Japanese Prisoners Held by Soviet Union Topic of Talk at UC Davis

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Haruko Sakakibara

May 2017 — Growing up in Japan, Haruko Sakakibara spent time around her uncle, but never knew much about him. Sakakibara, a lecturer in the UC Davis Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, later learned that her uncle was one of about 600,000 Japanese people imprisoned by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II in 1945.

She will give a talk about this little-known period of history at 4:30 p.m. May 11 in the School of Education room 174 and again May 18 at 3 p.m. in Olson Hall room 53A. The talks are free and open to the public.

Her late uncle Taeko Kuba never spoke of his seven years in Siberian work camps, but she learned more about it from records returned to Japan after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

“He had a long difficult life and never talked about it,” said Sakakibara, who has taught at UC Davis since 1987.

Most of the prisoners were Japanese soldiers captured in Manchuria (an area bordering China and Russia) at the end of World War II. Japan had invaded and seized control of Manchuria in the early 1930s. The men were returned in fits and starts over the next decade, with the last not released until 11 years after World War II ended. Some remained in the Soviet Union and started families there.

Takeo Kuba

The men were returned in fits and starts over the next decade, with the last not released until 11 years after World War II ended. Some remained in the Soviet Union and started families there. Those who returned to Japan were sometimes looked at with suspicion, Sakakibara said, suspected of being communists or spies. Because of that and Japan’s leaders’ inability to have them returned earlier, they and their stories have been hidden for decades, she said.

Her uncle was held from 1945 to 1952 and after his release returned to Japan where he worked as a journalist.

“It was also difficult for them to cope with the sense of ‘shame’ for the fact they were imprisoned,” she said. Sakakibara has created a website  about the incarceration that includes background on her uncle, written and audio interviews with former prisoners, and a map of the camp locations. She plans to write a book about the camps when she retires this spring.

The talk is sponsored by East Asian Languages and Cultures, Asian American Studies, East Asian Studies, and the Department of History.