Transfer to the Internment Camp
In June, 1964, Fumiko was crammed into a train for prisoners which looked like cages for animals. It left the station at Chita and went to Irkutsk. She could not move at all, covered with stench and suffering from thirst. It was the limit of what a human could bare, half-dead. Then she was made to transfer to another train where she was packed again with others in conditions worse than animals. She barely lived with her willpower. When they arrived at Novosibirsk, the prisoners had to walk under a blazing sun, and if they walked too slowly, guarding soldiers would come to yell at them, and dogs were used to bark at them. Villagers were watching them from afar, whispering to one another. When they arrived at a stopping point, they had to stay in crude barracks. Then again, they were packed into another train, went through another stopping point, and finally arrived at Akmolinsk prison camp #13 in Kazakhstan. In the building for female prisoners where Fumiko was assigned, almost a thousand female prisoners were kept. Another gulag for male prisoners was also next to it. “Gulag” was the term for forced labor concentration camps created for political opponents and prisoners of war in order to punish them. These gulags were described in detail in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 publication, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”.
Life at the Gulag in Kazakhstan
At the gulag, Fumiko was assigned to work in the embroidery factory. Her daily routine was as follows: she woke up at six in the morning and went to work at seven. They lined up in front of the gate and their names were called. At that time, the head of the guards always said, “Prisoners, watch out! Keep up with the orderly formation of marching while walking. Never go out of line. Never talk to each other. Never look away. If you go off your line to the left or right even one step, you will be considered as attempting to escape. Then the guards will shoot you without any warning”! After that warning, they walked to the factory for five minutes. There was a short break for ten minutes at ten. At noon, the morning work ended, and they went back to the gulag to have lunch. It was the same everyday: rye bread, soup, and rice gruel with one drop of oil in it. At one in the afternoon, the work resumed and ended at five. Dinner was always the same except for occasional additional salad with pink color which had cut up cabbage, carrots, and sugar beets in it. At nine, was the last call and the lights were turned off at ten. Although there was barbed wire all around the gulag, there was more sense of freedom during the free time compared to how it was in the in Chita.
As for the life in the gulag, she wrote, “Meals here were terribly poor. There was no taste in the soup, and all I found were hard salted cabbage and carrots. When I could not even find a piece of potato after mixing it with a spoon, tears came down. There was so much joy for the freedom of being able to go to the bathroom, but the structure of the restroom was so strange. On both sides of a passage, there were seven or eight round holes lined up without any partition. When I squatted down, I almost touched the person next to me. Sadly, there was no place to wash hands. When I watched carefully, I found many women from Kazakhstan. In the Soviet Union, they called these minority peoples “Asiata,” implying they were lacking in cultural qualities. In the gulag, there were many different groups of people in addition to the Soviets. They were German, Romanians, Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Chechnya’s, Tatar, Turkmen, Azerbaijan, American and French” (Fumiko was the only Japanese). What kind of crime did they commit? She was not too knowledgeable about how things were in the Soviet Union, but she felt something dark looking at all these women. She wrote, “There were more reasons that made me feel upset. As soon as I arrived at the gulag, a sweater and a few important pieces of clothing were stolen. What was more difficult was that my glasses were stolen. Only one pair of glasses that were so important for me! Since I had an astigmatism since I was fifteen years old, one moon looked like ten moons without glasses. I could not even work on embroidery. I was a tiny and shabby woman. I did not possess any attraction as a woman such as a beautiful face, abundant bosom, and good-looking legs. How many times I wished for more beauty looking into the mirror when I was young! However, I knew my lack of good looks had protected me so far. In the gulag, it was impossible for a young woman not to be sexually attacked. Therefore, I considered myself lucky for being unattractive”.
In the gulag, inspection of possessions took place once a year without any advance notice. All the possessions had to be taken outside, and everything including a straw mat and a rice bowl were lined up on the ground for inspection. During that time, what they had could be stolen, or if any item that is prohibited was found, more punishment was added. There was also an inspection for lice. Most of the lice died with hot air disinfection, but if they were found in hair, the female prisoners had to have a haircut. Bed bugs were also inspected. If anything was found, a thorough extermination of bed bugs was ordered. However, they did not have any medication. The only method they had was to take out the bed board outside, carry them as high as they could, and then throw it onto the ground to shake them off.
Inside the barrack was unbelievably cold compared to the jail in Chita. There was only one small Russian stove per a hundred people, so Fumiko was shivering inside the room with only work clothes padded with cotton. The reason why the prisoners did not die of freezing cold inside the cabin with so many openings and no heating were because everyone was so tightly packed into the bunk beds. Everyone’s breath functioned as the only heat they had. During winter, Fumiko wore an arctic cap, army shoes, and coolie clothing designed for the old Japanese soldiers which she received at Shenyang. Since the clothing were made for men and were too big for her, it made her look very shabby. However, it did not make her feel embarrassed. She endured it thinking “this is only my temporary condition, and my real condition is somewhere else.”
She was able to take a bath once a week. To take a bath, she had to march in the snow to the bath that was one kilometer away from the gulag. When she fell behind in the march, the guards would yell at her. When they arrived at the bath house, everyone took off their clothes and they were disinfected with hot air. The nude female prisoners sat on the bench next to each other and were made to wait for about one hour. There were many different colors of skin, and all kinds of chatting took place. After a long and tedious wait, the door to the bathroom finally opened. They received a tiny piece of soap, about the size of an eraser, and ran into the bathroom without any bathing container. “Bathing” only meant receiving two full buckets of hot water in order to wash everything including hair and body. Then they had to go back on foot again on the road that was one kilometer long. By the time they arrived at the gulag, their bodies were completely cold again.
