factions of) communities of memory. ” According to what I have found out, the first reason was because of the Japanese traditional cultural value of despising “shame.” Even though deep wounds existed among the returnees, it was difficult for them to cope with the sense of “shame” for the fact they were imprisoned even though they did not commit any crime. In their military training, they were educated that “death” was more honorable than “surrender.” Therefore, they were put into the toughest of dilemmas, and their silence was maintained.
Another reason, I think, was the sense of “guilt.” The ones who made it home had to leave behind the corpses of their friends who died during the ordeal. Their inner difficulties lingered because of the extreme sadness they experienced when their comrades fell and died, and when they could not even make satisfactory tombstones in the frozen land of Siberia. Sometimes they had to go to the next camp, leaving a mountain full of frozen dead bodies behind them.
Another condition was due to the “ideological education” initiated by the Soviets with their intentions to send some Japanese people back home to support Soviet political efforts. People who would be easy to be brainwashed were carefully chosen, and this began to create a split in the Japanese community. In most cases, they were told they could go back to Japan earlier than others—which was the biggest bait for anyone. This way, the Soviet “communist education” challenged their belief of the maintenance of army hierarchies. As a result, camp communities became chaotic with arguments. Many returnees state that this conflict within the Japanese community was the most trying experience that happened during their hardships. When a fraction of such people arrived in Japan and tried to speak up, it was immediately picked up as a “red flag” and affected all the lives of returnees after they finally got back home. It affected their efforts to get started again, getting jobs. Sometimes, to be accepted, they had to hide that they came back from Siberia. I have heard about a family who found some small belongings from the Siberian internment days from deep inside a den after a grandfather passed away—he did not speak a word about it even to his family.
I would also like to add the fact that “patience with silence” is viewed as dignity in the Japanese culture. They are not taught to ask questions because the conformity has been an important part of the social order in the society that started with the “cooperation” for rice farming in ancient time. Therefore, “complaint” is forbidden. Because of all of these reasons, it took a long time until the internees finally began to reveal what they experienced in Siberia. Considering most of the internees are already in their 90’s, the time is running out to hear more about it, and it is vital to spread the stories of their hardships.
Having lived outside Japan for over thirty years, I have seen how information about Japan during WWII has been broadcast in mass media here in the US. Sometimes, the content is stunningly painful to watch. However, I have never heard or seen any film or news about the Siberian Internment. Hence, I decided to make a bilingual website that will provide general information about the tragedy in Siberia. This is something I can do, utilizing my experience in the languages I have acquired to speak, write and teach in my lifetime.
Although I grew up in Tokyo without knowing what war was really like, the weight and the darkness of the war was a part of my childhood because I had uncles who died in action, heard stories about the big bombing raids of Tokyo by the American air forces and my parents' experiences during evacuation, heard about my cousin who died in infancy due to the lack of milk, and heard about my aunt and uncle who died of tuberculosis without appropriate medication available. Among all those, the life story of my uncle Takeo, who came back from Siberia, impacted me greatly. He was a handsome uncle who spoke clearly and slowly. Even though he busily worked as a writer at the Asahi Newspaper, sometimes as a special correspondent stationed in Moscow, or as a columnist, he never wrote anything about his time in Siberia. According to my father, his caring and happy disposition was totally changed when he returned. He was a student of Christianity in the philosophy department of his university when he was drafted, but he totally lost interest in it after his return. What happened to him? Why did he not write or talk about it at all? The answers will never be completely understood by us. However, instead, I would like to write. That is something I can do even if I am not a historian.
