Japanese prisoners of war in the Soviet Union

Repatriated Japanese soldiers returning from Siberia wait to disembark from a ship at Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, Japan in 1946

By the end of World War II there were from 560,000 to 760,000 Japanese POWs in the Soviet Union and Mongolia interned to work in labor camps.[1] Of them, about 10% died (50–60,000), mostly during the winter of 1945–46.[2][3][4][5]

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[6] 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.[7]

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).[4]

The repatriation of Japanese POWs started in 1946.

year number released notes
1946 18,616
1947 166,240
1948 175,000
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.[4]

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.[7]

Japanese internees and Russians

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.[8] 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 brought 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.

Japanese ex-internees today

Various associations of former internees seek compensation for their wartime treatment and for pensions from the Japanese government.[9] An appeal to the Commission on Human Rights says

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.[10]

Tetsuro Ahiko is the last remaining Japanese POW living in Kazakhstan.[11]

Research in Russia

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,[4] 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[12] 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.[4]

In the 2000s, several books about Japanese POWs were published in Russia.[13][14][15]

About 2,000 memoirs of Japanese POWs in the Soviet Union have been published in Japan.[8]

In fiction

The Japanese television drama Fumou Chitai (2009) is a fictional account of the experiences of a POW after returning to Japan.

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.

See also


  1. "シベリア抑留、露に76万人分の資料 軍事公文書館でカード発見". Sankeishinbun. 24 July 2009. Retrieved 21 September 2009.
  2. Japanese POW group says files on over 500,000 held in Moscow, BBC News, 7 March 1998
  3. UN Press Release, Commission on Human Rights, 56th session, 13 April 2000.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 POW in the USSR 1939–1956:Documents and Materials Moscow Logos Publishers (2000) (Военнопленные в СССР. 1939–1956: Документы и материалы] Науч.-исслед. ин-т проблем экон. истории ХХ века и др.; Под ред. М.М. Загорулько. – М.: Логос, 2000. – 1118 с.: ил.) ISBN 5-88439-093-9
  5. Anne Applebaum Gulag: A History, Doubleday, April 2003, ISBN 0-7679-0056-1; page 431.Introduction online)
  6. Ulrich Straus. "The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II". Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0-295-98336-3.
  7. 1 2 Japanese POW in the USSR (Russian)
  8. 1 2 Russia in the Eyes of Japanese Internees (Russian)
  9. Japanese, Korean, Dutch POWs to hold meeting in Tokyo
  10. "Japan's Blossoms Soothe a P.O.W. Lost in Siberia", New York Times, 12 April 1998
  11. Noorbakhsh, Sarah (7 February 2011). "The last Japanese man remaining in Kazakhstan: A Kafkian tale of the plight of a Japanese POW in the Soviet Union". Japan Subculture Research Center. Retrieved 21 February 2011.
  12. Internment of Japanese in the USSR in Soviet and Russian historiography (Russian)
  13. Kasatonova E.L. (2003) "Japanese POW in the USSR: A Big Game of Great Powers" (Yaponskiye voyennnoplennye v SSSR: Bolshaya igra velekikh derzhav) ISBN 5-89282-218-4 (Russian)
  14. Bondarenko, E. Yu. (2002) "Foreign POWs in the Russian Far East, 1914–1956" ISBN 5-7444-1326-X (Russian)
  15. Kasatonova, E. L. (2005) "The Last Prisoners of the World War II: Little Known Pages of the Russia-Japan Relations" ISBN 5-89282-258-3 (Russian)

Further reading

External links

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