Under the Sky of a Foreign Land -- Fusaji Higashijima

Under the Sky of a Foreign Land: the Record of Internment in Siberia

Fusaji Higashijima, Hokkaido


Ousaka Internment camp in Sakhalin

About one thousand soldiers were interned in the camp in Ousaka. Triangle barracks – only the triangle roof part was seen above the ground and the rest was underground – used by the Japanese army as our camp. The senior commissioned officers seemed to have been separated into a different site, so most of the people who were in the same camp were the ones who were just promoted to become second lieutenants from apprentice officers when the war ended, except for one captain who stayed with us as a commanding officer.

Maintenance of the camp was our main work there, and there was nothing else to do as labor for a while. When I secretly went to peek at the warehouse during that period, I found salted salmon in a barrel. Russian salted salmon has a beautiful color because they make it by soaking the salmon in salt water. I quickly snatched one and carried it around my waist, and then kept working as if nothing had happened. However, my stomach gradually became chilled and I had a very difficult time. It became a problem since I snatched it too early during the day, but I was successful in keeping it hidden. When I safely took it back with me, everyone was so happy and enjoyed eating it together. If we baked it, it was too salty to eat, but when we ate it as raw fish, it was very delicious. Russians soak all the fish in salt water in a barrel. Just like canned fish, that method allowed preserving it for a long time. The following day, I went to the same place again, but this time, it was locked. Instead, I picked up a Russian overcoat dumped on a road nearby. As I did not have an overcoat, it was really timely. It was too long, so I cut the length, and made socks with the remnant. They were so warm and helpful. When I wore that Russian overcoat and walked around, Russians all laughed at me and said, “Yaponetz (note.Japanese), horosho! Horosho! ” So I replied, “Horosho! Horosho!” (“Horosho” means “good.”).

In front of Malenkiy Dom, (guardhouse in Japanese, the room for confinement in Russian— note. literally, it is actually Small House), there was an elderly chubby man with gorgeous beard, who I thought I had seen before, looking at us, smiling. When I asked a sentry who he was, he said the man was put into the confinement room because he did something wrong and lost his rank as a colonel. Promotion takes place very quickly in the Russian army, but dropping from the ladder also surely happens as swiftly as with us. At any rate, I thought it was a very easygoing confinement room without any surveillance.

I could not tell the exact date since we did not have a calendar, but at the end of October, probably after a month, we were told to get ready for going home to Hokkaido. We were going to walk as there was no train for us. If we were heading back to Japan, walking a little bit of distance did not sound bad at all.

On our way, we passed the ridge of Kumazasa where we were engaged in a battle. I felt somewhat guilty leaving many comrades buried in the mountain, but I said good-bye to them in my heart.

Close to the evening, we entered the town of Maoka, and arrived at the elementary school, where we were going to stay. Citizens in the city of Maoka took care of us well, and prepared meals for us, but could not discern our circumstances at all since we could not talk with them directly.

The following day, when we were departing, we received gifts of two rice cakes per person from the citizens. We felt bad that we were going back to Japan before them. When we marched toward the pier, the citizens stood on both sides of the road to see us off with tears in their eyes. We waved our hands as much as we could, and marched.


Transport Ship

Approximately a thousand of us boarded. As soon as we boarded though, we were told not to come up to the deck until we heard the command. Something was strange. Soon after that, we felt the ship moving. Toward the middle of the night, the command came and we were allowed to go up to the deck, and we hurriedly went up there. Although the sky was clear, it was pitch dark without the moon. We could not tell in which direction the ship was heading. However, when we looked up to Polaris, we were astonished – why on earth was the ship moving toward Polaris? If we were heading toward Hokkaido, the North Pole should be behind us. It was going to the north! Everyone began to panic. The Russians noticed it and gave us an explanation through a translator that they were going back to Russia once to get permission to go back to Hokkaido afterwards. It sounded a bit perplexing, but everyone was convinced. The following morning, the ship arrived at the Russian side of the dock where there was a river-like water between North Sakhalin and the Russian mainland. It was the place that Sakhalin was the closest to the land of Russia. The water was so shallow and beautiful that we could even see the bottom of the ocean. The wind was piercing cold. On top of the hills on the side of Russian land, there were lots of tents where Japanese captives seemed to have been kept. I thought we would be in big trouble if we were going to be told to get off at such a cold place, but there was no indication like that. A Russian commissioned officer came aboard and the ship left the dock in no time. Next, the ship began to move toward the south.

