The Siberian Internment was a forced migration of over 600,000 Japanese servicemen and civilians into Soviet labor camps following the brief Soviet-Japanese War in northeast Asia during the last weeks of World War II. This detainment and forced transportation of foreign prisoners-of-war (POWs) was against the letter of the Potsdam Declaration, of which the USSR became a signatory when joining the Allied effort in East Asia. While the circumstances surrounding Iosif Stalin’s August 1945 decision to transport the Japanese from Manchuria, Southern Sakhalin, northern Korea, and other Soviet-occupied territories are not known fully, it is clear that the Japanese who surrendered to the Soviets became hostages of the growing disagreements between the USSR and the United States. Their detainment in the Soviet labor camp system, where they joined over 2 million POWs of Axis armies already interned, thus became another chapter in the long history of domestic and trans-border forced migrations initiated by Stalin before, during, and in the aftermath of World War II. The Japanese stayed in the USSR and Mongolia—unified under the catchall of “Siberia” in their recollections despite the much broader geography of their confinement—anywhere between a few months to eleven years, but the majority were repatriated by 1950. During the eleven years that it lasted, the Siberian Internment became an issue of national and international importance, and it continued to influence Japan’s domestic and international politics decades after the last Japanese was repatriated in December 1956.

Beyond the grand geopolitical strategizing that played a decisive part in their captivity, the Japanese internees were in the first instance utilized as labor force in rebuilding the Soviet Union following the devastation caused by war—just like millions of other Soviet and foreign prisoners. They gave their labor to major industrial, railway, and urban construction projects, including the construction of camps and settlements for the benefit of the camp system but also broader civilian construction in cities and towns; worked in mining and other types of resource extraction; supplied agricultural labor such as seasonal harvesting of crops in collective farms; toiled away in fisheries and canning factories, paper mills, and a variety of other industrial and production facilities aimed at rebuilding the war-ravaged Soviet economy and developing the vast resources of the sparsely populated eastern regions of the country.

Their extraordinary experiences and encounters as captives in an enemy country compelled many survivors to write memoirs upon repatriation to postwar Japan. Their recollections, like other stories of Japanese suffering and deprivation during and after World War II, were consonant with and inspired narratives of Japanese national victimhood. Prominent among these were the stories of the so-called “Siberian trinity of suffering” (Shiberia san jūku)—cold weather, persistent hunger, and hard work—that left indelible marks on the writers’ minds and bodies. At the heart of all grievances, however, lay perhaps the most primal offense committed by the Soviets—the detainment of Japanese citizens in complete isolation from the outside world, the confinement of foreign citizens without any legal basis in or regard for international agreements. In other words, the biggest victimhood originated not from frigid temperatures, malnutrition, labor exploitation, or even the political indoctrination in every camp with foreign captives, but from the immobility illegally imposed on a large group of Japanese nationals by an enemy state with little regard for international law.

This paper approaches the history of the Siberian Internment from an alternative angle, focusing not simply on the immobility of the Japanese in the Soviet camps, but their broader mobilities as soldiers, captives, and repatriates. Viewed comprehensively, these mobilities of Japanese citizens—mainly former military personnel but also some civilians—starting years prior to their enforced immobility in Soviet custody after the end of hostilities, reveal much about the complex legacies of war and empire, and the difficult transitions into the postwar. I approach these legacies by following as much as possible the paper and object trail consisting of documents in Japanese, Russian and English scattered in archives in Japan, Russia, and the United States, as well as artifacts of the Siberian Internment kept in museums and personal collections. I portray the Siberian Internment as a transnational occurrence, a nexus that connects two chains of (i.e. human movements) in the wake of empire and war. The first of these chains consists of imperial migrations between the Japanese metropole and the colonies, including the hasty and chaotic multidirectional repatriations following defeat—in short, the totality of movements required for the expansion and maintenance of the Japanese Empire. The second, less studied, chain is the network of forced migrations of Soviet citizens and foreigners initiated by Stalin across the Eurasian continent before, during, and after WWII, of which the Japanese unexpectedly became part. This part is not well known internationally. Their movement into the Soviet camp system was documented by camp chiefs, as were their transfers from camp to camp, minute details of their daily existences, or the numbers of POWs assigned to various industrial projects. In the 1950s, the 1500 or so internees remaining in the USSR were allowed to correspond with their families using “POW postcards” through ICRC channels—many of these postcards have survived and are exhibited in museums in Tokyo and Maizuru. When they finally returned to Japanese soil, repatriation officials at Maizuru port compiled lists with their names. Hundreds of returnees also faced interrogation by US occupation officials aiming to tap into fresh intelligence about the Soviet Union, its facilities, and capabilities, in the increasingly heated ideological confrontation of the Cold War. Following this trail of documents to the extent possible in a brief essay opens a window into little-studied peregrinations of Siberian captives through post-imperial landscapes, which they negotiated to the best of their ability in finding the way back into postwar society as citizens of the new, peaceful Japan.Footnote 1

The Siberian Internment as a Transnational, Trans-Border Event

Before analyzing the documentary evidence of the Japanese former servicemen’s Siberian journey, a brief attempt should be made to locate the Siberian Internment in broader contexts of migration flows in East Asia and Eurasia preceding and resulting from WWII. In this respect, another unique aspect of the internment of the Japanese in the USSR becomes evident; by following the movements of the Japanese servicemen it is possible to link the flows of people necessitated, first, by the expansion and consolidation of Japan’s imperial project in northeast Asia (along with other areas of Asia), and second, the more chaotic process of this project’s dismantling following defeat in the war. Our protagonists in their majority were young Japanese men drafted into the Imperial Army, or those who had traveled to Manchukuo, Southern Sakhalin, or the Kuril Islands as agricultural settlers, schoolteachers, or government employees only to be drafted into the military in the final weeks of the war. They found themselves at the epicenter of the rise and fall of the Japanese Empire in northeast Asia. Their subsequent detainment in the USSR would not have happened had they not been recruited, like millions of their fellow Japanese and non-Japanese imperial subjects, to the task of protecting and expanding the empire. For this reason, the Siberian Internment should be located first and foremost in the imperial setting; without Manchukuo and Karafuto, there would never have been Siberia. In this broad context, the men who ended up in Soviet camps were but one among many groups of Japanese that shuttled between the metropole and its far-off outposts, their movements forming a web of interaction and interchange of humans, goods, and ideas that made possible the vast imperial undertaking.

