My Story of Siberia -- Soichi Kuzuguchi

My Story of Siberia, by Soichi Kuzuguchi (Previous surname Nakamura), a resident of Gifu Prefecture


1. Hell or Paradise is at the Tip of the Finger

As it became colder in October and November, the numbers of sick people increased because of hunger and coldness. As the numbers of workers decreased by a lot, a physical examination was conducted suddenly, although the regular cycle was supposed to be every three months. It was because the officers in charge of labor were in need of securing the number of people who were lacking and wanted to find out who had recovered for labor. On such days, our departure time was delayed.

The health examination conducted there was not of a normal kind – it was not for the purpose of finding people who were sick or finding preventive measures for people who needed more help with their problems, but it was solely for their purpose of securing anybody who could be used for planned labor. Therefore, it was not an exaggeration to say the result would determine the destiny of our lives in the following three months.

After the examination, we were classified into the first, second, or third class. The class defined the type and difficulty of the labor. The first class was for the heaviest labor, and the second class was slightly lighter than the 1st. However, depending on the kind of the given task, even the second class people had to work almost like the ones in the 1st class, chased by the guards frequently, having to fulfill the amount of work that had to be completed that day.

The people in the third class did not have any quotas and were given odd jobs around the Russian officials’ residence. They just did whatever was assigned for the day at their own pace. Actually, there was another group called, “staying in.” They were extremely weak people and could not handle any labor. They were excused from any labor. This kind of labeling really made us wonder how the destiny of hell or paradise would be defined: the ones in the 1st class had to face heavy labor day after day, and began to feel unfortunate to have received strong healthy bodies at their birth, and the people who were in the third class or the ones determined as “staying in” would be able to have leisurely lives without any burden of cruel work.

December in Siberia was very cold—every day, it was below freezing. We had to get naked in a room without any heater and stand in line for a health examination. We felt extremely cold especially under the arms and around the genital area since we did not have any hair there – it was all shaved up in order to kill hair lice. We had goose bumps all over our bodies and had such a difficult time stopping the constant shivering of our bodies. The inspector was usually a female Russian military surgeon who was accompanied by a Japanese military surgeon. This is how the inspection went. One by one, we stood in front of her. Then she looked at us all around from the top of the head to the tip of our toes. Next, she said, “Maware, Migi! (Turn around!)” in poor Japanese. After that, she lightly pinched the muscles of our buttocks and pressed on the shin with her thumb. That was all for the examination. We all wanted to ask what she would really be able to find out in such unreasonable methods. It only took a few seconds for everything. When the shin was pressed and the dented area did not come back up, it was a ticket for the paradise – it was “passing.”

Doing my best not to shiver too much, I waited for my turn. Finally, it came. Her thumb pushed my shin just like it did the previous man. “I don’t think I am doing well…” when I thought so, her thumb pushed my shin again. After pushing twice, the female surgeon had to think a little bit, and then showed three fingers. It meant “third class.” At the inspection for drafting, I was the second class in the second group because I only weighed fifty-three kilograms at the time, and it was seven kilograms less than the first group. Now, I would be just about forty-seven or forty-eight kilograms if there were a scale. When I was wearing my clothes, the Japanese surgeon came close to me and said, “This is because of malnutrition. Take care.”

The following day, my life suddenly changed. I woke up at the same time, but did not need to go out to take care of a quota, and I could eat whenever I wanted to. Even though I did not qualify for a quota, the amount of food was not decreased – I got an average amount of food. I was pretty amazed at the fact I was not chased after for scheduled work, and was allowed to eat leisurely. It was so different. I pushed my shin and watched how the dented area of skin did not come back quickly, and then realized I was really the third group.

The people who were ranked as “staying in” had perfect rest, but the third group had to clean up inside the building, and some other lighter chores were assigned. After three days passed, the adjutant came to me and asked, “Are you interested in being in charge of distribution of bread?” I immediately replied, “Please let me do it.”