Everyone was relieved after that and said what the Russians said was true. Because of the freezing cold wind, we all went down to the ship’s hold. The ship was a cargo ship and had several levels in the ship’s hold. We used vertical ladders to go up and down. As for meals, we came up with our own cooking crew. They used steam using a hose directly into a big cooking kettle. The food was terrible because it was only half-cooked.

The Soviet ship seemed to have their own upper class sailors’ wives and children before school age also on board. Wives seemed to have some work assignments themselves. Soon, two days had passed since we left the port in the north. When we went out to the deck, we were so surprised ! The land was on our right side. It was definitely weird. If we were really going to Hokkaido, the land should have disappeared a long time ago. Now we finally came to the realization that we were not going to Hokkaido, but actually, heading toward Vladivostok! Everyone began to make a big fuss.

We thought there must have been some experienced people who could steer the ship since there were a thousand Japanese on board. Compared to us, the total number of the Russian guards were only thirty. Because of such circumstances, someone thought we should seize the ship and flee to Hokkaido. Others said, “However, the Soviets must know the exact position of this ship by its transceiver. There may also be a Russian submarine nearby. If they find out we fled, there may be a possibility that they might sink this ship.“ Others said, “I don’t think so because there are Soviet sailors and their families are also on board.” So many opinions came out one after another, but in conclusion, we decided not to force anything. We gave up on any actions of our own.

Three days later, the ship seemed to have anchored offshore of Vladivostok. There were many other ships around us. The following morning, the ship began to move again. After a while, we proceeded deep into a bay. It seemed like a harbor. I saw many Russian submarines there. They all had flags of all nations high up. I thought they might be welcoming us, but in reality, it was impossible. (Later, I found out it was November, 17th, the day of the commemoration day for revolution.)


Landing in Siberia

Oddly, their commemoration day for revolution became the anniversary of our landing in Siberia. The ship docked in the harbor and our landing started. It was not a big town and the port was rather lonesome. Up on the bluff, I saw artillery that was able to cover the entire harbor. I thought it might be a naval port. After the landing, we began to march. The destination we arrived at was, to our surprise, the beach.

Then we were told to stay overnight there. It seemed that there were no accommodations for our lodging in town. Sure, the beach would accommodate thousands of people to sleep, but wait a minute. It was not in summer but in winter. On such a beach without anything, they expected us to sleep overnight?

There were already previous customers on the beach and they said they had already been there for days, so we had to give up and do the same. Then dinner was provided, but it was only rice. We were just so helpless. Then I saw some soldiers who had been here first digging some areas of sand very enthusiastically, so I went there to see what they were doing. They showed me they could find coal if they dug thirty centimeters in depth. All right! We began to follow them with all our might. After digging one centimeter, charcoal dust and some small coal began to appear. All together, we were able to collect quite a bit of those. They were probably there because a ship with coal must have sunk in the ocean or something and drifted to this beach. It was indeed a helping hand for us from heaven.

Then we collected rocks to make a cooking stove. We warmed our bodies with the stove, and then cooked rice in our mess kit after we found water. We were somehow able to eat dinner. At night, we laid our blankets on the sand and put our bodies close to one another and went to sleep, but during the night, it began to snow, to our surprise. We all woke up not knowing what to do. After searching the area, we found something like an iron frame and its size was fortunately just right for us to make a structure. We carried it over to our place, and then hung our blankets over that. After covering all the surroundings, it began to look like a hut that would allow ten of us to stay inside. We put the coal stove in the middle and warmed our bodies. Since all our blankets were used for the surrounding for this hut, there were no blankets to wear; however, thank goodness, we were able to stay away from the freezing cold air.

The next morning, when we woke up and looked at each other’s faces, we all could not help bursting into laughter. Our faces were all pitch black because of the smoke from the coal. What happened was that all the blankets and the faces became black since we burned the coal without any chimney. We quickly used ocean water to wash up. I don’t remember how many days later, but we heard a gun shot in the evening. Later on, we were told that a Japanese soldier was shot that night. He walked away by himself in order to look for logs to burn, but that action was mistaken for fleeing. Lack of understanding due to the language barrier caused an unfortunate mistake like that. We had to remember not to do anything alone.