The second important setting for our paper is the dismantling of Japan’s empire by the victorious superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union. The rivalry between them toward the end of the Second World War, especially the lightning-fast entry of the USSR into the war against Japan in a rush to gain a say in the postwar partition of spoils in East Asia, foreshadowed the coming global Cold War competition and foretold the fates of millions in the region. Especially interesting in this regard are attempts to deal with millions of Japanese and non-Japanese subjects of the empire stranded in the imperial outposts at war’s end. In Anglophone histories of the dismantling of Japan’s empire, the flows of people following defeat are often seen through the lens of Allied efforts—mainly American and British—to return people to places where they supposedly “belonged.”Footnote 2 This logic dominated the complex processes of rolling back Japan’s imperial expansion following the empire’s demise; the Japanese people stranded overseas were supposed to return to the Japanese home islands, despite the fact that many had been born in overseas territories, had long-standing business interests and property there, or had marriage and other social ties that meant they belonged in the colony or informal colony more than they did in the ancestral home in Japan. These tensions about belonging would come to the fore in the contempt and disdain with which many Japanese in the home islands (naichi) greeted the millions of returnees from the overseas territories (gaichi).Footnote 3 By the same logic, all Koreans who found themselves dislocated from the peninsula either by choice or by the Japanese imperial policies were to be returned to Korea; it was assumed they would all want to do that anyway.Footnote 4 Underlying this logic was the conception of a new order in which the multiethnic, pan-Asian empire was to be deconstructed into narrowly defined, ethnic nation-states. The all-encompassing (though hardly inclusive) policies of the Japanese Empire, such as kōminka measures toward Koreans and other colonial peoples, were to be negated in the postwar acts such as the 1947 Alien Registration Ordinance, which designated the non-Japanese imperial subjects of the yesteryear as “third-country nationals.”Footnote 5 In short, the empire and its legacies in Asia were to be lifted off the pages of history in favor of a world of nation-states.

These contradictions become obvious when studying the plight of more than 600,000 former imperial soldiers who surrendered not to the American or British forces, but to the Soviets in and around the empire’s northern reaches. These former servicemen—for they were almost all men—were unlucky to be caught in the early competition for influence in East Asia between the superpowers emerging as Cold War rivals while nominally preserving the façade of Allied cooperation. The Soviet Union, increasingly confident following its victory over Nazi Germany won with unimaginable human sacrifices, had different ideas about the coming world order in its eastern backyard from the one envisaged by the United States. Thus, faced with Harry S. Truman’s reluctance to allow the USSR a significant role in the occupation of Japan, the Soviet leadership decided to keep the Japanese in its custody as one last lever of influence over Japan, a trump card in the coming confrontation with the United States over influence in East Asia.Footnote 6 As a result, the more than 600,000 Japanese were caught in limbo; they were hardly included in postwar flows of humans in empire’s wake administered by the US Occupation administration (despite being widely referred to as hikiagesha, like the civilian returnees from the mainland).

Writing about the large-scale “human flows” in the wake of the Japanese Empire, the Japanese historian Narita Ryūichi has urged a reconsideration of post-imperial movements of humans.Footnote 7 In contrast to the traditional understanding of the post-imperial migrations, which focused solely on the movements from former imperial outposts to Japanese home islands, Narita mapped the migrations of civilians and former servicemen as multidirectional flows. In his model, human flows did not exclusively originate overseas only to lead back to Japan; Narita did not limit his focus solely to the repatriations of Japanese individuals, but included those of non-Japanese imperial subjects who repatriated to their respective homelands which had become independent states after the collapse of the Japanese empire. Historian Katō Kiyofumi has also written about sudden changes in status after the empire’s collapse that led to the flows articulated by Narita.Footnote 8

To bridge the division imposed in part by the Cold War thinking, which tended to separate the United States and Soviet actions and spheres of influence, I suggest taking Narita’s model one step further and linking this map with a wholly separate network of migrations. Geographically, Narita’s model covers what we call East and Southeast Asia; logistically, most of the flows depicted by him happened through sea routes. There was another, similarly large-scale, web of human flows that happened over land and covered what is generally known as Eurasia. I am talking here about the tangle of migrations—in most cases forced—orchestrated by Iosif Stalin before, during, and in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Unlike in the case of post-imperial migrations in East and Southeast Asia, the epicenter of this web was not the Japanese archipelago but the sprawling forced labor camps of the Soviet Union—what is often called the “Gulag Archipelago.” In my research on the Siberian Internment I am critical toward this term, since it jumbles together two different types of camps—those for the Soviet inmates and for foreign POWs.Footnote 9

The Siberian Internment, or the captivity of over 600,000 Japanese former servicemen in the Soviet forced labor camps, is the nexus that links the two models, enabling us to expand the frame of reference northward and westward. Through the Japanese experiences in the Stalinist camps, the web of East Asian maritime movements dictated by the expansion of the Japanese Empire became interlinked with the expansive web of Eurasian land-based mobilities in and around the Soviet Union. The importance of this expansion of scope is twofold. First, it helps us to locate the Japanese deimperialization in a global history context, linking the usually separated Asia–Pacific and Eurasian theaters, and to challenge the nation-centered tradition of remembering and interpreting the war in Japan in which there is little room for the empire. Second, the Soviet camps for foreign POWs were the only space, as far as I know, where the Japanese and European Axis former soldiers came together and were sometimes even detained in the same camps. Their captivities were legacies of their respective nations’ imperial and expansionist ambitions as much as they were products of Stalinist geopolitics.