Since everyone was interested in the working area that handled food, there were so many applicants for the job to work in the kitchen or to be in charge of distribution of bread. In the middle of such an atmosphere, getting appointed to one of those jobs was as if I met the Buddha in hell. It seemed two positions opened due to the fact two previous workers were classified as second class at the last health inspection and had to go back to work outside. The chief for bread distribution was a German. It was his fifth year as a hostage in the internment camp, and he knew everything about the place. I did not understand his language, but I learned everything by gestures, and enjoyed the life in heaven for three months in the midst of others’ envy. Even though I was lacking in nutrition, I did not have to make any particular effort to become better – munching rye bread, white bread, and sugar here and there really helped me to gain weight again.

Three months like a dream passed quickly, and the day of next health inspection was coming close. I knew I was completely back in shape, so I knew my destiny. Perhaps, the freedom I experienced eating as much as I could made me able to give up on the upcoming difficult experience. However, I can never forget how the hundred days I could live in the place like Eden made me truly become alive again.


2. Let’s Participate in a Democratic Movement!

Our life as internees was already in its third year. Everybody wanted to go back to Japan. Sometimes someone brought in seemingly reliable news of when to go home, but it went away, and new information came in to increase our hope. To our surprise, repetitions of such ways of living made us become a bit used to an uncomfortable life – we were starting to find a small amount of freedom in our lives.

Every time the health inspections took place, my friends were sent to other places and new friends came in. This changed human relationship quite a bit. What never changed was our strong desire to go home in the middle of all those changes. I was transferred to several different internment camps, and the most recent one was a huge place with three thousand people in it. It was in a town of coal mine, where most of us worked going down into the coal mine with three different shifts, but two hundred people could stay working in the sunlight from the morning till evening. I was probably standing in the right place in the line when I was told to be in the small number of people. I worked at a casting factory for the wheels for the rail car. My job was only to carry the completed products outside. Although there were quotas, it was not hard because we worked in an assembly-line system. I actually did it quite leisurely, and could even make some time of my own. That is the period I enjoyed, melting aluminum to make spoons, as a side job.

As this new way of living started, a so called “democratic movement” began to grow in the camp. In the beginning, our daily life was governed by the commissioned officers in charge of the labor. They demanded cruel quotas to keep us on our toes, but as the country became financially better off, the food distribution became steady.

After we secured minimum amount of food, the next thing we wanted was something to read. I found out that there was a newspaper for the Japanese, called, “Japan Newspaper,” but the leaders of our troop cut it up to use it for rolling cigars. They said, “This is only propaganda for communism. It would have a bad influence on the soldiers if they read it.” or “We don’t have enough paper. Make sure to distribute the same amount of paper to everyone.” It was beyond our wishes to have access to any commercial newspapers in the Japanese army. They probably thought such newspapers to brainwash people with the communist philosophy should not be read anyway.

Although “the Japan Newspaper” mostly vanished in the smoke of cigars, it gradually began to generate discussion such as “a voice to improve the lifestyle” or “the problem of our structure.” However, not too many people in my camp were really interested in the movement because there was not any unity of people for the fact they were just gathered from all over the place, and the biggest interest they had was how to secure time to sleep after coming back from the coal mine, after working in three shifts. The purpose and the guidance of the movement was apparently initiated by the Soviet side, but they were very good at creating the appearance as if it was started by the hostages themselves, and that it was their willingness to go on that way. After some time many books were lent to us and placed in the committee room of the main quarters. The titles of the books I remember were: “The history ofcommunists in Japan,” “The Doctrine of Marxism-Leninism,” “The Dialectics of Materialism,” and “The History of the Russian Communist Party”, and so forth.

Since I had a different schedule from the workers in the coal mine, and was able to go back to the camp by early evening, I began to go to the library and read “The Japan Newspaper” that was delivered regularly and the above mentioned books.

In the spring of 1948, the first political workshop in this region was held. The speaker came from the Japan Newspaper Company in Khavarovsk. He screamed, “Overthrow the Emperor system!” in a very violent manner, and said, “Come together under the flag of communism!” or “Don’t forgive the reactionaries because they are the hounds of capitalism!” We were all listening, just surprised. A few days later, however, I don’t know how we were chosen, but I and two others were chosen to attend the political school of the region several days after we attended the workshop. I wondered if our seriousness was well taken or what?