Almost every day, long cargo trains arrived from back regions. Inside, there were all Soviet prisoners. They seemed to be political offenders with life sentences who were going to be sent to Kachak using the ship we were brought here. Security is much tighter with them than with us. All the windows of the cargo trains had iron bars, and the door was open just a little bit so that they could relieve themselves. I wondered if we might also be treated like them afterwards. When we landed here, all the service swords of the commissioned officers were taken away. It seemed to me that the Soviets kept deceiving us all the way through because they were afraid of a riot. Because of that, they pretended like they were sending us back to Hokkaido. We were certainly deceived too easily though. Nevertheless, we could not help it because we had never been in such a situation before.

Russian children came to the fence and were shouting “Karandahs! Karandahs!” holding big pieces of bread in their arms. (Karandahs means a pencil in Japanese) They wanted to exchange their bread with pencils. We realized the children were in need of even pencils, but we did not have any single pencil for them.

I think we stayed on the seashore for about ten days. The town seemed like the port town called Nakhodka. We were told that the train would come the following day for to pick us up.

The train arrived in the afternoon of the following day. When I looked, it was not a cargo train but a passenger train. I was very surprised at the difference of the treatment from Russian prisoners, and got on the train. It departed right after we finished being on board.

Within the small distance of train ride, we were taken to the field covered with snow. Actually, I made a mistake when I thought our treatment was rather good with a passenger train, and the fact was that the cargo train would have been better – our train had broken glass here and there, and the cold Siberian wind blew directly inside, making it unbelievably cold.

On our way, the train stopped at small stations. In the evenings, security was tighter because they were worried about runaways. I didn’t think anyone of us would even think about fleeing in the place where we could not even tell the west from the east, but the Russians did not understand that.

I didn’t know where he got on, but someone found a boy who was about ten years old on our train. A Russian commissioned officer got really angry at him and told him to get off, but the train kept running. There was no way for the boy to get off. However, to our astonishment, the officer forcefully pushed him off of the train. What a cruel action! We were so worried about the child afterwards and could not fall sleep. He may have been saved because of the snow, but if there were no houses close by, his life would not last long in this cold weather.

Three days after we left, we arrived at our destination. It was the town called Iman, but I had no idea about the actual size of the town. Although I thought that was the final destination, it was not, and we were told to walk up to the camp a hundred kilometers ahead. The marching began again. It was still November, but the fields were already all covered with snow. Since the snow was not that deep and was completely frozen, we were able to walk anywhere. On the first night, we stayed in a classroom of a school in a small village. The cooking crew began to prepare for dinner right away.

Even during the night, there was no heating. Although all of our blankets were black with the soot of the coal, they were the only things we could depend on. Our marching continued on the following day again. It seemed that we were going to walk for five days, covering twenty kilometers a day. On the second night, we were put into a place like a barn of a farm family. It was not a big place, so we were jammed in and we had to stay standing. It was impossible to keep standing throughout the night, however, so one by one, we began to sit down on the ground. Then it made it even much harder for us to move around and it became impossible to extend our legs. The problem was that we could not even go outside to urinate. I had never experienced an awful night like that ever before! However, because of the tightness in a small space, we could luckily bear with the coldness. Early in the morning, while it was still dark, people could not stand such conditions any longer and one by one they stepped outside. On the 2nd and the 3rd day, things went okay, and we finally arrived at the destination on the fifth day. Another unit was already there. Along with twenty of them, we went into a building that had one small room. We stayed there for three days, and then we were sent to another place because one group of two hundred people was supposed to move to another place.


New Internment Camp

This place was about one day's walk from the previous camp. There was only one big building and one residence for Russians. It was in the middle of nowhere in a mountain without even any fences. We were brought here so that we could build a new internment camp for them. About two thousand internees were planned to be accommodated when completed.

There was a small brook behind this place, and the water was really clean due to the fact we were in a mountain. We were surrounded by high hills all around, and there were forests all over the place. We were fortunate that strong winds were not blowing because of such circumstances.

The head of the camp from the Soviet side was first lieutenant K who was a disabled veteran from the battle with Germany. He was a handsome single man with an Asian look, and had a really nice and caring personality. There were three commissioned officers and ten lower non-commissioned officers who were managing and also guarding the internment site with him. Because the boss had a good personality, all the other people were quite nice, too.

Our labor lasted for eight hours a day, from eight o’ clock in the morning till five o’ clock in the evening. Sunday was a day off. Two rooms were given to us, and each room had two-layered beds all around the wall, which had enough height to give us enough room when we sat on them. There was an iron stove in the middle of the room, and the fire was on throughout the night. Our bed boards were not the boards that were made in lumber mill – someone only cut raw woods with a wide blade knife. Therefore, they were uneven and not suitable for us to sleep comfortably. Our backs hurt too much.