In short, of more than six million Japanese stranded outside the home islands at war’s end, the experiences and movements of the Siberian internees were the most unique. One look at the trajectories of their movement helps substantiate this point. The Siberian Internment started in a territory that was still informal Japanese Empire in Manchuria in August 1945, but that would soon become contested in the Chinese Civil War. It played out in over 2000 Soviet camps scattered across the vast Soviet territory and ended in a sea passage to a much-changed Japan. Behind camp walls the internees were unaware of the momentous changes happening at the time in occupied Japan. Thus when they crossed the Sea of Japan back to the home islands, they crossed not only the Sea of Japan, the natural Soviet-Japanese border, but also the boundary between epochs. Their experiences were thus comparable to time travel from prewar empire to postwar nation-state.

The unusual trajectory traveled by the Japanese servicepeople who surrendered to the Soviets—compared to those who faced surrender in territories controlled by the United States and the UK— meant that the documentary trail following their movements was also different. Beyond the differences in procedures through which the Allied armies and authorities dealt with the surrender, disarming, (temporary) internment, and repatriation of the captured Japanese personnel, the USSR’s unexpected decision to transport these former soldiers and some civilians to Soviet territory adds a new dimension to the history of the multidirectional mobilities in the wake of Japanese imperial collapse. Importantly, it provides an opportunity to look into the Soviet practices of recording and managing captives, although much of this analysis remains incomplete due to the blanks in archival evidence. Nevertheless, the purposes for which Soviet camp authorities documented the bodies and movements of the Japanese in their custody were different from those of, for example, the Americans, and they shed light on the priorities of the Soviet leadership at the time. Let us now briefly follow these peregrinations with the help of documents and artifacts.

Documenting the Siberian Internment

The Japanese internees’ tribulations across the GUPVI archipelago—the sister NKVD directorate to the better-known Gulag—are notoriously hard to trace through documents.Footnote 10 This is in part due to the secretive nature of the nation and period the internees inhabited in captivity, the Soviet Union of the 1940s–1950s. The Soviet bureaucracy was known for meticulous record-keeping but much of these records remain inaccessible and untapped. The long and arduous odyssey of a Japanese former soldier—captured in Manchuria, Southern Sakhalin, or the Kuril Islands, transported to the USSR, and returned to Japan after years of detainment—is thus not easy to reconstruct based on archival documents alone. Even with access to archival collections, both in Russia and Japan archival sources containing “personal information” remain inaccessible even today, almost seven decades after the end of the internment. During the Cold War, foreign scholars naturally had no access to Soviet sources. As a result, in the immediate aftermath of the internment its history was written primarily from memory or based on witness accounts, leaving the historians little choice but to rely on what the survivors remembered and cared to share in interviews or memoirs written after repatriation. This has created an imbalance in internment history: for decades, its most common format became the first-person narrative of suffering recollected from memory, while historical works based on archival and other primary sources have been scarce even after the collapse of the USSR opened the archival floodgates.

Despite their reputation for being hard to access, it was in the Russian archives that I was able to glimpse some personal documents of the Japanese internees. Even in an archival system as strict and meticulous as the Russian one, the task of sorting documents is formidable, perhaps made difficult by the fact that folders often go into hundreds of pages and the information that could be marked sensitive or personal may be buried deep inside a folder. Scholars trying to piece together a moment in history find the trail left by documents at best incomplete, and they have to resort to educated guesses, if not bold speculation, in reconstructing the full picture. Nevertheless, it is possible to piece together a story of the Siberian Internment from the disparate flotsam of paperwork and artifacts kept in archives and museums in Russia, Japan, and other countries. In Japan, many of the objects of the internment are preserved by the Memorial Museum for Soldiers, Detainees in Siberia, and Postwar Repatriates located on the thirty-third floor of the Sumitomo Building in Tokyo’s Shinjuku skyscraper district and the Maizuru Repatriation Memorial Museum in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture. As much as possible within this short paper, I analyze some of these documents and artifacts, the remnants of a long and winding odyssey, to attempt in part an object history, and partly a documentary investigation of the Japanese Empire’s demise and disappearance on the northeast Asian mainland.

In the analysis that follows, I consult and demonstrate three types of documents distinguished according to where they were created, in the USSR or in Japan, with some documents crossing the border between the nations. I analyze first the Soviet records of Japanese POWs—created in the USSR about the Japanese captives, paying special attention to applications for Soviet citizenship that some Japanese captives submitted while in the camps, unwilling to return to their mother country. Following this, I take a brief look into “POW postcards” (furyo yō yūbin hagaki) which the Japanese internees sent home via Red Cross channels, before providing a glimpse of Japanese government documents recording the details of the returnees upon their disembarkation at the Maizuru port in the Kyoto Prefecture. In addition to the documents that the internees’ sojourn and repatriation created in the two nations—and the POW postcards that were created in one country to be sent to the other—I also analyze rare cases of internees successfully smuggling out of the USSR some objects and writings created in captivity.

At the end of the war in August 1945 and before entering into the Soviet Union in the autumn or early winter of that year, the Japanese soldier usually carried a standard set of papers: military booklet or ledger (gunjin techō), recorded in which were details of transfers and other movements. Besides the serviceperson’s ID, the ledger often contained copies of the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors and the Imperial Rescript on Education—documents that established and regulated the soldier’s obligations before emperor and nation; a copy of the Field Service Code (senjinkun); other documents and rulebooks and, in the case of officers and some non-coms, a field diary.Footnote 11 There might have been other official documents depending on the rank or the duties of the serviceperson, not to mention personal papers.