The following day, I carried my small belongings, one duffel bag and left with two other colleagues for the central gulag of the region. I recall there were about thirty of us that had gathered from different camps in different regions. We took eight hours of intensive classes every day, and participated in discussions and group meetings in the evenings. Groups for the meetings were made based on careers before the war was over, and I was classified in the group above middle school graduation. Then one-month short intensive education started.

The staff at school were organized by both the Soviets and the Japanese. The Japanese staff were experienced people who were educated in the long-term school in Khavarovsk and Moscow. One person who described himself as a former college professor said, “Let’s have a haiku-poetry meeting in the camp.” After that we started to meet once a month for the meeting, Soviet officials noticed it, and made us dissolve. He said to me whisperingly, “I studied in the Khavarovsk long-term school for three months and am now lecturing ‘the history of Russian communist party’ to you. Please watch so that you study a little bit anyway because you will be considered as reactionary and an enemy if you don’t listen to us.

The attraction of the political school there was the wonderful condition that we became totally excused from any sort of labor. The camp itself was far better compared to all the other ones I had stayed – it was large scaled camp with a big eating area. We also received regular amount of food. The environment was quite satisfactory. In addition to the Japanese book about “A short history of the Soviet communist party” for quick education of the ideology, other printed materials to study more about the Soviets were distributed at every lecture. After the lectures during the daytime, discussions often followed in the evening.

It is something about fifty years ago – my memory has faded and some things remained just as dots, and they don’t make a line of a story any more. So I don’t recall how we learned the theory of communism back then. I was just so surprised that so many people, one after another, were so willing to show the Soviet generals how they had become “great socialists”. I could not believe the number of people who converted. I was hesitant, but I just followed them until the end.


3. “The Song of the Red Flag” that We Kept Singing

In May, 1948, I went back to the camp after attending the district workshop. On the following day, the order came to begin activities to spread the democratic movement. “The activity” only meant the diffusion of the Japan Newspaper: I was supposed to be going around the unit advertising the newspaper, sometimes reading it and giving explanations to people who came back from work. For people who thought the Japan Newspaper was the best thing to use for rolling tobacco, the resistance made it impossible to become familiar with the content.

Fortunately, our camp was a mish-mash of people from all over the place. A lot of them believed, “we are all interned people, and are equal as human beings.” It was about time to see the growth of the democratization by the movement to remove the rank insignia from the old Japanese army system. The labor conditions did not change, but the way the distribution of food was given changed tremendously – more accomplishment of the quota would promise the application of the special distribution system for the coal mine workers with heavy labor. It was my impression that their real purpose was to make us work more to secure more production. In other words, they were just utilizing the old Japanese army unit organization to their advantage. Thus, the introduction of the democratic movement in my unit only seemed to be political propaganda, and nothing else.

Labor conditions, food, and the cruelty of the Soviet management must have been slightly different depending on the camp. In my camp, at this point, we had not experienced the strange “democratic movement among the Japanese,” which meant a bitter fight among the Japanese themselves to prosecute one another.

The Siberian summer with short nights came again. At three in the morning, the short summer night had already become bright. One early morning in early July, my camp was covered with loud joyful noises, saying, “It is the time for Domoi (going home)! It seems the names will be announced!” Soon after that, the names of seven hundred people to go home as the first group were announced at the main quarters.

Physically-weak people got the priority. There were also a couple of people in each unit who were the supporters of the democratic movement – luckily, I was counted in that group and got the ticket for Domoi. This time, it finally seemed like it was true. Barely eating rye bread for breakfast, I went out of the gate of the gulag I had become so used to with light steps.