In the early period of my research for this work, I was introduced to Mr. Hideo Aeba, the former director of the Japan Association of Forced Internees, through Prof. Yuko Kobayashi, my lifetime mentor from my school days at Tokyo Women's Christian University Junior College at Mure campus. Out of the many valuable materials I received from him, "Long Way to Go Home" by Mr. Isamu Yoshida, became my first core book to work on. His powerful and realistic pictures serve as “graphic photos” in our process of learning what they really experienced. More books and articles have been forwarded from Mr. Kazunori Yoshida, the successor of Mr. Aeba after his passing. Without the strong guidance and support from them, I would not have been able to go on with this work. I should note, however, the encounter with Mr. Hideyuki Aizawa, the president of the association in the summer of 2014, that crucially impacted me. I had never met a 95-year old person living with such passion, still trying to spearhead all the efforts to bring information about the forced internees still scattered in the former Soviet Union in order to negotiate with the Russian government. Even with his dreadful time of imprisonment in the Soviet Union for wrongful reasons, the rest of his life has been spent positively in order to make a better society for the people of Japan as a leader in government, as an active lawyer and his service as a board member and director of multiple philanthropic activities. His fine example can lead us to believe in hope no matter happens.
2) Other purposes of this Website
In addition to the above, I have a few more reasons to pursue this project. The Japanese-American internment camp experience during WWII was a very influential element. Since I moved to California after getting married to my husband, Jonathan, I have been immersed in the Japanese American society in California. I have to confess I was not even aware of the "Japanese-American relocation" when I came to the US —we did not learn it in our history classes in Japan. Concisely speaking, due to Presidential Order 9066 after Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack, approximately 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry who resided on the west coast of the US were sent to ten different relocation camps. They were only allowed to take two suitcases per person – they lost all other possessions which they had worked so long and hard for. In the assembly centers, they were given horse stables to live in, and their living quarters were surrounded by barbed wire. They were treated as criminals with guards watching them. In other words, they were suddenly forced to live a life of humiliation. Nonetheless, they continued their patient endeavors and won trust as productive citizens in the US after they came out of the camps. It did take time for the internees to begin to speak about their ordeal, because of the same reason as the delay of Siberian internees to speak—they could not talk about their “shame.” However, after intense efforts of the younger generations, more and more accounts have been published regarding experiences in American society.
Over the years, I have realized that the trust the Japanese-Americans have earned in the US with their tears and tireless efforts have transferred to the trust for the people in Japan, as they have the same “Japanese” faces. What if my fate was different and I was to come to the US before the Pearl Harbor attack? In reality, I came here in 1980, and my years in the US have been calm. I have endless appreciation for the unseen endurance my fellow Japanese-American friends have gone through in American society. To them, I would like to dedicate my effort of translation of Japanese into English, since most of them do not read Japanese any more. The Japanese-American internment and the Siberian internment of Japanese men are incidents of violation of human rights that happened to the Japanese people in modern history. Both tragedies are cases in which “people without choices” lost the control of their own right to pursue happiness.
What I have collected here in my website is just a segment of information about the Japanese men interned in Siberia. There are over 2,000 published books and articles written in Japanese as well as art, poetry and paintings regarding their captivity. If one goes to the Maizuru Repatriation Museum in Kyoto prefecture, one can be immersed in the experiences of how their lives were in Siberia since they have an impressive collection of historical artifacts and print history. I hope my attempt will be like an invitation for you to open the door for more research of your own.
Lastly, I would like to mention my other passion. I taught English to high-schoolers in Japan and have been teaching English as a Second Language and Japanese in the US. Learning a new language is the beginning of a delightful exploration that will stimulate endless curiosity. Therefore, contribution to the materials for such language classrooms has been on my mind. They can also be used as historical and cultural reading materials. The bilingual aspects can be tools for translation exercises as well. In other words, this website can be used as the source of core materials for graduate school, college and high school classrooms.
3) My Personal Words
This is a work-in-progress website – I will continue to add information as it comes. Truthfully, working with the materials for this website has not been easy. Heartbreaking and agonizing images of the experiences in Siberia struck me and caused many sleepless nights. How could they keep going on? How could they endure such fates? The questions did not stop. However, as time passed by, I started to recognize my own growth. They experienced anger, isolation, fear, distress, misery, hunger, exhaustion, sorrow, helplessness, and despair – every possible feeling that would occur to a dispirited human soul.
