The Gods Left First: The Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945-1956

The Gods Left First: The Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945-1956

by Andrew E. Barshay

NOOK Book(eBook)

$40.49 $65.00 Save 38% Current price is $40.49, Original price is $65. You Save 38%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520956575
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/16/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Andrew E. Barshay is Professor of History at University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Social Sciences in Modern Japan: The Marxian and Modernist Traditions.

Read an Excerpt

The Gods Left First

The Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945â"56

By Andrew E. Barshay


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95657-5


The Siberian Internment in History


On August 16, 1945, the day following the imperial broadcast announcing Japan's surrender, Prince Takeda (Takeda-no-miya) Tsuneyoshi was called to the emperor's temporary residence on the palace grounds—temporary since the main residence had been bombed. Along with him, and by his testimony equally in the dark about the reasons for this summons, were three other imperial princes: Asaka, Kan'in, and Higashikuni. The purpose was soon made clear. Higashikuni was to become prime minister, though only for a matter of weeks, as it turned out. Asaka, Kan'in, and Takeda were each to be sent to different theaters of the just ended war. There they were to convey to the theater commanders the emperor's "sacred will" that all those who had fought in his name now put down their arms and surrender peacefully to the representatives of the Allied forces. For Kan'in, the mission was to the South Pacific, and Asaka's to China. Takeda was to be sent to Manchuria, that is, to the Kwantung Army.

Like the others, Takeda, at the time a lieutenant colonel, combined imperial rank with full military credentials. Both rank and credentials, it is fair to speculate, must have been thought necessary to ensure the mission's success. The entire situation was without precedent. On the one hand, Japanese forces had never before been defeated—had never surrendered to an enemy—on such a scale. On the other hand, over the years of the Asia-Pacific War, they had been thoroughly and effectively indoctrinated in the belief that surrender was an intolerable humiliation. There was no small measure of fear in official circles that, by itself, the imperial broadcast of August 15 might not be sufficient to overcome the stigma placed on the act of surrender. Even if it was certain that the rescript had reached scattered and remote forward units, it still had to be interpreted and backed with the further sanction that only a personal—and professionally credible—imperial emissary could provide. And just to make sure, a second rescript, addressed to "Our Soldiers and Sailors," was issued on August 17. With greater brevity and in somewhat plainer language, it called on Japan's soldiers to "comply with Our intention" to surrender.

The decision to send Takeda to Manchuria was more than sensible. Born in 1909, he had succeeded to the headship of his house at the age of ten, and at twenty briefly entered the House of Peers. The following year he had graduated in the forty-second class of the Army Academy, was commissioned a lieutenant in the cavalry, and by 1936 had risen to the rank of captain. After graduating from the Army War College in 1938, he was briefly commander of a cavalry unit in Hailar, in far northwest Manchuria. But what he really wanted was to serve in a frontline unit in China, and after repeated refusals from his superiors he was finally permitted to do so, finding it "not at all pleasant to have bullets flying toward me." At length, Takeda was recalled to Tokyo. Promoted to major in 1940, he served on the Army General Staff and at Imperial Headquarters, and was involved in strategic planning for the campaigns in the Philippines and Guadalcanal. At great personal risk, he was sent as an observer to the frontlines, notably to Rabaul. Promoted finally to lieutenant colonel in 1943, Takeda was transferred to the Kwantung Army staff. There he worked under the assumed name of "Miyata"—hardly a subtle disguise for one of his lineage—and settled along with his growing family in Xinjing (now Changchun), the capital city of Manchukuo. As a staff officer and strategist, Takeda gained considerable familiarity with (and some authority over) many of the Kwantung Army's operations and high-ranking personnel.

At the beginning of July 1945, Takeda was brought back to Tokyo, again joining the Army General Staff. By that time, Japan's cities had almost all been laid waste in Allied bombing raids, and Takeda left his family in Xinjing. This seemed prudent: Takeda shared the perception of virtually all its Japanese residents that Manchukuo, which had largely been spared combat and aerial bombing, was a safer place than the home islands. During July and August, Takeda himself, acting as liaison between Imperial Headquarters and the Kwantung Army, continued to shuttle back and forth by air between Tokyo and Manchukuo. The sense that Manchukuo was safe dissolved, of course, with the Soviet declaration of war at 12:00 A.M. (local time) on August 9. Despite the general panic following the Soviet onslaught, however, Takeda successfully recalled his family from Xinjing; they returned with nothing but the clothes on their backs five days before the emperor's surrender broadcast on August 15. From that point he might have remained with them in Tokyo, but fortuitously the summons from the emperor placed Takeda back on the scene. Prior to departing for Xinjing on the 17th, thinking that in his absence American occupation forces were likely to arrive, and not knowing whether he would even return alive from Manchuria, Takeda spent the night burning all the military-related documents in his possession and setting his affairs in order.