Lighting was our biggest concern. There was no electricity, no lamp nor candle in our place. Winter was particularly problematic because it would become dark already around four in the afternoon. By the time we came back from labor, it was already pitch dark, and we had no choice but to eat in darkness. The ones who had mess kits were okay, but people like myself, who went into battle and lost our mess kits had a problem. Instead, we had to eat with empty cans. That is why empty cans were really valuable items, but even finding an empty can was a challenging task in the Soviet Union.


Heavy Outfits to Keep Out the Cold

Heavy outfits were provided to keep out from the cold. The jackets and pants which had cotton in them were quite warm. We also received arctic boots made of felt. All parts of new boots including the piece for long boots and the soles were entirely made of felt. They were extremely light and warm. The shoes would not become wet at all since the snow was dry and light. However, internees did not have such privileges to receive such products of quality. Instead, ours were remakes of the old ones, the soles of which became torn. They simply replaced the old parts with another felt and sewed them together for us. Regardless, they kept us pretty warm.

In the Soviet Union, the army did not use socks at all. Instead, they used a square piece of cotton in the summer and flannel in winter to wrap their feet all around before wearing shoes. Since they went around the feet a few times, they had the same effect as wearing a few socks. Another merit was how sturdy they were. They did not tear that easily as we used different parts of the cloth to wrap around the feet each time.

Internees also received the same items for socks, but in the beginning, it was hard to wrap them effectively. Just a short walk was enough for them to come all apart. Gradually, though, we became better at it. When we were going outside, old shoobas, fur jackets, were provided. Caps the Japanese army used to use were provided for us to keep our heads from the cold.


Russian Language

When I became an internee, I swore to myself not to learn any Russian, but now that I was kept here and didn't know when I could go home, I came to understand it would be to my disadvantage not to be able to communicate due to a lack of understanding of Russian. So I made up my mind to study it as hard as I could.

I thought the word “Roskiy” had a bad connotation, but it actually meant “a Russian” in Russian language. (note. “~suke” is the ending in a Japanese word that implies looking down on others.) Likewise, the Japanese are Yaponskiy, Chinese were Kitaiskiy, Korean was Koreiskiy, and American was Amerikanskiy. “—skiy” meant “ a person.”



After a while, we found out that the truck parked in front of our lodge every night had a diesel engine that required petroleum. So we began the routine to go there secretly at night, and pushed in a wire with rag wrapped at the tip in order to absorb petroleum from the fuel tank. Then we squeezed the rag to use it. That’s how we stole it. We put the core inside the can to use it as a lamp. It really helped because we had light at least while we ate meals.

All other groups copied us and a lot of fuel of the truck was consumed for that. I am sure the Russians knew about it, but they kept quiet.


Roll Call

Twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, all of us had to line up outside in the freezing cold weather for roll call. It was an unbelievably tough experience because it took thirty to forty minutes each time. To count two hundred of us, they could not count in one try. They even made us line up in five lines in order for them to count each line. Even commissioned officers did not know how to multiply. Everything was by addition, to our surprise.

Once, a Japanese non-commissioned officer who was on duty taught them how to do multiplication, using an abacus, but they did not trust him. They said such a method could never be true, and they had to count twice and three times to be sure. Among them, there was a witty first lieutenant. When it was his turn to count, he just looked at us with his eyes once and said, “It is fine!” He did not know anything in reality, but he just pretended like everything was okay. In the Soviet Union, compulsory education lasts for four years in elementary school, but almost all of them could not read, write, nor calculate. Since all of the Japanese soldiers were able to read and write, they were very surprised at it and said the Japanese were all intelligent. Especially the ones with glasses on were definitely believed to be intelligent and their reputation was quite good.

When we went to work and came back from work, a sentry always did the roll call. No matter how narrow the space was, we were always told to line up in five lines.



