Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Japanese man held in Ukraine after WWII says history repeating itself with Russian invasion

TOKYO -- A Japanese man who was interned in Ukraine and Siberia after being held by Soviet forces shortly after the Pacific War is feeling great sorrow over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying that history is repeating itself.

    Akiyoshi Chikada is seen in Fussa, Tokyo, on April 2, 2022. (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

    "I think that the situation right now is the same as the past," said Akiyoshi Chikada, 96, a resident of Fussa, Tokyo, who views the current situation in Ukraine through his past experiences of being tricked into forced labor by the military of the former Soviet Union.

    In August 1945, at the end of World War II, Chikada had been manufacturing firearms in Mukden (present-day Shenyang) in the former Manchuria region of northeast China. The Soviet troops that invaded the area disarmed him. After being forced to assist the Soviet military's tasks for about one month, he was told, "You did well. Domoy (You can return home)," and was ushered into a freight train. Although he assumed that he could return to Japan by passing the Korean Peninsula and arriving in the Kyushu region in Japan's southwest, the train began moving northward in the opposite direction of the peninsula.

    The destination was an internment camp located in the present-day Russian republic Buryatia in Siberia. He was put inside a simple log building, and forced to perform tasks, including lumbering and transport. In spite of the freezing temperature, he was given only stale black bread and watery soup for meals. He was also given a meager supply of water, which was not enough for drinking and other usages in daily life. To compensate for this, he used water obtained by heating snow gathered in a bucket.

    One day, when Chikada was resting in his room after finishing work, he heard a dry reverberating sound from outside. Once he stepped out, he found one of his comrades collapsed between rows of barbed wire fencing. It seems that he had been shot by a sentry. As he was already dead, Chikada and others carried the body covered in snow indoors. Near the corpse was an iron bucket that was used to fetch snow to make water. "Between barbed wire fences, the snow isn't dirty because nobody enters. I think he was trying to get that snow. I don't think he was trying to run away, so why..." The older colleague often showed him a worn-down photo of a boy appearing to be a grade schooler, who the colleague said was his son. "I wonder what happened to the family left behind after that," Chikada said, as he recalled the tragedy of war that he experienced first hand.

    Akiyoshi Chikada is seen in Fussa, Tokyo, on April 2, 2022. (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

    Around July of 1946, he was informed again that he would be taken home. He boarded the freight car in joy with his comrades that survived the internments, but ended up arriving not in Japan, but Ukraine. At the time, the country was a part of the Soviet Union, and Chikada's new job was to repair a dam used for a hydropower electric power plant located in Zaporizhzhia, which was destroyed in the German-Soviet War. He was subjected to manual labor such as moving bricks and cement on a unicycle.

    On one occasion, a Ukrainian man who supervised the site told him, "My father was also captured during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and placed inside an internment camp as a prisoner of war, but was treated kindly by the Japanese people, which I appreciate. You all will surely be able to return to Japan, so hang in there until then." Chikada said, "I felt a sense of unity in his words that sympathized with Japan's prisoners." After mustering all his energy to work while he was held captive, he finally managed to set foot in Japan in November 1948.

    Of the around 575,000 people who were held in detention camps by the former Soviet Union, some 55,000 individuals died, according to statistics of Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. While there have been reports that Moscow has been forcibly relocating Ukrainian residents to Russia, Chikada said, "I think that Russia is doing the same thing they did 70 years ago," and "I wonder what kind of ending will come after they bring the residents to Russia. The relatives of the man (who was supervising the detention site) may have also suffered a miserable fate. I'd like the fighting to end, and for it to become peaceful."

    (Japanese original by Naoki Watanabe, Video Group)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media