Accepting surrender, the Soviet soldiers—and sometimes officers—searched the Japanese thoroughly; their primary goal was to appropriate the possessions that the surrendered servicemen had on their persons. A recent collection of Soviet archival documents on the Siberian Internment states in explanation of Soviet procedures of accepting Japanese surrender that “In ‘army reception points for POWs’ [in Manchuria] NKVD organs confiscated from the POWs all documents, diaries and other records, as well as personal effects. These seizures were formally documented through appropriate deeds, with attached lists of POWs and information on what exactly was confiscated from whom.”Footnote 12 The Japanese who experienced surrender, however, rarely mentioned any formal procedures carried out by the Soviets; their accounts told of shameless looting and appropriation. This process was remembered by the Japanese soldiers with indignation or amusement for years after the war; I present here one such example from a 1947 memoir by Futaba Kaname. When his turn came to be disarmed, Futaba threw his sword.

on the pile, when the Soviet soldier keeping guard started a body check. First of all, he rolled up the left sleeve of my uniform. He was looking for a wristwatch. He wasn’t so thorough with the other parts of my body; he was just checking the places where the watch might be. He also checked the upper pockets of my shirt; fountain pens were often found in such pockets. I’d hidden my watch inside my cap, so that was saved, but I lost the silver chain attached to my wallet.Footnote 13

What survived these early searches the Japanese could keep to themselves, but their personal effects could come under threat at any time in the camps, as it happened to Takasugi Ichirō at his transfer to a new camp, where the camp warden himself, an internal affairs (MVD) major, went through his possessions and freely pocketed what he fancied, including Takasugi’s watch, of which he was quite fond. A few days later Takasugi saw the watch on the wrist of the major’s wife.Footnote 14

The Soviets willingly appropriated not only the industrial equipment and foodstuffs from the industrial facilities and warehouses of Manchukuo and Karafuto but also personal valuables such as wristwatches and fountain pens of the captured Japanese. However, what they did with the Japanese paperwork is less clear. The chief reason for this is that there are no available archival sources that spell out specifically the procedures regarding the treatment of documentary evidence. Unlike the highly prized wristwatches and fountain pens that quickly found their way into the pockets of plundering Soviet guards and camp wardens, the value of documents found on the persons of the captives was not immediately obvious to the Soviet officials, and their fate is thus harder to establish. As mentioned, the Japanese carried identification papers on their persons when they arrived at Soviet camps, but these papers would hardly have been helpful for the Soviet officers who admitted them into the camp. Few if any receiving officials had any Japanese ability, except at major camp complexes or transit camps, where there were some interpreters. It took the Soviet state several months to mobilize the linguistic support needed for the day-to-day management of the Japanese captive army. More importantly, Stalin’s August 1945 secret order to transport the Japanese to Soviet territory was not based on a premeditated plan but represented a U-turn in Soviet policy; it had not been the Soviets’ original intention to transport any Japanese captives to the USSR. This meant that the main organs of Soviet power responsible for the momentous task of initial sorting, transportation, and accommodation of the Japanese soldiers—initially the Red Army leadership and later the almighty Soviet internal ministry, NKVD/MVD—were largely unprepared for their duties.

As a result, the early procedures of documenting the identities, numbers, and other important information of the incoming captives were conducted in a chaotic, ad hoc fashion. An analysis of some of the early Soviet camp documents, such as internee lists, makes this evident—the majority of Japanese names written in Russian contain errors; unable to read the Japanese papers of the internees, the Soviet officers in charge of this process often asked them to pronounce their names as clearly as possible, which they recorded by ear into the Russian-language form in the ubiquitous purple ink of the Soviet bureaucracy. In subsequent years, as the Soviet bureaucracy in charge of the Japanese internees improved its tools and methods, the number of camp officials able to communicate in Japanese and correctly document the details of their Japanese charges increased, especially in major camp complexes with large numbers of Japanese captives. We see this evolving Soviet attitude in the expansion of linguistic resources in the camp bureaucracy, most interestingly through an analysis of applications for Soviet citizenship later in this chapter. Still, the chaotic nature of the early procedures, as well as the generally badly organized business of running a Soviet forced labor camp, left its impact on the documents of the period.

Immediately after the brief Soviet-Japanese War of August 1945, the most common type of Soviet documents related to the remnants of the Imperial Japanese Army were brief reports on the numbers of Japanese captured by the Red Army. These were compiled by the headquarters of the three armies that had advanced into Manchukuo from the west, north, and east to be sent to the central authorities in Moscow. The reports should therefore be viewed in the broader context of early Soviet attempts to take stock of the conditions in their newly occupied areas. In these reports, the ordinary Japanese soldiers were reduced to mere numbers; only the highest ranking officers—usually generals—deserved a mention by name, as can be seen from a 31 August 1945 report by the Trans-Baikal Front headquarters listing the names and posts of fifty IJA generals.Footnote 15 As in any bureaucracy, there existed in the NKVD a tendency from the early days of the internment to anonymize the Japanese captives, to view them as a single human mass, a resource to be utilized. This tendency survived well into the internment itself from the days immediately after the Japanese surrender, when all the Soviet captors were concerned about was the number of Japanese in their custody and the logistical challenge of accommodating, feeding, and clothing them. The wholesale and makeshift nature of the initial decisions is also evident in Stalin’s 23 August 1945 order to intern the Japanese, which spelled out in rounded six-digit figures not only the number of captives to be taken to the camps but also how many of these captives would be distributed to which region or industrial facility in the vast forced labor economy run by the NKVD. Few internee names appeared in official documents unless they were a high-ranking official who deserved special mention, or in cases where there was a significant change in their life circumstances that warranted such a record. In this, the bureaucrats entrusted with recording the lives and deaths of the Japanese followed the Soviet custom of keeping records of Soviet citizens. Typically, Soviet bureaucracy recorded changes in what it termed “civil circumstances” (grazhdanskoe sostoianie) of the Soviet population: birth, marriage, and death. Since the life of a foreigner in a camp was fundamentally different from the existence of a free Soviet citizen, camp paperwork was also bound to be different from the usual practices of the state. Still, the Soviet bureaucratic practices left an unmistakable imprint on the tasks of recording the changes in the life of an internee. While the foreigners in Soviet custody received treatment different from—often better than—that given the Soviet citizens, the bureaucratic machinery of the USSR applied the tried and tested bureaucratic methods in managing them. It was unrealistic to expect any other way, considering the shortage of time and resources in the USSR in the immediate postwar period.