We left for work while it was still dark in the morning, and came home in the evening after it already became dark. The room was pitch dark, and we could only use a lamp for meals since we had a very little amount of oil available. What we were really troubled by was that we did not have any way to kill lice. Lice spread all over the place because we did not brush our teeth, did not take a bath, and we went to sleep without changing. Moreover, we went to sleep really close together. Therefore, it was a natural consequence for lice to run rampant. While we had just one or two of them, we actually felt itchy. However, if lice covered all the body, it made our nerves become numb and we were no longer sensitive to any itchiness. The only ones we could capture by feeling with hands were the ones that were stupidly moving around here and there on their own. All our Sundays were all spent killing lice. I actually learned that there were many different kinds of lice. The seams of our shirts were thoroughly covered by lice eggs all connected like dumplings in skewers. There was another discovery, too. Louses did not seem to be able to suck blood from a new owner for a few days, and their bodies stayed white during that period. When there were white lice like that, we used to joke to each other saying, “Look, this one is really yours! Take it back!”

Previously, I heard that lice would not stay in blankets, but that did not work in our place. Probably, there were way too many lice that they did not have enough space to live and decided to use blankets as well. There were tons of them on the blankets. No matter how many we killed, we could not kill them all. Within a week, the numbers went back to the same. We, the interns, did not have enough nourishment from the start, and so much sucking of our blood in such bad conditions made it even worse – we were doomed to suffer from malnutrition. To my surprise, I found someone eating lice! It must have been out of total hostility and he was eating them as revenge!



It seemed that the Russians brought the rice supplies from the Japanese army. It had husks. So we made a millstone and pounded it with mallets that moved by stepping on them. This method was suitable because we were able to polish the rice at the same time as removing husks. Some remained with husks, however. What we were given for meals was a rice porridge made with more than twice the normal amount of water, using that rice. Lunch was the same. A small amount of salted fish, potatoes, beans and vegetables were provided as side dishes. Even if we ate such breakfasts and lunches all at the same time, it actually did not fill our stomachs. In fact, after eating it all up in the morning, we ended up boiling salted fish with snow to make soup for lunch. For supper, three hundred grams of rye bread and boiled vegetables, sometimes with a small amount of meat, were given. Since rye bread is a little sour, I thought in the beginning, “the Russians are looking down on the prisoners to the point of giving us rotten bread!” However, it was not the case. They simply used yeast that had a sour taste.

It seemed that Russian soldiers were eating the same food. The reason the bread was black was because wheat bran was mixed in the flower and also because they did not bleach the bread. After becoming accustomed to it, I began to feel the sourness was actually tasty.

As one loaf of rye bread weighed three kilo grams, we were supposed to divide it into ten for ten people to be equal, but it was an extremely difficult task. Sometimes the shape of the bread was not really square, smashed or twisted, and it was hard to evenly divide it. The one on duty on the meal for the day was in charge of dividing. When he was working on it, everyone sat around him in circle and stared at each of his actions closely.

At first, he divided it by measuring with a ruler, and then used a balance scale to make each one even weight. That still did not convince everyone. Then there was a lottery and we picked a random number to decide the order for getting the piece. Everyone was happy after all that. Eventually, that became our daily ritual, and we sort of looked forward to it.

Once in a while, bones used to make soup stock were given to us from the kitchen. If you break the bone, there is marrow inside, which will become additional nourishment for us if we eat it. For some reason, I did not want to try it, so I do not know the taste, but people were saying it was delicious.

One day, a soldier in another group began to suffer a lot, saying he had a

stomachache. A Japanese army doctor on our site examined him and said he had constipation. After an enema, all the things that came out were smashed bones.

One after another, there were amazing amount of them. Animal bones are different from fish bones, and we can not digest them like we digest fish bones. He was the one who was eating lice. He was a handsome man with a good build. He must have been much hungrier than the others, but he was very close to losing his life that way.

We were worried if we might develop appendicitis due to the fact that husks were in our meals, but the size of the husks were big enough for us to stay away from trouble, and we were all safe.



Inside the camp, most of the labors were making fences around the lot, and bringing the parts of other big structures into the site after dissembling them and reusing them to build our lodging house. The structures were quite big and it was a very difficult task, but we did not have satisfactory tools for anything.

One day, they were looking for someone who knew how to drive a tractor. I thought driving a tractor would be physically easier, and I would be able to learn how to handle it by just one instruction because there was not too much speed anyhow. So I told them a lie, and then I was told, “All right. Then begin the work as an assistant for the driver of the tractor.” I thought I did a great job, but it actually turned out to be a big mistake: My job really had nothing to do with driving itself. I had to keep making a fire throughout the night while others were asleep for the purpose of burning firewood under the engine of the tractor to prevent it from freezing in the morning. The temperature would easily go below thirty degrees below freezing. Although it was actually physically easy and I liked the fact I could stay next to the fire to stay away from cold, I could not help becoming drowsy. This was not what I thought my job would be, but it was already a done deal. After hanging on to the job for two days, I asked around to see if anyone was interested. I actually found someone and I gave the job to him immediately.