Nevertheless, in between such images, I was able to spot warmth once in a while. For example, writings by formerly interned men testified to their difficulties but also pointed out how they found friendship with Russian civilians who, they found out, were living in poverty. When they found out their good luck of going back to Japan alive, they genuinely wished happiness for them and for a peaceful society without war. Another example is how the late Mr. Isamu Yoshida, the painter, transcended his heart to "harmony" and "love" in spite of such inhuman and cruel treatment he experienced as he contemplated his raw feelings during his efforts to express them in paintings. When his paintings were shown in three Russian cities including Vladivostok in 1992, one of the Russian visitors to the exhibit was truly astounded by the past history of her own country and said, “I want to cover my eyes. However, his works talked to the hearts of people.” In response, Mr. Yoshida commented, "I would like as many people as possible to come to see these paintings and feel the absurdity of a war." I am struck in awe of his big heart and his spirituality he reached. When these words come from those who were in the worst spot a human can be in, I think we are in the light of truth. I have come to understand that peace is created in each person’s heart.
It is my hope that the result of our efforts will increase people’s understanding of the Siberian internment. Lastly, I would like to mention my work is dedicated to Takeo Kuba (Oshima), my late uncle, who was interned in Siberia, and Shun Oshima, my late father, who encouraged me to study English since my youth and told me to “become the bridge over the Pacific Ocean.” I also would like to express my deepest appreciation to my husband, Jonathan, for his encouragement, understanding, and warm support for this long period of time.
August 15, 2015
Haruko Oshima Sakakibara
Lecturer in the Japanese Program
Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures
University of California, Davis
I would like to express my deepest appreciation for the grant of $1,500 I received to construct this website from the Incorporated Foundation, Association of Forced Internees in 2007. I also would like to express my heartfelt appreciation to the generous support I received from the following members of Incorporated Foundation: Japan Association of Forced Internees:
- The late Hideo Aeba: Manager (furnishing books and other materials). His words, “Continuing the torch to the future” touched me and gave me strength.
- Kazunori Yoshida: Current manager (communication and research materials). His continuing caring and patient guidance has sustained my passion.
Credit also goes to the individuals listed below. Without the shared passion for the cause and the dedication of each person for their contribution and their understanding of my busy schedule, this website would not have been possible. Their input made my concept grow and guided the process of the entire work.
- Kevin Roddy, my former colleague at UC Davis
- Chris Graham, my former student in Japanese class and now a PhD candidate of Linguistics at University of California, Davis
- Yohei Kato, graduate school student of Sociology at University of California, Davis. I am deeply indebted to their trust in me and their skills in website construction.
I would also like to acknowledge the following individuals who kindly participated in the construction of this website. Without their enthusiasm, this work would not have been possible.
University of California, Davis
- Kevin Roddy: web design, English editing, (1st phase)
- David Fahy: web design consultant (1st phase)
- Chris Graham: web design, English editing, map design (2nd phase)
- Yohei Kato: web design, Japanese typing, map design (2nd phase)
- Yu Hasegawa: web design, Japanese typing (2nd phase)
- Geoff Stratton: web design (2nd phase)
- Anthony Drown: web design guidance (2nd phase)
- Aaron Sikes: web design guidance (2nd phase)
- Tymofiy Zelenskyy: Russian language and map assistance (2nd phase)
- Anna Reznik : Russian language assistance (2nd phase)
- Rina Onishi: Japanese typing (2nd phase)
- Ji Young Kum: music score editing
- Dylan Beaudette; map research (1st phase)
- Preston Hartfield: scanning of drawings (1st phase)
- Thomas Deckert: initial web design support and scanning
Family and Friends
- Jonathan Sakakibara: video shooting, English editing
- Rugen Houston: technical assistance for making iDVD
- Hideo Morita: video shooting for Mr. Aizawa in Japan
- Yurie Sadoma: Russian language translation (1st phase)