Examples of changes in circumstances that warranted recording on paper—almost always in a prescribed standard form in the longhand of a camp official—were personal details of an internee documented in survey form (oprosnyi list), transfer of an internee to a different camp, which was recorded in the internal documentation of both camps involved, and a death certificate filled in by a camp medical officer stating the reasons for death. In the example I provide here is a document from the folder of a Japanese internee who died in December 1945 from dystrophy. This was a common cause of death in the cold first winter of the internment, which caught the camp system completely unprepared and the new captives underclad for the severe weather. As seen in the images (Figs. 1 and 2), the documents were filled in by a single officer, who recorded the changes in his health conditions over a period of a few days, and on 14 December wrote out by hand a death certificate witnessed by the camp doctors and a Japanese officer named Murakami. However hastily composed, these documents became an important proof of death for the internees’ family members. This particular copy of the Russian documents was forwarded to the families of the former internees by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) with a brief synopsis in Japanese. Such documents, transferred by the Russian government to its Japanese counterpart starting from the 1990s, became the definitive way of establishing the fate of deceased Japanese internees; in the absence of any proof from the uncooperative Soviet government during the internment itself and in subsequent decades of the Cold War, the only way for the family to learn about the death of their son were accounts from fellow Japanese—usually those from the same prefecture or locality—who had witnessed the death or were told by trustworthy campmates about it. Still, the chaotic fashion in which the lives and deaths of the Japanese were recorded by the Soviets meant that of around 60,000 Japanese who found eternal rest in the USSR, only around 46,000 have been named—and this through the selfless efforts of former internee Murayama Tsuneo, who spent years of his life and his own resources compiling the lists of the deceased.

Fig. 1
figure 1

(Source Shared with the author at the research group Shiberia Yokuryū Kenkyūkai in Japan)

The personal folder (uchetnoe delo) of a Japanese internee

Fig. 2
figure 2

(Source Shared with the author at the research group Shiberia Yokuryū Kenkyūkai in Japan)

A Japanese internee’s death certificate

In typical Soviet fashion that tended to concentrate the institutionalized portrait of every citizen in a gray cardboard folder (uchetnoe delo) ubiquitous at every institution, such a folder was created for those Japanese captives who stayed long enough in the USSR and whose encounters with the camp administration extended beyond the basic recording of names.Footnote 16 As the early chaos was reined in and the camp system expanded and perfected its administrative methods and resources, more detailed information about any given captive began to be accumulated. The existence of a POW in Soviet documentation acquired greater prominence the longer the internee stayed in the USSR, and the more interest he or she invited from the camp officials for any reason. Knowing the meticulous, almost obsessive way in which the Soviet bureaucrats at all levels recorded everything, it is not difficult to conclude that the captivity of tens of thousands of Japanese in the Soviet Union must have created mountains of paperwork. What happened to this documentary mass is not clear, but the fact that most of it is still unavailable to historians does not negate the thorough attempts of the Soviet state to manage and control the foreign contingents in its custody by recording them into its bureaucratic machinery.

One interesting question in this respect would be whether there existed any documentary continuity between the periods before and during the captivity; in other words, did the Soviet authorities use the internees’ Japanese identification documents for any purpose in their daily tasks of recording the Japanese existences? As with many other questions, it is difficult to provide a definitive answer to this question, but it is unlikely that the Soviets translated, or appropriated in any other way, the documents that their Japanese charges carried on their persons. The chief reason for this, beyond the obvious explanation that the officials on the ground rarely spoke any Japanese, was that at least in the initial years of the Siberian Internment, the Soviet camp authorities showed little interest in the identities of the majority of their captives—the ordinary soldiers and lower-ranking officers. The principle according to which the most important Japanese captives were identified by their names in the Soviet archival sources—for a variety of administrative and other reasons—also held true here; unless the internee was a high-ranking military or intelligence officer, a prominent bureaucrat, or someone with a specific knowledge that the Soviet authorities could use to advance Moscow’s domestic and international interests, he or she was reduced to a nameless entity, a number in the tables and reports about the utilization of POW labor. An exception to this was a group of about 1500 captives—analyzed later in the chapter—who were kept on in the USSR after everyone else was repatriated by the end of the 1940s, due to being under investigation for war crimes. The Soviets gathered detailed information on each of them, often through extended periods of interrogation and psychological torture.Footnote 17

Besides documenting the internees’ entry into any given camp, the authorities also meticulously recorded the movements of captives between camps. The most important procedure in every transfer was the signing of transfer documents. Every convoy—usually a company of guards supervised by a junior officer—had to sign these documents upon receipt of the POWs at the camp of departure, and ensure the signing of the transfer report by the receiving camp representative upon arrival at the destination camp. There are few references to this procedure in internee memoirs—internees were rarely privy to the procedures that had a direct influence on their own lives. Only the most inquisitive among the internees were aware of the Soviet bureaucratic practices; thus Takasugi Ichirō, who spent years working in a camp administration and himself filed numerous camp documents, helping his Soviet superiors in the day-to-day management of the Japanese inmate population, recounted in his memoir how the convoy from his previous camp refused to sign the transfer documents having witnessed the abuse inflicted on Takasugi by the warden of his new camp.Footnote 18 But such instances are rare in the Siberian memoir genre—as mentioned, the majority of the Japanese were unaware of the intricacies of the Soviet system of managing inmate populations beyond the everyday encounters they had with camp authorities.