In this camp, all the labor was stopped when the temperature went thirty degrees below freezing during the day.


New Year

We managed to have one day as a holiday to celebrate the New Year while we were in the Soviet Union. When we played cards of one hundred famous poems (note. This is a traditional New Year’s game in Japan), not any single card was left after the game was over because there were two hundred people in our camp. There were even people who remembered all the poems and wrote them down on their own. We made cards with shaved boards to play the game, thinking of how people in our hometown might also be enjoying this game during New Year. Since there was no other recreation, it was really fun. A Russian commissioned officer came by to watch us, and asked us to let him join the game one day. When the poem was read, he said “Hai! (note.I got it! in Japanese)” and tapped on the card in front of him although he did not comprehend anything at all. The way he was was so comical that we all went into laughter.

The cooking crew did a great job saving daily ingredients little by little and made a feast with several dishes such as whole Pacific herring, mashed sweet potatoes with sweetened chestnuts, and boiled vegetables as a New Year’s special food. They must have really worked hard on it. I felt full after a long long time, and had a great New Year’s celebration.

We continued to enjoy the card games every Sunday afterwards.

A small bathroom was constructed at the edge of the brook a little bit away from the camp. A Russian style bathroom did not have a tub. It was a steam bath in which a lot of steam comes out after pouring many bucketful of waters on the iron stove with fire placed at the bottom of five layers of steps. We felt hotter in higher layers. We chose where we wanted to sit down. After sitting there patiently, a lot of sweat started to shoot out. Dirt floated on its own, and we could feel pretty relaxed there. However, we could not do anything else as there was no soap nor a towel.

The method Russians told us was to use a branch with leaves. We were told that the dirt that floated would be taken out if we dipped it in water and stroked our backs a couple of times. It was actually true. For months, I could not take a bath, nor even could wash my face, so an amazing amount of dirt came out of my body endlessly. Indeed, how many months did I really wait for the moment to take a bath! I felt truly revived. However, with two hundred people in the same camp, my turn did not come too frequently.

I was once on duty for the bath: I was in charge of getting water from the brook, boiling hot water, and stoking the fire for the bath. However, getting water was pretty tough because the bottom of the brook was almost all frozen to the very bottom, and there was just a very small amount of stream at the bottom. On top of it, the hole to get the water was pretty deep and it was quite difficult to reach the water. However, there were some good things as well because a lot of clayfish came out of it. It came one after another after no matter how many we caught. As a result, I was able to catch twenty of them while I was working on getting water. I put them on the stove directly, and enjoyed eating them along with the shell. It was so delicious. This is what “fringe benefit” really means.

When the Russian guards’ wives were going to use the bathroom, we had to go out of the area even if we were in charge. There was someone who was put into the guardhouse with a doubt that he urinated facing toward a Russian lady although he did not mean to. People are pretty fussy about etiquette in this country.


Killing Lice

The Russians also seemed to have troubles with lice, and so they knew how to kill them. Their method was to make a small hut first of all and make it airtight by plastering mud on the wall from inside and outside. Then they hung their clothing from the ceiling and kept the stove going with fire. As it became too hot for them, lice began to run around right away. Eventually, their legs will slip and drop on the floor. Lice eggs all became dried out and completely died.

One day, I was dozing off in the warm lice dome, cutting off from my duty. After a while, I felt something was moving around my neck. When I reached for it, I caught a big louse! I was so shocked and immediately looked down. To my surprise, countless lice were creeping onto all over my body – I instantaneously jumped up to get out of the dome, took off my clothes and brushed off all of them. I did not realize that lice in the dome were just dropped onto the ground because of the heat, but were not really killed. This story could not be even a joke because I felt it was like a punishment to my idleness.



There was a need to test lumbering in our area, and my group was chosen to be in charge of it. We had to be a pair to push the Russian saw to cut a tree. If our timing was off while pushing and pulling, we would only become tired and could not cut the wood at all. There were two in charge of sewing, and one in charge of cutting off branches. These three formed one working team to work on three square meters. If three teams finished cutting the wood in the area of nine square meters altogether, we could accomplish 100% of the given quota for the day. That quota was relatively easy to attain.