A military aircraft, escorted by four fighter planes, brought Takeda to Xinjing by the evening of the 17th. Met at the airfield, he was taken directly to Kwantung Army headquarters. Yamada Otozo, army commander-in-chief, and his assembled senior officers "reverently pledged to comply" with the imperial will: with this, Takeda's primary mission had been accomplished. The next morning, following a sendoff by his former Kwantung Army colleagues, Takeda's plane left for Keijo (Seoul), where he was to relay the emperor's will to the commander of Japanese forces in Korea. An engine malfunction forced the aircraft back to Xinjing for emergency repairs; an hour later, this time from an empty tarmac, Takeda again departed. As he would soon learn, Soviet forces occupied the city the next day.

Along with his mission to ensure a peaceful surrender in Manchuria, Takeda had one other task. Prior to leaving Tokyo, he had been asked by Higashikuni and Foreign Minister Shigemitsu Mamoru to meet, if possible, with Pu Yi, the "last emperor" of Manchukuo and, if Pu Yi desired, return with him to Japan. The two men had been close since Takeda's earlier stationing in Xinjing and he was determined to carry out this second mission if it was within his power to do so. It almost happened: Takeda had proposed to Pu Yi, who was in Tonghua, that they meet in Keijo. But lacking an aircraft capable of making the tough flight over mountainous terrain, Pu Yi demurred, and proceeded instead to Fengtian (now Shenyang), where he was captured by Soviet forces. Takeda had been willing to go to Fengtian himself, but was dissuaded by the chief of staff of Japan's forces in Korea and the colony's governor-general. For the second time in as many days, he avoided the fate that met so many hundreds of thousands. For Takeda, there was no Siberian internment, but just barely. There can be little doubt that capture by the Soviets would have led to investigation and imprisonment of indefinite length.

Running through the prince's tale are strands that tie together a number of key issues in understanding the Siberian internment. That he was able to carry out his mission was due, as we have seen, to his combined imperial status and military credentials: in a sense he did not just convey the emperor's "sacred will" but embodied it. He had willingly exposed himself to risk, as did others of the extended imperial household. Of far greater import was that, as the vehicle and embodiment of the emperor's will for his soldiers, Takeda legitimated the act of surrender for the officers and men of the Kwantung Army, helping to remove from that act the stigma of shame that army training had done so much to deepen.As a result—not of Takeda's mission alone, of course—the Kwantung Army surrendered, very nearly in its entirety.

This was in no sense to be taken for granted. Throughout the empire, Japan's defeated soldiers bristled when the term "prisoner of war" was used to describe them. As they saw it, a prisoner of war (horyo or furyo) was a soldier who had been captured while fighting was still going on. Those who surrendered on imperial orders after the cessation of hostilities were not to be so classed, and they were supported in this stance by their government. In deference to these sensibilities—and to minimize the chance of individual and group suicides by captured Japanese—the Americans and British also steered clear of this usage in their public statements. Instead, they adopted the designation "Surrendered Enemy Personnel" (SEP) or "Japanese Surrendered Personnel" (JSP) while retaining the term "POW" in their own official documents. But while the Americans in general adhered to the stipulations of the Potsdam Declaration and the 1929 Geneva Convention in treating their postwar prisoners in the Philippines and the mid-Pacific, the British made explicit use of the distinction between POWs and JSPs to justify a considerably harsher and less costly regime, one that used JSP labor for reconstruction in Burma, Malaya, and elsewhere.

Japan's Kwantung Army, of course, came under Soviet control, and the USSR never wavered in speaking of the members of that captured force as POWs. But the Japanese government, military, and many of the soldiers themselves (particularly officers) preferred the term "internees" (yokuryusha), which was less stigmatized and emotionally freighted. Internees remained soldiers, they insisted, still following the orders of their commander-in-chief. In terms of international law, however, the status of internee was problematic: the Hague (1907) and Geneva Conventions had accorded to POWs certain recognized rights, such as speedy repatriation, the payment of wages for their labor, and separate housing for officers and exemption from manual labor. Internees, which usually referred to civilians in enemy custody, had far fewer rights. The term was clearly inapplicable, but it continues to be used in almost all writing (including this book) about Japan's gulag veterans.

In any case, Takeda had achieved his purpose. By whichever name they were subsequently referred to, the men had surrendered peacefully. It was surely no part of the prince's intention that, for more than six hundred thousand soldiers of the Kwantung Army, his mission served as a baton touch, transferring them from the domain of the vanquished imperial forces to that of the Red Army and the gulag. But that is precisely what it meant.


The Siberian internment was a result not of the Second World War in general, but of the Soviet-Japanese War. Stated simply, Japan lost and its armies were taken prisoner, transported en masse to the Soviet Union, and put to forced labor. But why had the two powers fought when they did, as they did, and for what stakes? Why were there so many prisoners, why were they interned, and why for so long? How, in other words, did the story of Japan's military collapse come to be intertwined with that of the gulag?

