In a Penal Colony
Three days after riding a horse sled, she arrived at a lonely place called Bay Village. She was given one of the rooms in a big log cabin divided into four or five rooms with her roommate, Dasha. She had to work by herself in order to pay for her living expenses. There was work for a cleaning lady, but it was too hard for her frail body. After half a year of being transported to this destination, her energy was all consumed and she had lost five or six kilograms from her original weight of thirty-seven kilograms. She was very envious of how physically tough Ukrainian women are. Since she could not do any physical labor, embroidery became her livelihood.
Fumiko wrote about her experience with Dasha when they went out to select potatoes in a cellar when requested by an owner of a village store. In this description, we can sense the lack of food and anxiety caused by the lack of food. “The cellar was cold and dark. The mud-caked potatoes were almost all frozen. We were asked to take out only rotten ones. No matter how many hours we worked on them, the mountains of potatoes never became smaller, and our eyes became blurry with the dim light coming from the oil lamp. The mud around the potatoes that melted with the warm air of the potbelly stove was sticking to my hands. We were told we could eat all the potatoes we wanted only in the cellar, so we baked potatoes on the stove for lunch”. The frozen skin of potatoes became red and became sweet like a yam. I liked it. In the evening, Dasha began to hide the hearty potatoes in various parts of her body. She even put some in her boots. I did not like stealing, but I put some inside my clothes as well because I did not want to hurt Dasha’s feelings. I did not like the way the mud around the potatoes touched my body. The first three days of the New Year in 1951 were spent with this kind of potato work, at that time, I was constantly worried about work. One-hundred rubles did not seem to be enough to guarantee food in the future. In addition, the work of embroidery did not seem like a hopeful source of income in a village like this where everyone was living in poor conditions with the bare minimum.
In this village nearby the Yenisei River, there were four hundred residents. One-hundred were in exile and the others were free people. At the riverbank, there was a lumber yard and the river was frozen throughout the long winter. The river and the forest were the only things the villagers could count on. Therefore, most of the men were cutting logs, and some of the women also worked in the forest and earned good money.
Since the people in exile were not allowed to leave the, life in the village was just like being exiled on an island, like what you read in old Japanese folk tales. It was an unbearable way of living, but they could at least depend on one another to live together. In addition to the Russians, the people in exile were Ukrainian, Polish, Latvian, Georgian, German, Chinese, Korean, Fin, and the only Japanese was Fumiko. Among them, were people suddenly deported from their old familiar home, and they were the ones who were having the hardest time coping with the sudden change of life and the loss of freedom. She felt particularly sorry for them. For Fumiko, the life there was something like what she became used to in her harsh life in the gulag.
It was the middle of February when orders to shovel snow came. Many roads were closed. Fumiko had two of her ribs removed due to tuberculosis when she was fifteen, so she was always excused from labor in the gulag because she could barely carry even one scoop of snow, however there were no exceptions this time. The work order was to make a road one meter in width and fifty centimeters in height for fifty meters. Even that was half of the work others were doing. She described, “I poked the wooden shovel into the snow. After doing that three or four times, my eyes were already blurry, and I could not stand very well. The snow I thought I shoveled had flown somewhere else, and it did not make any impact at all. I was breathing hard and was so disappointed”. The man that had given the orders was watching Fumiko and began to show her his technique. With his help, she was able to make something like a road, but it took her such a long time. When she finally finished, she noticed she was left totally alone in a big dark forest. She thought her heart may burst because of fear and anxiety. When she finally found where the river was, she just kept walking frantically along the river to the village thinking, “I don’t want to end my life in a place like this alone”.
The next job was shoveling snow out of the lumber yard, where she was expected to climb on top of hundreds of logs piled up at the riverbank and remove snow from both sides for one meter in length. If she fell, she would die. She had to do this job for only ten rubles a day and continued this job for many days, working carefully not to slip and fall while shoveling the snow. Without any rest, she finally caught up with the others who were so fast they were able to rest in-between. In reflection she wrote, “I was filled with emotion for a while and kept looking at the brick-colored surface of the lumber that appeared after taking off the snow. It was just like a dream that I could finish this heavy labor in temperatures below 35 degrees Fahrenheit. I couldn’t participate in physical education class in school, but my frail body is now working among all these strong Soviet women who are just as strong as men. Yes! I can work! I am worthy! I rolled down onto the snow. When I leaned on the lumber, I was filled with something warm. I was filled with joy and appreciation. I was thankful to the invisible force that bestowed on me the ability to work a very physically difficult task”.
