Return from Siberia. A Japanese Life in War and Peace, 1925-2015

Return from Siberia. A Japanese Life in War and Peace, 1925-2015
by Oguma Eiji
translated by David Noble

International House of Japan(2018)
ISBN-13: 978-4924971455

Review by Sir Hugh Cortazzi

Most biographies are about famous people. This is the story of a Japanese man who has no particular claim to fame. He had a tough time before, during and after the war. Its interest lies primarily in the light it throws on Japanese life and how one quite ordinary Japanese coped in war and peace and adapted to a changing Japan.

This account of the life of Oguma Kenji by his son was based on a series of in depth interviews and family papers. It traces the life of a Japanese, born in 1925 who survived the war and lived into his nineties.

The book begins with an account of Kenji’s childhood in a disjointed family in Saroma in Hokkaido and from 1932 in Tokyo. His mother died of tuberculosis and he hardly remembered her. His father who came from Niigata remained in Hokkaido while Kenji who had been sent to Tokyo was looked after by relatives. His grandfather ran a sweet shop selling Japanese cakes. The family was poor although not destitute. Living standards in Japanese cities before the war were low. As the war in China developed, shortages of basic essentials grew and life became harder. Kenji managed to get to a technical high school and found a job with a company, which in due course became Fujitsu. Although he was not in good health he was called up at age 19 in November 1944 and enrolled as a private soldier.

His unit was sent to Manchuria almost immediately, without adequate training and equipment. Their area was soon overrun by Soviet forces following the Soviet’s late entry into the war in East Asia shortly before Japan surrendered. Inevitably Kenji and his comrades were transferred to Siberia where they were little more than slave labourers. The book’s account of these difficult years in which many Japanese prisoners died in appalling conditions is the most interesting section of the book.

The clothing available for Japanese prisoners was inferior to that of the Soviet army and many suffered from frostbite in the harsh Siberian winter. The crowded, the inadequate diet and poor living conditions reduced prisoner morale and work efficiency. Their labour value began to seem even to some of the Soviet authorities to be outweighed by the cost of keeping them as prisoners, and pressure to repatriate most of the prisoners grew.

During the latter half of 1947 the prisoners were subjected to intensive indoctrination and self-criticism sessions. ‘If you didn’t participate enthusiastically you were labeled a reactionary’, Kenji declared, so he played along for fear that his repatriation would be further delayed.

He was eventually repatriated in 1948, but had no home to go to and his old employer had no job for him. The small amount of money he received was eroded to practically nothing by the postwar inflation. Kenji had returned to a homeland in ruins and devastated by the war. He drifted from one job to another and was unable to settle down. He was weak from his years in Siberia and in 1951 was diagnosed with TB. The only method of treatment at that time in Japan was to live as a patient in a sanatorium in the country. Once admitted he could only be released back into the community when he was declared free from infection. This took five years and when in 1956 he was released he only had one lung.

Kenji had once again to look for work. He eventually settled down and developed a business selling sporting goods. In 1961 he married Hiroko, the author’s mother. She was five years younger than him. Their accommodation in those days was still primitive, but the Japanese economy was developing quickly and life gradually improved.

Kenji had never been to university, but he was a reader. In the 1970s he bought all six volumes of the Japanese translation of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. These volumes evoked memories of his life in Siberia and his political awareness, but Soviet efforts to win his support for communism had failed. When he learnt of the atrocities committed by US soldiers in Vietnam he thought that ‘they seemed almost child’s play compared with what the Japanese army had done’ (p. 235). He could not understand how Japanese could attempt to deny the facts of the Nanking massacre and told his son: ‘The perpetrators of the atrocities had been complete animals on the battlefield’ (p. 236). He was not impressed by the nationalism of Mishima Yukio whose suicide ‘simply seemed to prove that he was crazy’.

In 1988 the Japanese government was finally induced to establish a programme to prove a ‘solation’ to former Soviet internees. The Japanese government had consistently refused compensation to all victims of the war, Japanese and foreign alike. Kenji at first did not apply for a ‘solation’. He was not impressed by the scheme. The government, he declared to his son, ‘paid out full pensions to high-ranking military personnel but guys like me were supposed to be content with Yen 100,000 in government bonds and a silver cup from a foundation whose executives were a bunch of former bureaucrats parachuting into a cushy retirement. This is bullshit, I thought’ (p. 265). He later changed his mind and applied, but he was appalled to discover that Korean and Taiwanese members of the Japanese forces who had become Soviet prisoners did not qualify. So he sent half his ‘solation’ to a Korean comrade. In 1997 the Korean brought a case in the Japanese courts for compensation. Kenji joined this application. The case eventually came before the Supreme Court, which rejected it in 2002. Kenji suffered a stroke that caused some temporary paralysis.

This book has been well translated and put together although I noted a few repetitions. I commend it to anyone interested in the social history of modern Japan and to anyone who wants to know more about what Japan was like for ordinary Japanese in the twentieth century.

In reading about Kenji’s life I could not help recognizing how lucky I had been. I was born a year before Kenji and joined the RAF in 1943 in which I remained until 1948. I saw Japan in its desolation in 1946 and was able to observe at first-hand how the country and the Japanese people managed to go from poverty to riches in little more than a generation.


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