There is some background for the history of the Japanese Internment in Siberia not to have been known outside Japan, and not well known even in Japan.
Ruth Benedict defined the Japanese culture as a “culture of shame” versus the “culture of sin” of the Western culture in her book, “Chrysanthemum and the Sword” (1946). She wrote, “A society that inculcates absolute standards of morality and relies on men’s developing a conscience is a guilt culture by definition... In a culture where shame is a major sanction, people are chagrined about acts which we expect people to feel guilty about. This chagrin can be very intense and it cannot be relieved, as guilt can be, by confession and atonement.”
What she defined as “the culture of guilt” is perhaps a significant reason for the silence by the Japanese who were interned in Siberia and made it back to Japan. Being treated like criminals for no crime record was an unbearable shame for them overall. In addition, they had no choice but to carry out the training they received in the army. It suggested to die in honor at the time of being taken as a captive. Such intense inner struggle lingered in their minds and they kept their silence.
They were also filled with suffering and guilt for the fact they could not even make sufficient tombstones for their comrades who died one after another in the unimaginable hardships of Siberia. They could not even dig decent holes in the frozen ground with spades. The clothes of the dead were taken off for use by the living. Sometimes they had to move to another gulag, leaving the mountain of frozen bodies of their friends behind them. They were standing right next to them the day before. They remembered these extremely bitter memories. The fact they could go back to Japan alive, remembering their friends’ horrible deaths, gradually built a conscience of sin. That was another reason why they could not open their mouths to speak.
Another big reason derived from a brainwashing education of Communism by the Soviet regime that intended to spread the political view in Japan through the detainees eventually returning home. A “kangaroo court” that demanded self-criticism of anyone who became a target was held, along with fierce violence. It began to happen everywhere in many gulags. Everyone became afraid because no one knew who the next victim was going to be. The dark world of conflict due to distrust spread among the Japanese. The structure of this distrust was similar to the “bullying” that continues to bring deaths of victims in modern day Japan. In the horrible situation created by the kangaroo court, the Japanese who were equally trapped into the worst possible living conditions could not support each other in order to go back home to Japan alive. Instead, they were put into worse conditions to tell on each other and to risk each other’s lives. Nobody wanted to remember such an awful experience. They wanted to forget about it, as if they could.
Let me go into some more details about what happened in the gulags. The Soviet regime carefully selected the Japanese who seemed most easily brainwashed. Then they conducted this education of communism under the guise of a “democratic movement.” The ones who showed good results were called “the actives”, and they were told that they would receive priority to go back to Japan earlier than others, and they were provided a somewhat better living condition, such as additional food and clothing. This way, if people became “actives,” they were able to escape from the “three hardships” of hunger, freezing cold weather, and hard labor that were putting them right next to death. In addition, there was another incentive: the Soviet regime kept the structure of the old Japanese military system in the gulags for the advantage of organization. However, in this process of communist education, they pointed out the problem of society’s vertical structure, where a ruling class could take advantage of the ruled. In fact, lower-class soldiers were enduring frustration watching their commanders ordering them around with force, claiming the same amount of division of the scarce food given to the unit even when they excused themselves from the forced labor for the day. This “democratic movement” gave them reasons to speak up. However, little by little, this movement changed its shape to the stern conflict in which the Japanese who literally became “activists” and assaulted the Japanese in the gulag who opposed communism. This is how the inside of the gulag, right in the middle of life for the Japanese, became a location of fighting where everyone was scared to become the next victim. We can find various detailed writings in this regard in many documents written by the Siberian returnees.
When a handful of such “actives” who were educated in communism in the USSR went back to Japan and came out about their activities, Japanese society was covered with anxieties. Then it grew into speculation that all of the returnees from Siberia could be possible communists. This brought the most unfortunate circumstance that the general returnees who finally made it back to Japan after their long difficult hardships were going to be viewed as a dangerous faction like the “actives” as soon as they got home safely and got together with their families with joy. It affected their new lives tremendously, because they had a hard time finding jobs. They were not in positions to receive warm words of “welcome back after a difficult experience”, but they had to hide the fact they came back from Siberia in order to live in their own country. What an unfortunate turn of fate again! In fact, there are so many cases of families who never heard anything from the Siberian returnees in regards to their experiences in Siberia. In some cases, such as in small villages, the returnees had to choose to be silent in order to protect their own families from receiving treatment of exclusion based on rumors of having a family member who came back from Siberia. The sense of belonging to a group was a way of security in such areas.
I would like to point out one more factor for this widespread silence. It is another traditional thought process of respect to patience. As the formation of communities developed in agriculture-centered Japan, working as a team in a village or in neighboring areas in order to secure common production was vital. In such an environment, complaint was banned. In other words, talking about one’s misfortune was not a respected action. Because of that, “patience and silence” was a way of winning respect from others as a virtue of living.
Recently, there are more returnees who have begun to disclose their past after a long silence. However, the long period of silence inside families and in the public caused by the above reasons has left a big blank in our knowledge of history.