The fact that women were also taken to Siberia was not widely known until very recently. However, “The Testimony of a Nurse” appeared, as an article in the Yomiuri Newspaper on July 26, 2014. In addition, NHK (Japan Broadcasting Association) broadcasted two documentary series titled “Siberian Detainment for Women” in which the testimony of women who were taken to Siberia finally became public.
According to the above broadcast, Navy Captain Vladimir Galitsy of the Russian Military Academy spoke about women who were detained in Siberia for the first time and mentioned that there were 367 women (although not official) among the Japanese who were taken as prisoners of war at the time of the Second World War in the Far East. By November 11th in 1945, 102 of them were released, 110 were extradited to the Chinese government, and 155 were sent to the internment camps.
The reporters of NHK found eight files of Japanese women among the 700,000 official files of those who were detained in Siberia. It is very difficult to extract such files since there is no gender difference specified on each file.
Those women were mainly nurses who were not able to escape at the time hospitals were captured by the Russians, typists, secretaries and interpreters who had supporting roles in the army. According to Mr. Alexei Kirichenko, the president of Oriental Studies at the Russian Science Academy, Stalins intention to detain the Japanese was to secure a labor force to get abundant natural resources such as coals and iron ore in Siberia. He did not intend to capture women in his plan to detain a total of 500,000 Japanese. It probably happened based on the decisions made by site commanders: they took women as well if they happened to be there with men.
Among those women, there were some who became criminals judged under the title of “anti Soviet activity plan,” which was designated as a “crime of treason” based on the 58th Russian Criminal Law. As a result, there was a woman who could not go back to Japan for ten years, 1946 to 1955. Another woman was so scared of the possible treatment as a “former criminal” even if she was able to make it back home that she requested to obtain Russian nationality. She never went back to Japan. The Russian Law back then was so strict that even stealing a box of matches resulted in ten years of imprisonment. It was not fair for the Japanese to be judged under their law—they deserved to experience international trials instead. The Alexandrovsk jail where the above Japanese criminals were sent was in the extremely cold climate and it was a gloomy place where many prisoners died every day and corpses were piled up in the hall way.
In Kolkhozki village near Khabarovsk, there was a detainee camp that kept more than one hundred Japanese women. There is no longer a trace of such a facility, and hardly anybody remembers what happened there. Mrs. Galina Serebryanikova is one of a few who still has a memory of that time. She used to watch them digging potatoes and carrots during summer. “They were obviously foreign women, so I had a strong impression of them. While digging potatoes, they were all sitting on the ground, not like how we did it. They had a hairdo with a bun in a higher area, keeping it together with something that looked like a chopstick. They were all very young and beautiful. ” Since Soviet watch guards were always with them, they had no freedom. Nobody could go near them because of that.
In these two NHK documentaries, the aging Japanese women who were once taken to Siberia were urged to talk about their miserable experiences and memories as their critical testimonials. They are summarized as follows.
Haru Saito: She was seventeen and was working as a nurse in the army at the time of the detainment. She was taken to Khabarovsk for two years. When the Soviet army came, she had to part from her group and was told to move right away. There was a fear for being killed or assaulted at any time, and everyday, she was faced with the possibility of death and threat. Although she was told women were going to be sent back to Japan, she was taken to Khabarovsk, where she experienced a living hell. Especially, she remembers the fear and humiliation when all the women were told to become naked outside in the freezing cold weather. Soviet soldiers were there with guns to point at our backs if we would disobey the order. We were told to take showers inside the house, but all of us thought we might be killed there. When she was working as a nurse in a hospital for the Japanese detainees who became sick, she heard their last cry saying, “Mom ! ” every night. They soon died. She also remember with deep sadness how two boys who were fifteen years old were shot to death during their attempt to escape. Their frozen corpses were laid in the middle of the path to the toilet where all the detainees would see them every time they had to use the toilet.
Keiko Takaba: She went to Manchuria as pioneers with her family at ten, became a combat nurse at fourteen and received the same training as new soldiers. She remembers the lookout towers at the four corners of the camp, where they could see Russian soldiers holding guns. The place was surrounded by barbed wire. Women were taken to daily labor together with men.
Nobuko Terasaki: She was taken to the hospital for the detained Japanese men, where one thousand four hundred men were kept. One of the Japanese Army officer apologized to me for what had happened to me.
Fumi Matsumoto: When Soviets attacked Manchuria, breaking the Non-aggression Treaty with Japan, she prepared to escape shaving her hair off and wore a really big army uniform to look like a man. When she was captured by Soviet soldiers, they were told they were going to be sent back to Japan. Twenty women were put into one group and it was very frightening. They were all taken to a big hospital just for the Japanese, Teploe Ozero hospital. She worked there as a nurse.
Hideko Ota: She was fifteen at the time of detainment. She was put into forced labor outside without even gloves for her hands in the freezing temperature which was 22 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit. Even when it snowed, she had to go to get firewood. Soviet soldiers accompanied them with guns. Everyone was only fed a small amount of food like soy beans while they were forced to engage in harsh labor. Since she saw them dying one by one with malnutrition, she was not sure herself if she would make it. She felt unable to endure watching how corpses were being stacked in the snow. The head nurse had given her potassium cyanide, saying, “ If you have to, take your own life use this with dignity as a Japanese woman. Even if you try to defy, it would be no good.” Therefore, she was already prepared to end her own life with it to avoid embarrassment. However, she also had some warm memories with the local Russians as well. She still remembered a Russian song she sang with them, and also remembers how a Russian passenger on the train to Khabarovsk was so kind to invite her to sit down, saying, “Japanese girl, come here to sit with me.”
Ichiko Sasaki She was a typist in a government office in Manchuria, but was asked to serve as a nurse due to a nursing shortage. When the Russian army attacked, she decided to go with the Japanese army to help them as a nurse. She regrets that she did not see her father when he came to ask her to flee with the family. Because of that particular visit, he was late for the departure of the train which the other family members got on and was later killed. She remembers some Russian men were very friendly and kind. They often asked her if she had any man waiting for her at home.
Tomoe Inoue: Because her dear brother died in action during the war in Philippines, she volunteered to become a combat nurse to help the army. When the Soviets attacked, she continued to work with the sick Japanese soldiers who could not flee with the others by giving them their final shots into their veins. After they died and were taken to an under ground shelter, fire was set to the hospital.
Nobuko Terasaki: She remembers the difficult scene when Japanese Pioneers in Manchuria fled the attack of the local people right after the Soviet assault. They knew it would not be possible to flee because of the danger, especially those mothers with small kids. There were some reports of mothers mercy killing their children then committing suicide
Katsue Kogame: Having experience as a combat nurse and being a honcho for educating new combat nurses, she always took care of the women in her group after they were captured. She received potassium cyanide capsules for a hundred people from the army. Her most difficult experience was when one of her members was taken away by Russian soldiers screaming for her to help her. That woman’s voice has not gone away from her mind even to this day. As an eighty years old, she participated in the pilgrimage to Shikoku, looking for an answer for her grief which still remains with her to this day.
There is another painful memory. When one hundred and fifty women began to flee with the Japanese army, nurses were no longer needed, and the army felt too much responsibility to go with them. Therefore, she was told to dissolve her unit and tell everyone to fend for themselves. Knowing the extremely dangerous situation surrounding them, she insisted she would not do that. The plan was not put into force, however.
All these women were working with sense of pride and purpose as nurses, but what was waiting for them was the cruel experience of detainment in Siberia.
The next article publicized in Yomiuri newspaper further depicts the experiences of Mrs. Katsue Kogame.
(Summary and translation by Haruko Sakakibara)