One Russian commissioned officer came with us to teach us various techniques. The mountains in that region had awesome forests, covered with fine Japanese white pines. They grew so thick that they were almost all straight without bending. We immediately started to work, but it took us time to get used to each other’s timing. We ended up using so much force and became easily exhausted in no time, but gradually, we became better at it.

If three of us found three good size pine trees and cut them down, that was about it. We removed all the branches and cut the rest to the length of four meters.

All the removed branches were burnt to avoid harmful insects. When we burnt the branches, the fire became a fairly large great fire in such cold temperatures of fifteen to twenty degrees below freezing, and it allowed us to be naked and work on killing lice during our lunch break.

When we took off our shirts and put them close to the fire, lice began to run around because of the heat. Then we quickly brushed them off. It was much more effective than killing them one by one. Even after taking such a lunch break, we were still able to finish 100% of our quota by four o’ clock in the afternoon. The Russian commissioned officers seemed to be very happy with the result.

After participating in this trial lumbering for about a week, I became pretty good at it. Lumbering gave me something else to look forward to – it was to find mushrooms. It became suddenly cold in autumn in Siberia. So mushrooms that shot out rather late in the previous autumn became frozen and were stuck to wood trunks. They were surely delicious when boiled with salted fish. It became an additional lunch for us, and it was undoubtedly helpful.



Internees began to look terrible after a while with their hair growing so long since there was no barber in the camp. There were some whose countenance was not that great from the beginning, but I remembered I had a pair of western scissors. One Sunday, when I was cutting the edge of a comrade’s hair, a Russian soldier found it and asked me to work on his hair as well. So I went to his lodge and cut the edge of his hair. One after another, I took care of five of them. The soldiers were very pleased and told me to eat the meal they served me. They insisted that I should eat it while I was there because others would be envious if I didn't. The rice I ate was hard rice after such a long while, flavored with oil. It was unbelievably delicious. In addition, there was meat and boiled beans. Russians firmly believe that those who do not work do not get to eat, but instead, if someone works, he should be rewarded without fail. I ate and ate as much as I could. Even though my stomach became full, my mouth would not get tired of eating. Although food was finally stuck at my throat, I still wanted to eat. The Russians laughed at me, saying I ate until food filled my throat. Afterwards, they gave me a nickname, "Kushaiy, kushaiy doktor", which seemed to mean “a barber with big appetite.” I was occasionally invited again as a barber, and I was treated to a splendid meal each time. It continued until spring when the main group arrived. When they came, there was a designated barber, and I sadly lost my job.


Fortune telling with a Fox

I did not know this kind of thing at all in my experience, but someone in another unit believed in becoming engaged in fortune telling by inviting an imaginary fox. He could tell what would happen to us in the future by the result of the visit of the fox (notes. Foxes were believed to be embodiment of spiritual power in Japanese culture, especially as protectors for rice farming). The recent results showed that his unit would be able to return to Japan about May. Everyone in my unit became very interested in this topic, and so we all agreed to invite him to ask of the fortunes of our unit. We really tried hard to save our scarce rye bread and fish in order to invite that soldier.

This is how he did his fortune telling. First, he drew a big “torii (Shinto shrine archway)” on a big piece of paper. Then he placed each card of all the forty-eight kana syllables and numbers from one to ten next to that. Then he was blindfolded and gripped something like a pair of chopsticks in his hands and placed the lower ends of them on the paper. Then he opened the window and began to pray as hard as he could to invite in a fox. Then, although I did not know if it was real or fake, his hands began to shake and the end of the chopsticks began to point to some of the cards on the sheet. If you trace the order of the kana syllables that the chopsticks pointed to, a sentence would be formed. I had no idea if a Japanese fox (which would often have such a role in the fortune telling) would come visit us all the way to Siberia or not, but everyone was serious by no doubt.

Everyone wanted to go home so much even to the point of believing such a silly thing. At that time, unfortunately, no sentence was formed by the attempt. The fortune-teller said it was because there were non-believers like myself among us, and the fox might have become angry. He concluded, “Great fox, please go back to your way.”

We were certainly fooled by him because he took all the gifts with him for sure even though he did not give us any result. After that incident, some people kept talking about what they heard about the results of other fortune telling for a while, but nothing really came true. Finally, nobody trusted him any more and the gossip about the fortune telling went away.


Bread Factory

Bread we ate at the camp was baked by an old Russian lady and two Japanese soldiers in a small bread factory attached to our building.