“Thank you so much, God! I was able to do it! I truly thank YOU for giving me such strength”. I did not know who that God was, but I will never forget this moment when my heart was filled with prayer and appreciation. For a while, I was kneeling on the snow. I could recall how my mother urged us to look for religion in our life in Dalian out of hopes to make my life, with this frail body, a little bit better by having a religion. It was often annoying for me, and I had resented her because of that. Ultimately, I did not follow her hope for me, however, in this moment so far away from her, I was taught what prayer was and how heaven answered it”.
After that, other types of work came to her one after another. Fumiko tried everything she could in order to keep living. One of them was the task to make bulletin boards that would be shown in the village and forest. Her bulletin boards were always so well made, and well-liked by everyone in comparison to those riddled with mistakes by the Soviets. She also continued to shovel snow, make embroidery, and plant potatoes, which was were important in the winter. Because of such labor, lack of nutrition, and rheumatism she was starting to look like an elderly lady.
Invitation to Become a Spy
One day, she was stopped by a village policeman. She was asked about a questionnaire she had filled out where she left her nationality blank in Krasnoyarsk. At this time, she noticed a suspicious man in the office, and she became very worried. She wondered if she had to move somewhere else. Since it seemed her destiny kept moving her around without knowing anything, her mind was filled with anxiety and darkness.
Life in the Bay village demonstrated one fundamental difference from the free society in Japan. It was the fear that they had to be afraid of some threat all the time. “There were hundreds and thousands of jails and gulags around us. There were countless numbers of prisoners as well, and police and communist party members who were always watching somewhere. There was anxiety that I may be sent back to that gulag at any time. I had to always pay attention to every single word I spoke. There was no way to find a truthfully restful place in a society like this”.
An old man came as a messenger from the office and told her to return all her items provided by the government. Then, she put her small belongings together and left her place. Women who heard about her leaving gathered to see her while she tried hard not to cry and say good-bye to everyone. When she went down to the river, the suspicious man was waiting for her with a gun in the boat. As she was watching the river, she found a broken twig tangled by leaves and felt the twig was just like her. She wrote, “to my surprise, I was not afraid. I have already been twisted around with so many destinies, repeated journeys and farewells, and there was nothing left to lose. There is nothing else that can be taken away from me. I don’t think it is my “life” that is going to be taken. I wonder if it is the little freedom given to me at this place of exile that will be taken. Whatever happens, I am fine. I was in an interesting mode of disinterest”.
After spending the night on a board in a village near the river, she was made to walk the mountain path for a few kilometers. After, she was taken to a room in a village office, where she was persuaded by three Soviet officers to become a spy for the Soviets. She was told that she would be taken to a good hospital and live in a city if she agrees, and she would be required to tell them what she heard among the Japanese. Fumiko declined that offer.
“If you see how I am, you would understand. I don’t think I will live much longer. Please leave me alone for the short time l have left. Please.” She tried to communicate in her limited Russian desperately, but the inhumane requests did not stop, and she was repeatedly asked why she declined. “I cannot do it. I have a question for you. If a Soviet lady was in my position and agreed to become a spy, what would you think of her? I don’t think you will consider her a dignified lady. Therefore, please do not keep asking me to agree to such a request. In Japan, I have two elderly parents waiting for my return. If I become a spy, I don’t think I can even go back to Japan”. In the middle of the three officers’ tenacious invitation and cold stare, she did not waiver.
“I may be killed. That idea went through my head. Isn’t it an old method to kill someone who found out secrets? There is a woman. She just kept living. She is now placed right next to death. Why is it a big deal? In the world of death, there is no agony nor sadness. There is no pain…” Even in the middle of sheer terror, she was still thinking logically. When did she develop such a logical thinking ability? During the time she was taken all over in Siberia, she always had the ability to grasp the situations objectively. She stayed true to herself with strong conviction, “I do not belong here. I am going home.” Fumiko was fighting for her freedom. In a life where she could easily choose to blend in and succumb to whatever is asked of her, she chose to stand up for herself.