Girls from Ukraine
In the gulag, Fumiko was the only Japanese among a mixture of many ethnicities. In that environment, she looked at facts very carefully and rationalized the situations. She had an amazing ability to observe foreign cultures instead of simply lamenting on her own destiny. This showed her keen sensitivity to transcend the era she lived in.
In an excerpt from the book, Fumiko says, “Soon, Christmas came, but there was no program in the gulag. However, there was a religious atmosphere among the girls from the Ukraine. They wore prettier head covers than usual, white blouse with black sarafan dress, and were singing sacred songs in a group of three or four with pure voices. Most of them were working on cross stitches next to me in the embroidery factory. There were twenty to thirty of them. They braided their long hair beautifully, and some put them up like a crown. Then they covered their hair with a white bandana and tied it underneath their chin. They all had graceful facial expressions and were more refined than the Soviet women. I heard that they all belonged to an organization whose goal was the independence of their country and were sentenced to ten years in prison by article 58. They received parcels from their parents in the Ukraine from time to time. That’s why they were able to wear better clothes than the other female prisoners. They received letters from family as well. The way they indulged in reading such letters looked so beautiful, and I felt envious. However, they obviously began to worry if they did not receive any letter for one month or so. For the girls from Ukraine, their anxieties over their parents at home were especially serious for their political and economic safety. There were parents who were sent into exile or lost good jobs after their daughters were put into the gulag. They have seen such cases among their own comrades. Therefore, they thought some misfortune happened to their family if they did not hear from their parents for a while. As I watched their ups and downs, I began to think I was better off not having anything to do with receiving such a letter. My parents in Japan would not experience what the parents of these girls from the Ukraine were experiencing. I believed that my parents were receiving compassion from people around them for the fact I was imprisoned in the Soviet Union. I was sad that no letter nor parcel came to me, but once I gave up on any hope for that, I was able to accept it. After such a realization, I began to feel sorry for the girls from the Ukraine”.
Taken to the Hospital
Fumiko was not healthy to begin with, and around this time, her lymph node became swollen. She was taken to a hospital. When she saw herself in the mirror, her body had become emaciated to the point each rib was obviously showing like a skeleton. At the time of parting, big tear drops came down to the floor because she had to separate from her friend, Mania, who was teaching her Russian. During this time, Churchill was starting to call the area of Soviet domination the “Iron Curtain”. She was completely trapped inside that iron curtain. In that environment, if she tried to learn something, she could have been accused of being a spy. That made it extremely difficult to find out any facts even if she really wanted to know something that would benefit her. While she kept going in and out of the hospital without any treatment, the hard lump under her skin with fluid in it kept growing and she had eye mucus that never stopped. It was beginning to affect her eyesight. The only good thing in the hospital was that butter and milk were added to her meals, and she could find pieces of potatoes and a piece of meat in the soup. She also found a kind Russian female prisoner who taught her Russian. She was often embroidering in the hospital. Her embroideries were beautiful and had a very good reputation and other female prisoners, female guards and Soviet soldiers often made an order for her beautiful work.
She had slight hope for a sudden release because there was an inspector who came to observe how the people with serious illness were doing and announced a release from time to time. However, she soon came to understand that prisoners who were sentenced by article 58 would never be released. Upon learning that information, she was stricken with anxiety, sudden dizziness and pain. She felt as if her chest could burst.
While in the hospital, there was one male Japanese prisoner in the building on the other side. She had heard through him that most of the Japanese men had already been sent back to Japan.
After two years in the hospital, orders for her embroideries were still coming and she would earn some spending money that way. When she was leaving the hospital, the hospital chief asked her to make “Japanese Chrysanthemums”. One was pale pink and the other was a big yellow one. While she was working on it, patients came to look at it one after another and commented, “the flowers look as if they are alive in the sunlight”. The hospital chief was very grateful and served her tea. However, something sad also happened about that time. The Japanese lady, Ms. Tanaka, who happened to be together with her in the cell in Shenyang, was brought in with a serious case of tuberculosis. When Fumiko went to see her in a hurry, she found Ms. Tanaka had already died in the hospital. She thought of how Ms. Tanaka’s parents would lament and mourn the death of their beloved daughter they lost in the wilderness of Kazakhstan. Fumiko was heartbroken and in shock that this happened to her friend. She knew this was a result of the harsh beating she received during her interrogation.
Women in the Gulag
There was no information in regard to the international relationship between the Soviet Union and Japan. She could not correspond with her parents for the longest time. However, when she was finally able to send a letter to the address where she grew up in Manchuria, she found out that her parents were no longer there. It made her feel very lonely. Nevertheless, she had a good friends in the gulag. A Polish girl, Yelena, and a beautiful Ukranian girl, Hannusia. They would often read a book to her in Russian, which she enjoyed. Fumiko taught Hannusia English in return. There was a Russian lady who wrote a letter for her. A German girl, Hede, knitted a sweater for her with limited resources. Then there was Nelly, a Jewish girl who did not care about imposing on others. People said she might be a spy living in the Gulag. Fumiko was so sorry for these female prisoners because ninety percent of them were sentenced to twenty-five years. At that point, it was five years after the war ended, and her day of release was coming very close. However, she had no idea what may happen next.