Unlike written documentation, photographs of Japanese POWs taken in the camps served a function that went beyond recording their identities. While they were even rarer in comparison to written documentation, it is clear that the Soviet camp chiefs willingly resorted to images in complementing the sophisticated documentary records about the foreign captives. I briefly analyze here two previously unused photographic collections; both were created for the purpose of reporting to the authorities the daily lives and recreation of the Japanese internees. In this sense, they were not strictly propaganda; although many situations in these photographs are clearly staged (Fig. 3), some reflect genuine moments of internee existences (Fig. 4, which shows the Japanese using the services of a fellow POW barber). Also, to qualify as propaganda images these photographs should have been publicized to broad audiences. In fact, neither collection was seen beyond a narrow group of officials. These photographs served an important function in the Soviet bureaucratic process of reporting successes in day-to-day work; in the Soviet “report economy,” often the real-life results were less important than the carefully prepared reports. Following this tradition, the photographs presented here were apparently taken to demonstrate the satisfactory conditions or the overall well-being of the Japanese charges, including their cultural recreation and productive use of their time.

Fig. 3
figure 3

(Source Memorial Museum for Soldiers, Detainees in Siberia, and Postwar Repatriates)

Japanese internees studying a wall newspaper

Fig. 4
figure 4

(Source Memorial Museum for Soldiers, Detainees in Siberia, and Postwar Repatriates)

POWs using the services of a fellow Japanese barber

The first collection is titled “Photographic Album of the Transit Camp No. 380,” and is held at the State Archive of the Russian Federation. The Transit Camp No. 380 was an important location in the Soviet POW camp system; the Japanese about to be repatriated were concentrated on its premises until the arrival of repatriation ships from Japan. It thus served as the final Soviet stop on the returnees’ journey home, and the starting point of the maritime voyage across the Sea of Japan. Partly because it represented the last venue where the Japanese were still under Soviet control before returning home, propaganda activities—as well as cultural and other recreational pursuits—were organized with great care and much pomp in this camp. It was as if before handing them over to the Japanese ship crews, the Soviet instructors hoped to remind the soon-to-depart Japanese the lessons the latter had been learning for years in their respective camps lest they forget them after repatriation. For this reason, the majority of images in the album clearly prepared to impress the propaganda chiefs with the efforts of the camp officers, depict educational or recreational activities (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5
figure 5

(Source State Archive of Russian Federation)

A musical band formed of Japanese internees at Transit Camp No. 380

The second collection of photographs, recently donated by Russian historians to the Memorial Museum for Soldiers, Detainees in Siberia, and Postwar Repatriates, contains daily episodes in an inland camp at Mal’ta, not far from the Siberian city of Irkutsk. As we see in the images I have selected, besides the staged photographs of reeducation sessions and report-style images of pre-repatriation rallies, the photographs also convey quotidian moments such as the one showing the internees cutting each other’s hair.

Perhaps the most unique documents recording a change in the circumstances of the Japanese captives—or at least attempts to enable such a change—were applications submitted by the Japanese to acquire Soviet citizenship. The evidence of these attempts is preserved in a folder under the broad collection concerning “repatriation” in the State Archive of the Russian Federation. The folder in question, which I consulted extensively, contains over eighty applications for Soviet citizenship (Fig. 6 provides an example of one such application). While there are documents that clearly follow a template or a pattern that was most likely outlined by the camp political authorities, it would be wrong to argue that all of these documents were doctored or dictated by the camp chiefs; they often convey the genuine personal and ideological reasons behind the momentous decision to remain in the USSR. Unfortunately for the applicants, their appeals for Soviet citizenship were rejected and they were all repatriated to Japan.

Fig. 6
figure 6

(Source State Archive of Russian Federation)

An application for Soviet citizenship from a Japanese POW

Under incessant pressure from abroad—the Allied governments, mainly the United States, which represented the interests of occupied Japan, as well as international media outlets—the Soviet Union announced in the spring of 1949 that it would repatriate all the Japanese, of whom there remained 95,000 in its custody at the time, by the end of that year. Every year before that it repatriated a few tens of thousands of Japanese during the navigation season. However, as mentioned already, not all Japanese were allowed to repatriate. In December 1949 the Soviet officials had identified “2,883 war criminals” from among the 4547 internees whose repatriation was postponed for the purposes of investigation.Footnote 19 In April 1950 the Soviet Telegraph Agency (TASS) issued a statement announcing the end of repatriation of all Japanese from the USSR, with the exception of “1,487 Japanese POWs under investigation for or convicted of war crimes” and nine hospitalized captives, who remained in the USSR.Footnote 20 This announcement caused great indignation in Japan, where the families of the interned Japanese and the government officials all as one believed that there were at least 300,000 Japanese still remaining in the USSR, giving rise to speculation that Moscow had decided to keep hold of this army with an aim to use them in the coming Cold War against Japan. With hindsight we know that this number, 300,000, was based on a miscalculation; regardless, the year 1949 was one of sorting, when the Soviet authorities decided to return everyone they could to avoid the negative publicity of being a “slavery kingdom” that was spreading around the world, but held on to those Japanese who they saw as valuable in the Cold War: former officers of Unit 731, who would be tried in the Khabarovsk Trial of 1949, former kempeitai or intelligence officers, or any high-ranking officials who could be used as sources of information or bargaining chips in dealing with Japan. These unfortunate souls stayed on in Soviet camps and prisons for years after their fellow Japanese were allowed to return home; the last batch had to wait until December 1956.