Fumiko stayed firm with her will even though she was afraid of what would happen after that. Surprisingly, the Soviet officers decided that she could go back to the Bay village under the condition that she would never talk to anyone about what they asked of her. The fact that she was a small and physically fragile woman may have worked in her favor. Other male detainees were not so lucky and were forced to become Communists. They were told that by doing so, they could go home to Japan earlier or be given more food. As a result, they were brainwashed and went back to their gulag to brain was others in their gulags, creating a dark environment. Those who were so tired of being oppressed by the military ranking system, which was continuing in the gulag, exploded and acted out in anger. As a result, conflict and informants emerged among the Japanese, creating major tension. A lot of former detainees have expressed their unspeakable agony during that time. If a Japanese man had to face the same situation to become a spy or not, the purer and more righteous he was would put him in danger of physical violence or even death. Thinking of that possibility, I feel so glad that Fumiko’s fate turned out to be okay.
Back in the Village Again
Going back to the village alive was like a miracle, but she had to be truly careful not to tell others what happened. By the time summer came, there was no more work for her. Now she had to engage in nearby labor, “rolling logs.” This labor consisted of dropping red pine that had been piled in the lumber yard into the river and letting them flow down the river. A small person could easily be crushed by a log. Logs with diameters of 20 to 80 centimeters were pushed down and dropped into the river with the efforts of three people. When the logs were too heavy to roll, steel levers were used. There were large numbers of mosquitoes and black flies, therefore body parts without any covering were bitten and became swollen red to the point that she could not even keep her eyes open.
The next work was cleaning toilets with the monthly salary of 240 rubles. She described this experience as follows, “When I was living as a regular citizen, cleaning toilets was an unthinkable kind of work. However, I did not have any feeling about doing the work here. In order to live, I had to work. For that very reason, nobleness of the job did not matter to me. “The toilets she cleaned were like those in the gulag: one large board had five or six round holes, and sometimes just one. Her job was to push and drop excrement around the hole and use a broom to clean around it. However, the lifestyle in the forest was something else. Since there was no paper, woodcutters rubbed the excrement on their hands and wiped their hands on anything around the toilet. They had no conscience of using a public area in a cleanly matter. What was tough was that children in the village made fun of her for doing such work. She went on writing, “Cleaning toilets was a really dirty job. In addition, the way I looked in tattered clothes with a broom was so miserable. However, I did not lament. I thought it was my temporary way of living. The way I existed was only temporary. There must be a better world for me to live. I can go back there sometime. No, I will definitely go back. I did not tell anyone, but I was constantly murmuring this way to my own heart”. Fumiko stayed proud, sure of a better future to come, protecting her own soul and nurturing it. By focusing on her positive mental state, she was winning in the battle against her trials in the real world.
Maxim Nickolaevich, another exile was over fifty years old, and got married to a woman from the area, Nyura, whom had a seven-month-old daughter by the name of Nelia. While they had to go to cut grass in August, they asked Fumiko to baby sit. The reward was only receiving dinner, but the job was easy, and she was able to enjoy sun-bathing in the thicket in back of the house. It seemed to be good for her rheumatism. He seemed to have had quite a good lifestyle before he was exiled. He was a well-cultured man; however, his wife was not. He seemed to be very lonely because of the culture difference and seemed to be drinking all the time. He was a very important person for Fumiko’s job of drawing signboards since he was the one who wrote all the manuscript for her. One cold winter day, he drowned in the river. He could no longer go home. This incident shook Fumiko so much because she was surely determined to go back to Japan alive.
When everyone was having so much fun drinking Vodka on holidays, Fumiko could not indulge in such an atmosphere. On such a day, when she went down to the river and was watching the water, she felt as if something was inviting her from the bottom of the dark black bottom of the river. She imagined how she would be frozen to death there. Then there would be no pain. There would be no everyday life with hardships. Suddenly, she went back to herself and looked up at the blue sky. There were the faces of her parents in Japan. At that time, she made an oath to herself that she had to do her best for them, waiting for her return no matter how many years it may take.
With the beginning of spring, the frozen river began to flow. It was such a magnificent scene as if the whole earth was moving. Then April came and the season of potatoes and cabbage came. In Siberia, these were the only vegetables they could get. In summer, wild grapes were available. Fumiko continued to work on the job of sign making with slogans, but by the time the second Memorial Day for the revolution came, she had difficulty receiving the wages in ruble. They said Fumiko “only fulfilled the social responsibility” even though she did not belong to the Communist Party. Soon, she even lost the job of toilet cleaning. The only job available was working in a day nursery as a nanny. She survived with that, and then was taken to the physical labor of rolling logs in the forest until August. She was always in such a crisis and continued to gain a small amount of money just to live on.