Remains of Japanese POWs in Siberia
By Alex Calvo
Almost seventy years after the guns fell silent, the Second World War remains very much present in the media, with frequent reminders of the human cost of the conflict. In the case of Japan this includes the fate of the soldiers and civilians captured in the closing days of the war, when the Soviet Union declared war and quickly overran Manchuria. Leaving aside the issue of the extent to which this development was instrumental in finally convincing Japan to surrender (historians are divided on this), and the resulting territorial conflict concerning the Southern Kurile Islands / Northern Territories, which remains unresolved to this day, the Soviet thrust resulted in the capture of thousands of military personnel and Japanese civilians. Taken to Siberia and other parts of the Soviet Union, it took years for Moscow to release them. The last ship did not reach Japan until 1956, and even then some remained behind and would not return until much later.
Japanese authorities estimate that 55,000 lost their lives. Although the term “prisoner of war” (POW) is often used in works written in English, in Japanese the term for “detainees” is more common. After capture, the Japanese tended to refuse to use the word “prisoner” as going against the Japanese Imperial Army’s disdain for the idea of being captured. The military indoctrinated its members to to choose honorable death in preference to shameful capture, and no training was provided on the right behavior of prisoners.
Some voluntary groups and government agencies are active trying to locate their remains, and those of Japanese troops fallen in other fronts. This is facilitated by cooperation with Russian authorities, which after the end of the Cold War have tended to acknowledge the plight of the Japanese internees and provide information about their fate. In 2005 Russian authorities gave Japan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare microfilms containing personal details of 40,940 Japanese POWs who had perished during detention. The details included their names, place and cause of death, and site of burial. In 2013 the Ministry began to conduct DNA tests on human remains in Russia.
On July 27, the bones of thirteen internees who had perished in Siberia were cremated. The ceremony took place in the city of Arsenyev, in Southeastern Siberia, on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The cremation took part under the supervision of a ten-member mission dispatched by Japan’s Health Ministry. Toshio Konuma, the ministry official in charge of foreign affairs, led the mission, and the other members included survivors from the Soviet labor camps and descendants of prisoners who had died there, together with student volunteers. On July 15 the mission had traveled to Russia and had devoted nine days to excavate and collect bones of the Japanese detainees, which they found in different parts of Arsenyev, including some nearby mountains.
One of the members of the mission, who survived the Soviet labor camps himself, was Shoji Endo, 88 years old and living in Kawasaki. He spoke the following words at the cremation ceremony: “It breaks my heart to contemplate how you dreamed about the day you would return home but regretfully died.” Endo added that more than “five decades since the internment, we finally could salute your bodies here.”
Following this address, participants laid flowers before the human remains and made offerings of food on an altar. The offerings included rice cakes, pickled ume (plum), and sake. Following the cremation ceremony, the mission returned to Japan on July 29 carrying the ashes, which it delivered to the Health Ministry the following day at a ceremony held at Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Tokyo.
Western countries tend to bury their soldiers either in the country where they fall or back home. The latter option was traditionally reserved for high-ranking officers like Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was taken to Great Britain in a cask of brandy following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars. On the other hand, Japanese culture and religion have a different practice, mainly cremation abroad for soldiers who have fallen away from home, with only the ashes or some small body part returning to Japan. As is common in many countries, some people who are not military personnel are treated as such. This is the case of the prisoners in Siberian camps, many of whom were settlers or other civilians resident in Manchuria (then Manchukuo).
The location and cremation of these human remains is a reminder of the vast scale of the human suffering unleashed by the Second World War and its associated conflicts, which in Asia include the Second Sino-Japanese War. In the case of the Japanese internees, they had to endure not only the harsh climate in most of the camps and the travails of getting there, together with a lack of food and physically exhausting work. Moreover, they were viewed with suspicion upon their return to Japan, meaning that their ordeal was not always over once back home.
Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University.