First, they put firewood inside the kettle and burnt it continuously to heat it up. After the kettle became hot, they took out all the firewood. Then, fermented bread dough was placed in an iron box, which was placed inside the burnt kettle. At last, they covered it with a lid. This way, bread would be done in about thirty minutes.

One day, a soldier called Nagae was caught by a Russian when he stole bread from the bread factory. The head of the camp became furious. I had never seen such a quiet head becoming so angry. He said, “You are not the only one who is hungry. Everyone is the same. Knowing all that, you wanted to steal bread and wanted to fulfill your own hunger to your content. It is such a selfish action that deserves death by shooting. Go over there and stand!” Then he began to pull his gun and put the bullets in it. We all thought that would be it. While Nagae seemed to have already resolved himself, the head quietly raised the gun and pointed at the target. That interval must have been actually very short, but we all felt it was such a long time.

Next, the head intentionally missed the target and questioned, “Tell me. Were you THAT hungry?” Nagae replied, “Yes, sir.” Then the head continued, “All right. I understand. Then starting tomorrow, I order you to work at the bread factory! ” All of us were so relieved. Nagae became very chubby after one month of work because of that assignment. He was such a lucky dude. In the meantime, I was truly impressed with the head of our camp for his admirable quality.


Lucky Name

There were some soldiers who were fortunate because of their name. There was a new recruit with a cute round face, and his family name was “Ebi (note. This means “shrimp” in Japanese.) However, the same sound means “motherfucker” in Russian.

The dirtiest expression in Russian language is “Yebi Yobanuyu Mat”, which means “Fuck motherfucker!” Whenever we called his name Ebi, the Russians all laughed. We did not know why in the beginning, but soon he became a very famous character to the point of receiving the special order to watch the residence of the Russian commissioned officers. All he had to do was to do chores around the house every day with that assignment. He was given enough meals as well. He was definitely in the group who had a easier life than others until he went back to Japan.


Beginning of Full-scale Work

By the end of march, all the lodges were completed and other units moved in. All of a sudden, there were a thousand of us, and the full-scale lumbering began.

Soviet guards were increased and they formed their own unit. They followed a different commanding system different from the units that belonged to our camp and they were slightly stricter.

I also joined the lumbering. Each troupe went to a different mountain. The supervisor for the lumbering was a civilian girl who was only about seventeen or eighteen, who was not flexible at all. As for guarding soldiers, they wanted to make easier conditions for them to watch us by making our working area as small as possible, and cut down the woods all around the area to increase visibility. They told us to work within this small space, but the small space was not efficient because it increased the danger when a tree was cut down – since almost all of us were untrained, we had no idea in which direction the wood would actually fall. As a result, it fell toward the opposite direction against our intentions. We had to be really careful of what would happen. Because of this conflict, the supervisor and the guards kept fighting every morning, which made it difficult to decide the area to work. Experienced people could tell the direction of falling by the way branches were spreading. They were also able to put wedges in the spots that would make it easier for us to work with the lumber after that fell down.

However, it was a totally different story with the inexperienced. Sometimes, when we were trying to drop a tree in one direction, it actually fell onto an opposite side. The problem was that we would only give cautions to the people who we thought would be standing in the direction the tree would fall. We did not say anything to the people who were working in the other direction. That caused accidents. One day, I suddenly heard a sharp voice saying, “Watch out !” As I looked up, a huge tree was falling down to where I was. I tried to escape in a rush, but unfortunately, I tripped myself over tundra. That was it! No time was left to escape any more. I covered my head with both hands and laid down on my stomach. The tree made a fast falling sound and was coming down on me. It must have been only a few seconds, but I remember I felt I waited for a very long time. Then there was a banging sound. Some twigs broke and flew in the air. Nevertheless, to my surprise, my body was found right in the middle of two thick branches. Although I had a slight scratch by the twigs on the back, I was alive! If it was one meter closer, I was getting a ticket to go up to heaven for sure. Others thought I had no hope. When I pushed my way through among the branches and showed my face, everyone screamed with happiness, saying “Wow!!!”

I truly realized I was born under a strong luck. At battle fields, there were so many bullets shooting at me, but I was never hit. Again, with a slight difference of distance, I was saved. They say life and death is a difference of the thinness of a piece of paper. I really thought that was so true.

This incident was a typical mistake caused by the decision of the inexperienced who tried to use wedges in an incorrect way.


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.