"It was a massive tragedy experienced by Japan, but it is rarely talked about, perhaps because the experience was so painful. We must pass on the memories."
So said the late theatrical producer and director Keita Asari, who passed away in July, regarding the musical "Ikoku no Oka (A hill in a foreign land)," performed by the Shiki Theater he founded. The theme of the play was the internment of Japanese prisoners of war and others in Siberia by the former Soviet Union.
The Siberian internment began on Aug. 23, 1945 under an order from the then Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. According to an estimate by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, as many as 575,000 former Imperial Japanese Army soldiers and others in the former region of Manchuria in northeastern China and Sakhalin in the Soviet Far East were detained and sent to labor camps. The maximum detention period for some of those people reached 11 years, and about 55,000 people died of malnutrition, diseases or other causes.
Many aspects of what really happened to those victims are still unknown. Precise information surrounding their deaths is available for only 40,000 of them, but how the remaining 15,000 died remains unconfirmed.
Collection of the victims' remains did not begin until 1991 due to the long-running Cold War between the West and the East that prevented cooperation with the former Soviet Union. Remains of just 20,000 or so victims have been recovered through annual collection activities organized by the health ministry.
The detention began 73 years ago in the month of August, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered the atomic bombings and World War II came to an end. These are all significant events of modern history, but the Siberian internment failed to attract public attention like the other incidents, despite the substantial loss of life it caused. Investigation and research into the detention lagged behind in part because of bias against the returnees. Recognition of its significance should be shared by a wider range of people.
Those who went through the experience call Aug. 23 "Siberian Internment Day" and have gathered at the Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery since 2003 to pray for the souls of the deceased. This year's memorial, held yesterday, saw some 200 participants, but only four of them were survivors of the internment.
People who directly experienced the detention are growing older year by year, with an increasing risk of their memories of the event fading away. According to a group supporting them, the "Support & Documentation Center for the ex-POWs and Internees by Soviet Russia after the WWII, Japan," their average age now stands at 95, and fewer than 10,000 remain alive.
Former internees want a memorial organized by the government, but the government argues that victims of the internment are covered by the annual national memorial for the war dead held on Aug. 15. However, the Siberian internment is a tragedy that began after the end of the World War II -- the victims did not die during the war.
The government should speed up the recovery of victims' remains along with investigations into the internment, and shoulder the responsibility of passing on an account to successive generations.