Many freight cars with covers linked one after another were waiting for us at the railway. We all fit into a double bunk and went through the green Siberian wild fields in the summer sun. However, we began to find out that the article in “the Japan Newspaper” was not false as the Domoi trains came into the far east area – at every station where the train stopped, the Japanese who called themselves as “actives” rode the train and went around to measure the degree of our “democratization.” When some knowledgeable people tried to argue with them and when they actually made more sense, those actives screamed, “If you are at such a low level, I can not recommend that you go back to Japan! I have to send you back to the punished group!” and left. I wonder if it was retaliation because he was not able to go back to Japan yet himself. I did not see any bit of compassion for welcoming and sending off their fellow countrymen in them.

The lake Baikal was so beautiful that day as I watched it, not knowing where I was going to be taken. The small waves seemed to have been singing a song of blessings for me. We kept singing every folk song and popular song possible as we were looking at the scenery from the windows, but we were compelled to change the song we sang at that point. The actives who came on board from the station where the train stopped started to yell at us, “So can you guys sing ‘the Song for the Red Flag’?” They said, “We will teach you now. Everyone has to memorize!” After very poor instruction, they got off at the next station.

Although we were quite relaxed and kept talking and singing, the atmosphere suddenly changed. We all knew we had to get the “pass.” From each train, good singers were collected and the lyrics were written down. Then they started to train others. The closer we came to the Japan Sea side, the singing voices became louder and louder, mixed with fear from the stern look of the Siberian army.

“The red flag, the flag of the people wraps around the corpse of the soldier. Before the four limbs become cold, the color of his blood will dye the flag.”

Everyone of us was serious. Some kept showing the lyrics to each other and sang each word carefully, and some just pretended like singing because they did not know the lyrics.

“Make sure you sing well. If you are sent back to Siberia again, you will never be able to go home.” We encouraged each other.

“Hold the red flag high. Under the flag, live or die. Cowards should leave. We will protect the red flag.”

When the song finished, the leader said, “Let’s do a good job considering this as our final job for the past three years.” Others all replied, “Yes!” However, not knowing what would really happen, they could not hide the anxiety they had in their minds. Meanwhile, the train kept moving toward Nakhodka, to the final destination to gather, at the fastest speed ever.


4. Going Home After Work

I don’t know how many times I was deceived every time I heard the word Domoi (going home) was brought up. It was somewhat similar to the sadness of a woman who was damped by the man she thought was it. Finally, the minute the train we were riding actually arrived at a station where we could view the Japan Sea, there was the shout of joy, almost close to a moan, all over the places. I kept sighing without a reason when I realized I was really going back to Japan for sure.

The port of Vradivostok that faces the Japan sea is a well-known port from long ago. However, Nakhodka is a port that returnees from Siberia would never forget for the rest of their lives. The gathering point in Nakhodka was totally organized by the strict old Japanese army codes – the only difference was that the Emperor had changed to Stalin. Newcomers like ourselves were made to wear military uniforms. There was no way to be against their orders and shouting – we had to accept everything we heard. One of the actives said, “Once you are in this place, you must adhere to what we say. If you can not, you will be sent back to the camp you came from.” He was truly arrogant and bold.

In fact, there were some people who were sent back to Siberia after seeing the boat for the returnees, waiting at the port. We remembered a group of people who were waiting for the train to go to the other direction at one of the stations of Siberian railway. We felt strange when they did not respond at all even though we tried to talk to them. Now, we knew what was going on – after discovering that, air of tension covered us.

Until we actually got on the ship, we had to pass through four “tariffs”. The first one was the labor in and out at the first camp we were in. On our way to work and the way back, we had to line up properly and were forced to sing starting with “the song of the red flag” and all other kinds such as “the International Song.” We were aware that in the group of a thousand, there were two or three people who were considered not favorable by the Soviets. If I would be doubted to be one of them at the final place like this, it did not make sense at all. Thus, I made myself look like a democrat. Luckily, I was able to move from the first camp to the second one at a speed as if I werechased after.