But following the death of the man who had inflicted this confinement on them, the conditions of their detainment improved slightly, and the Soviet authorities started to cooperate with their Japanese counterparts. One of the goodwill gestures they made was to allow correspondence between the internees and their families in Japan. Since the USSR and Japan had no diplomatic relations at the time, the two sides agreed to use the mediation of the International Committee of the Red Cross; the ICRC issued “POW postcards” were the only permitted form through which the families could keep in touch with their sons or husbands in Siberia. Despite the happiness with which this measure was greeted by the families, there was little that the POWs could write about without risking their message being censored; precisely because of censorship they were not allowed to use Chinese characters but had to write using the katakana syllabary alphabet. Among other cases, the Maizuru Repatriation Memorial Museum exhibits the correspondence of Kitada Toshi, from Osaka, and his wife Akiko.Footnote 21 These postcards are perhaps the most common document that has remained from the period, an example of a source that legitimately crossed the border between the Soviet Union and Japan. Figure 7 provides an example of another such postcard.

Fig. 7
figure 7

(Source Memorial Museum for Soldiers, Detainees in Siberia, and Postwar Repatriates)

POW postcard

Unlike the POW postcards, which traversed the Soviet-Japanese border through official channels, some documents and objects crossed that border illegitimately, at great risk to their owners. Due to the thorough searches carried out both before embarkation on the repatriation ship at the Soviet port of Nakhodka, and upon arrival in Japan, cases when the internees were able to smuggle any documentary evidence out of Siberia were extremely rare. These assiduous efforts of the officials sending the Japanese off from Nakhodka to ensure nothing unintentionally left the Soviet territory were in following the spirit of the times in late-Stalinist USSR. The Soviet leadership was sensitive to any possibility of information—let alone documents—leaving Soviet territory; in the atmosphere of intensifying Cold War, paranoia about such documents ending up in enemy hands was very common, considering that the majority of Japanese leaving Soviet captivity did so while their home country was still occupied by the United States. Beyond any documents, including any writings or drawings made by the internees themselves during their Soviet sojourn, the Soviet authorities instructed the officials on the ground to ensure that the repatriates have no Soviet currency—rubles—on their persons before boarding repatriation ships.

Nevertheless, Soviet officials were not omnicompetent, and through a combination of determination, ingenuity, and luck some internees managed to carry back to Japan some artifacts on their persons. Former internee Murai Michiaki, for example, managed to bring back to Japan ten issues of the camp propaganda newspaper Nihon shimbun (Japan Newspaper), which he publicized in 1985.Footnote 22 Internee named Sawada managed to bring back to Japan a handmade notebook created out of cardboard and scrap paper, kept in the Maizuru Repatriation Memorial Museum. The eminent postwar painter Shikoku Gorō smuggled out of the Soviet Union three objects: his mess kit, whose value for Shikoku was in that he had carved into it the names of some of his deceased comrades; a sketch that he had drawn in Nakhodka; and most importantly, his “pea-sized diary” (mame nikki) of the internment (Fig. 8). And while the first two objects might have been possible to transport in an inconspicuous way, Shikoku had to be creative to conceal the diary, in which he had recorded over the years of internment his thoughts and impressions of the internment. According to his son, Hikaru, Shikoku Gorō hid the pea-sized diary—so-called because its pages were hardly bigger than a credit card—in the arch of his foot, which he then wrapped in the Russian-style footcloths. Since the foot became larger as a result, Shikoku had to source a pair of shoes larger than his regular size. It was also his luck that he was not asked to take off his shoes by the sending-off party of Soviet officers—as a result, his pea-sized diary made it safely to Japan. According to Hikaru, the diary, consisting of about a hundred pages of Shikoku’s records of the internment life, formed the seed of his two-volume diary-memoir The Records of My Youth, which exceeds 1000 pages in length, consisting of both drawings and text, and forms one of the most unique records of the Siberian Internment ever written.Footnote 23

Fig. 8
figure 8

(Source Memorial Museum for Soldiers, Detainees in Siberia, and Postwar Repatriates)

Shikoku Gorō’s “pea-sized diary”

Besides the documentary traces they left in the USSR (and tried to bring back with them to Japan), the arrival of the former captives in their home country gave rise to a new trail of documentary evidence. This trail was not solely in Japanese; the repatriation from the Soviet Union was intently observed by the US Occupation administration, which compiled detailed reports of the process. When they landed at the Maizuru port—the chief entry point for those returning from Siberia—the returnees had to undergo repatriation procedures carried out by the representatives of the Bureau of Repatriate Welfare (Hikiage engo chō) of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, as well as representatives from the US Occupation administration. Currently, perhaps the most commonly available document after the POW postcards is the “certificate of repatriation.” It recorded the repatriates’ personal details—name, registered domicile (honseki) and settlement address (rakuchakusaki), address where the repatriate lived when the war ended, military rank, date and port of repatriation, and other relevant information. The other side of the document usually carried a stamp certifying the repatriate’s “demobilization” (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9
figure 9

(Source Memorial Museum for Soldiers, Detainees in Siberia, and Postwar Repatriates)

