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By the end of World War II there were from 560,000 to 760,000 Japanese personnel in the Soviet Union and Mongolia interned to work in labor camps as POWs. Of them, it is estimated that between 60,000-347,000 died in captivity.
The majority of the approximately 3.5 million Japanese armed forces outside Japan were disarmed by the United States and Kuomintang China and repatriated in 1946. Western Allies had taken 35,000 Japanese prisoners between December 1941 and 15 August 1945, i.e., before the Japanese capitulation The Soviet Union held the Japanese POWs much longer and used them as a labor force.
The majority of Japanese who were held in the USSR did not consider themselves as "Prisoners of War" and referred to themselves as "internees", because they voluntarily laid down their arms after the official capitulation of Japan, i.e., after the end of the military conflict. The number of Japanese prisoners captured in combat was very small.
After the defeat of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria, Japanese POWs were sent from Manchuria, Korea, South Sakhalin and Kuril Islands to Primorski Krai, Khabarovsk Krai, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Kazakhstan (South Kazakhstan Province and Zhambyl Province), Buryat-Mongol ASSR, and Uzbek SSR. In 1946, 49 labor camps for Japanese POWs under the management of GUPVI housed about 500,000 persons. In addition there were two camps for those convicted of various crimes.
Handling of Japanese POWs was, in line with the USSR State Defense Committee Decree no. 9898cc "About Receiving, Accommodation, and Labor Utilization of the Japanese Army Prisoners of War" ("О приеме, размещении, трудовом использовании военнопленных японской армии") dated by 23 August 1945.
A significant number of Japanese were assigned to the construction of the Baikal-Amur Mainline (over 200,000 persons), in eight camps, in Komsomolsk-on-Amur (two camps, for two railroad branches), Sovetskaya Gavan, Raychikha railroad station (Khabarovsk Krai), Izvestkovaya r/r station (Khabarovsk Krai), Krasnaya Zarya (Chita Oblast), Taishet, and Novo-Grishino (Irkutsk Oblast).
The repatriation of Japanese POWs started in 1946.
|1949||97,000||971 transferred to PRC|
|1950||1,585||leaving 2,988 remaining in USSR|
Those remaining after 1950 were detained having been convicted of various crimes. The release of these persons continued from 1953 under various amnesties, and the last major group of 1025 Japanese POWs was released on 23 December 1956. From then on, some Japanese POWs were released in small groups, including those who would only return in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some Japanese prisoners who had been held for decades, who by this point had married and had started families, elected not to permanently return to Japan.
There are about 60 associations of Japanese former internees and members of their families today. The Soviet Union did not provide the lists of POWs and did not allow the relatives of those POWs who died in captivity to visit their burial sites. This became possible after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Historian S. Kuznetsov, dean of the Department of History of the Irkutsk State University, one of the first researchers of the topic, interviewed thousands of former internees and came to the following conclusion:
"Siberian Internment" (the Japanese term) was a unique and paradoxical phenomenon. Many of them have nostalgic and sentimental recollection of this period of their life. In their memoirs and recollections they drew a distinction between the attitude of the Soviet state machine and ordinary Russian people. Unlike Germans, Japanese were not associated in the perception of Russians with Nazi atrocities in the Russian land, although initially the attitude of Russians was hostile, under the influence of Soviet propaganda. What is more, romantic relations between Japanese internees and Russian women were not uncommon. For example, in the city of Kansk, Krasnoyarsk Krai, about 50 Japanese married locals and stayed. Japanese noticed the overall poverty of the Russian population. They also met Soviet political prisoners in the GULAG prison camps abundant in Siberia at the time, and acquired a good understanding of the Soviet system. All of them recall the ideological indoctrination during the compulsory daily "studies of democracy", however only a very small number of them embraced communism.
However, many of the inmates do not share Kuznetsov's views and retain negative memories of being robbed of personal property, and the brutality of camp personnel, harsh winters and exhausting labor. One of these critics is Haruo Minami who later became one of the most famous singers in Japan. Minami, because of his harsh experiences in the labor camp, became a well-known anti-communist.
Most Japanese were captured in Soviet-occupied Manchuria (northeast China) and were taken to Soviet POW camps. Many Japanese died while they were detained in the POW camps; estimates of the number of these deaths vary from 60,000, based on deaths certified by the USSR, to 347,000 (the estimate of American historian William F. Nimmo, including 254,000 dead and 93,000 missing), based on the number of Japanese servicemen and civilian auxiliaries registered in Manchuria at the time of surrender who failed to return to Japan subsequently. Some remained in captivity until December 1956 (11 years after the war) before they were allowed to return to Japan. The wide disparity between Soviet records of death and the number of Japanese missing under Soviet occupation, as well as the whereabouts of the remains of POWs, are still grounds of political and diplomatic contention, at least on the Japanese side.
According to the map formulated by combining two maps, published by the former Ministry of Health and Welfare and the current Ministry of Labor, Health and Welfare of the Japanese Government, there were more than 70 labor camps for the Japanese prisoners of war within the Soviet Union:
Because of the difficulty in retrieving formal USSR Government records, the numerical data are based on reports obtained from former POWs and elsewhere by the former Ministry of Health and Welfare and the current Ministry of Labor, Health and Welfare of the Japanese Government. The Japanese Government is disinterring the remains of the Japanese POWs who died in the USSR; more data may be anticipated, for example, at sites such as [www.mhlw.go.jp] "Investigation of records regarding persons deceased during detention in Siberia." (Ministry of Labor, Health and Welfare Policy Reports 2009.)
Japan had a moral and legal responsibility to compensate the victims of its aggression, yet the Japanese Government had so far refused to provide compensation to former prisoners of war for their period of forced labour in Siberia, although it had made concessions to prisoners from other regions. The veterans had sued the Japanese Government in 1981 for compensation and had eventually been issued with labour certificates by the Russian Government, as requested by the court, but their appeal had been rejected.
Those who chose to stay in Russia and eventually decided to return had to deal with significant Japanese bureaucracy. A major problem is the difficulty in providing the documentary confirmation of their status. Toshimasa Meguro, a 77-year-old former POW, was permitted to visit Japan as late as in 1998. He served 8 years of labor camps and after the release was ordered to stay in Siberia.
Tetsuro Ahiko is the last remaining Japanese POW living in Kazakhstan.
Research into the history of the Japanese POWs has become possible in Russia only since the second half of the 1980s, with glastnost and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Until this time the only public information about any World War II POWs taken by the Soviet Union was some numbers of prisoners taken. After opening the secret Soviet archives the true scope of the POW labor in the Soviet Union has become known, and the topic has been discussed in the press.
Japanese POWs have become the subject of the historians of Siberia and the Russian Far East, who gained access to local archives of NKVD/MVD and CPSU A number of kandidat (PhD) dissertations had been presented about Soviet POW in various regions. In 2000 a fundamental collection of documents related to POWs in the USSR was published, which contained significant information about Japanese.
About 2,000 memoirs of Japanese POWs in the Soviet Union have been published in Japan.
The Japanese novelist Toyoko Yamasaki wrote the 1976 novel Fumō Chitai, about an Imperial Army staff officer captured in Manchuria, his captivity and return to Japan to become a businessman. This has been made into a film and two television dramas.
A dramatisation of experiences as a Soviet POW form a portion of the latter part of the epic movie trilogy, The Human Condition, by Masaki Kobayashi.
Kiuchi Nobuo reported his experiences about Soviet camps in his "The Notes of Japanese soldier in USSR" online comic series.
The South Korean movie My Way (2011) also shows the treatment of Japanese and Japanese-recruited Koreans in Soviet POW camps.