Many of us traveled together so far, but at that point, there was no room to think about others any longer. I thought I had to be the first one to go to work, to scream as a member of the Democratic group, and to participate in the agitation. Everyone looked so serious as if they were facing a college entrance examination. If one of the comrades told of us, our names will be called and that is it. The atmosphere was very similar to how we were afraid of the Special Higher Police (police unit controlling political thought and expression between 1911-1945) during the war. Even during the rest period, I refrained from smoking. Instead, I sat in the circle with the Democratic group in order to finalize studying.

“Hurray to the Soviet Union, the home of the laborers!” “All the laborers in every country, let’s unite!” “Let’s appreciate Stalin, the great marshal!” and so on. If someone ever said, “That’s enough ! This is so silly…” he would be considered as reactionary. Therefore, everybody repeated whatever was said, and clapped enthusiastically. It was quite hard to pretend like that.

The ship only let us go aboard once every other day or every three days. Only two thousand Japanese were allowed to get in each time; nevertheless, the train from Siberia brought five thousand people every day. You can imagine how chaotic the gathering place was becoming. There were too many Japanese waiting to go home without knowing when their turn would come, and our destiny totally depended on the decision of the actives who held all the power. I felt I had to just rely on the luck. As I was hearing how it would go smoothly after we are transferred to the third tariff, thinking about the possibility of the Domoi coming so close to me, a voice from heaven came. “Everyone, carry all your belongings and move toward the third camp!” We shouted with joy.

At first, I was taken to the shower room. I got naked and washed my hair with hot water that was streaming out. When I came out of the room totally refreshed, all the clothes I was wearing were gone! Underwear and clothes that used to belong to the old Japanese army were what were given to me by someone in charge. Not only that but the aluminum spoon I made on my own, records of my comrades, pieces of cloth I was using to wrap around the feet in place of the socks, they were all completely gone.

Although the feeling after the bath was so comfortable, only the person himself would truly understand how much such lost things were missed – but it was no use regretting it. By the way they did all of these, I realized their complete methods to make sure to take everything away from us – first made us all naked, and set up the entrance and the exit in different places. What could I do? I could only give up what were taken.

The democratic group was so tenacious about giving a communist education to the end, and screamed that all of us should join the communist party once we make it back home. Therefore, everyone pretended as if they had become communists in order to move on to the forth camp, which was the last tariff. When our names were called and could finally go on board to the ship, we were truly relieved.

The morning of August 10th, the summer day was so sunny, and the Japanese ship, “Enshumaru” was docked next to the wharf.

Early July, I left the internment camp. After ten days of trip on the Siberian railway, I arrived at Nakhodka. Since that day until the day before last, I kept passing difficult points, and finally a Soviet man in charge of the camp read it aloud, “Soichi Nakamura.” My heart filled with joy, I climbed up the gangway. There I saw the Japanese flag of the red sun, waving at the end of the ship.


5. Reflection of the Internment in Siberia

The Soviet Union kidnapped approximately six hundred thousand Japanese army officers and common Japanese men and forced them into labor. Sixty thousand or a hundred thousand of them are considered to have died in Siberia, but the real number is not truly known to this day. The longest stay in Siberia was twelve years, I hear.

It was unlawful “kidnapping.” This action by the Soviet Union is clear misconduct against International Law. We were truly tortured by their unlawful action. However, I also have to admit how much difficulty was brought by the inner conflict among the Japanese themselves. It was all caused by “the democratic movement.”

The background for the movement is as follows. In Siberia, the order of the old Japanese army remained as was from the time of war, and the bad tradition of “bullying” doubled our difficulty on top of the oppression by the Soviets. The terrible lack of food and insane amount of the quotas were pressed twice or even three times heavier on the lower level soldiers. Therefore, they had a reason to stand up from their hunger and misery. Sometimes our luck depended upon the type of the leader in each camp, but the three years of captivity was truly trifled with pure destiny.

After I came back to Japan in the summer of 1948, it was not only once or twice that I jumped up from the terrible dream of captivity, screaming. When I woke and realized that I was already back in Japan, I was so relieved. Even now, Siberia is deep down there in my heart, and stays there as a carved seal I can not discard.


Foundation for Peace
Oral History of the Hardships by the Japanese Interned in Siberia Volume 16

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.