Repatriation certificate

While the standard procedure was to record the personal details and place of internment of returnees disembarking from any given ship before disbursing assistance payment, some repatriates were pulled aside by the Occupation officials for a more thorough questioning. The historian Katō Tetsurō has argued that these interrogations, carried out with an aim to gather intelligence about the USSR from the most immediate source, the returnees from behind the Bamboo Curtain, were part of intelligence operations codenamed Project Stitch and Project Wringer, which also involved the interrogations of German, Austrian, and other European POWs returning from the USSR.Footnote 24 Following this, the returnees took a train from Maizuru to Kyoto, and from there to their hometowns, where their reintegration into domestic society was aided by the local governments (minseibu, or citizens’ affairs departments) and civil society groups along with their families and other support networks. The records taken at repatriation were often carried out hastily for a variety of reasons: due to the excitement and impatience the returnees felt upon arrival as well as commotion and disturbances caused by the so-called “red repatriates” who did not cooperate with the repatriation authorities and in some cases even refused to disembark.Footnote 25 But these records were important documents that would come in handy in making decisions as to the returnees’ pensions, the only evidence they had in advancing claims toward the Japanese government for monetary compensations for the sacrifices endured in Soviet captivity until the Russian government agreed to issue them with “work certificates” in the early 1990s.


The brief analysis above cannot convey the complexity of the Siberian internee experiences nor does it hope to document in meticulous detail the steps in the long and arduous journey taken by the survivors. Still, it is possible to recreate the general picture of this momentous event by piecing together the scattered documentary evidence available to the historian, and to arrive at tentative conclusions.

Firstly, the documents of the Siberian Internment, though limited in number, reflect the USSR’s systematic attempts to record and regulate the massive addition of captives to the camp system ill-prepared for such an influx of new inmates, and to utilize their bodies and minds in achieving Soviet domestic and foreign policy goals. The treatment of Japanese in the day-to-day camp records shows that they were assets for the Soviet leadership; those most valuable, the highest ranking officers, were thus listed by name and detailed information was gathered and recorded on each of them, while the lower ranked officers, non-commissioned officers, and draftees were turned into mere numbers in the tables and charts of the numerous reports to the central authorities. The procedures of recording and regulating, of course, were not the monopoly of the Soviets; the repatriates stepping down vessels at the port of Maizuru re-entered the jurisdiction of the Japanese state by being recorded in the ledgers of such diverse agencies as the Repatriation Assistance Bureau, the GHQ Military Intelligence Section, or the citizens’ affairs departments (minseibu) of their local councils.

Secondly, the documents pertaining to the Siberian Internment lift the curtain on an unusual chapter in the history of postwar repatriations. That history was diverse and the internment in the USSR was not necessarily the most protracted stay for former soldiers of the Japanese Empire.Footnote 26 The experiences of the 600,000 Japanese unlucky to be captured by the Soviet Red Army were unlike those of the millions of Japanese former soldiers and civilians who fell into the hands of the United States and the UK in the Pacific and parts of South and Southeast Asia— and the documents we have analyzed briefly provide glimpses of these differences. The countless reports exchanged between camp and regional chiefs on the one hand and the Moscow agencies on the other shows the meticulous attention the Soviet authorities paid to keeping the Japanese (and millions of other foreign POWs) alive, able-bodied and, at least in the later years of the internment, reasonably happy. These tasks were made difficult by the devastation and economic depression of the immediate postwar period, when famine ravaged the Soviet countryside and there was little food to spare for Soviet citizens. Documents show that despite these shortages, the Soviet authorities cared a great deal about feeding the soldiers of the former enemy armies.Footnote 27

Thirdly, the above analysis shows how documentary evidence for human movements is an underrated and overlooked lens in studying the history of the Japanese Empire. While studies of migration and human flows within the empire have grown in number in the past decade, these works often tend to view human mobility indirectly, as a sideshow to a different project or while narrating what is seen as a main story. I believe that records of mobility deserve to be studied in their own right, for they reveal more than simple movements from A to B by imperial officials, subjects, or victims. They help unfold layers of imperial history, the stations on the historic journey of its unfolding that have escaped the gaze of the historian busy deciphering what happened in between those stations. The Siberian Internment and the movements—both voluntary and forced—that it involved well illustrate this point. It has been narrated in Japan chiefly as a story of immobility, of being forcefully confined to a camp or a prison in a foreign land without the ability to move freely, to return to one’s homeland and family following a long and devastating war. Yet this focus on the immobility hides more than it reveals, for it overlooks the paths that led the Japanese captives to Siberia in the first place. They divert attention from the inconvenient journeys from the Japanese home islands to the imperial outposts, from the uncomfortable question asked by a few internees: Why were we in Manchuria in the first place, when the Soviets attacked it in August 1945? The simple truth is that without millions of Japanese making their way to Manchuria for the good of the empire, there would have been no Siberia for the hundreds of thousands of Japanese former servicemen, just as without the empire there would have been no mass migration to Manchuria in the first place. These journeys, in short, lead us back to the origins of imperial expansion.

Finally, the mobility of human beings necessitated by the need to expand and maintain the Japanese Empire, and by its violent collapse following the defeat, should not be confined arbitrarily by regional, disciplinary, and ideological boundaries. A study of the Siberian Internment, which by its nature was an occurrence that transcended such boundaries, is a case in point. It demonstrates how in following the need to specialize in our research, historians often overlook what lies beyond the boundaries of their discipline, region, and project. When I first started researching the Siberian Internment, I did not expect to connect it to the migrations of other captives, Soviet and foreign alike, into the vast camp system of forced and penal labor, let alone to the broader geopolitical vision that these migrations served in the imagination of their chief architect, Iosif Stalin. Only after years of research in Soviet and Japanese archives was I able to connect the dots—this, in my view, is testament to the hold that the Cold War thinking, which has compartmentalized not only the world but also our thinking about the world, still has on our choice of subjects and the answers with which we come up to complex questions.