In the wake of Japan's capitulation, the vast majority of soon-to-be internees were necessarily ignorant of what was to come. And what they did know of their unfolding personal fates, they were powerless to change. Yet there were others who held just such power. At the level of decision making, whether it was the making of the war or of the internment, there was no "innocent" side. The war was not causeless; and the internment, though clearly a self-interested act of the Soviet state, had highly placed Japanese enablers before the fact. This is to say nothing—yet—of the very complex relationships that developed between Japanese and Soviets, and among Japanese prisoners themselves, as the months of internment stretched into years. Nor is it—yet—to address the later, and equally complex, interpretations of the internment experience that have appeared in various forms over the six decades since the event. The point for now is just to start. I open this chapter with a brief account of the Soviet-Japanese War in its immediate setting of the race between the Soviet Union and the United States to bring the Pacific War to a close. I then place it and its aftermath in the strategic context of the incipient Cold War. Next, I loop back through the prehistory of the conflict in the difficult, and at times violent, relationship of Japan with Russia since the early years of the twentieth century. Arriving once more at the scene of surrender in Manchuria, I close with an account of the internment decision and the roles played in making it by both Soviet authorities and those Japanese I have termed their "enablers." The argument, or suggestion, underlying this approach is that a full understanding of the Siberian internment, its consequences, and the modes by which it has been interpreted cannot emerge from any one or two of these histories alone. The internment was a consequence of Soviet victory and Japanese defeat, but it was more than that. It was a perfect theater for Cold War power politics, but more than that, too. And it was an episode in the history of Russo-Japanese political and cultural relations—an extraordinary one in the sheer numbers of those affected and the density of personal documentation, nearly all of it retrospective, now at hand. It was all of these, and nothing less. It was undoubtedly more as well, but such considerations belong at the end, not the beginning, of the story. And that story begins with war.

The Soviet-Japanese War was the culminating military engagement of World War II. Across three extended fronts ranging along the five-thousand-kilometer Soviet border with Manchuria, beginning in the early hours of August 9, 1945, the ground, armored, and air forces of Joseph Stalin's Red Army were sent in wave after wave against the Kwantung Army, the Japanese garrison in the then "empire" of Manchukuo. Within a week, Manchuria lay in Soviet hands, Japan's armies were vanquished, and the political entity called Manchukuo evaporated. By Soviet calculations, some fifty thousand Kwantung Army soldiers had been killed, a number that would rise to eighty-four thousand by the first days of September, when hostilities finally ceased on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. Most strikingly, in the demise of what had once been Japan's most renowned and feared—and most aggressive—fighting force, at least six hundred thousand Kwantung Army soldiers were captured. As will be seen, the matter of numbers, both of internees who were repatriated and of those who died in captivity, is highly vexed and needs untangling. We will also have occasion to explore who the internees were, to examine the makeup of the Kwantung Army in the process of its disintegration; this had no small impact on how both the war and the internment itself played out. For the moment, the rough figure of six hundred thousand captured should suffice to suggest that this was surrender on a scale without even a remote precedent in Japan's military history. The same could be said, of course, about the other theaters of World War II in Asia. But our concern is with what came next.

To put it plainly, even crudely, there should not have been so many prisoners in Manchuria. That was not part of the plan; quite the contrary. The Soviet-Japanese War was a conflict expected on both sides. It was simultaneously the result of a long prehistory and the last act in the Götterdämmerung of Japan's empire. By Soviet estimates, Japan had a million men in arms in Manchuria and 2.3 million on the Japanese mainland. High-level planners and theater commanders alike expected a difficult, prolonged, and costly campaign to seize hold of the innermost core of Japan's empire. As with their Western allies, they envisioned a struggle that might soon envelop Japan's home islands themselves and lead to untold numbers of new casualties. Those were the numbers they worried about.


Excerpted from The Gods Left First by Andrew E. Barshay. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Maps and Illustrations
Note on Names and Terms

I. Prologue
The Gods Left First
Sources and Method

II. The Siberian Internment in History
The Prince’s Tale
The Soviet-Japanese War
Hot War to Cold
The Soviet-Japanese Conflict: Prehistory into History
Toward Internment
The Internment Remembered

III. Kazuki Yasuo and the Profane World of the Gulag
Icons of the Profane
The Red Corpse
"My Vision Broadened Tenfold"
The "Siberia Style"
From Image to Text
The Responsibility of the Artist
"The Beauty only I Can Grasp"

IV. Knowledge Painfully Acquired: Takasugi Ichiro and the "Democratic Movement" in Siberia
Thank You, Iosif Vissarionovich!
A Humanist Interprets the Gulag
Siberia, School of Democracy
Ogawa Goro Becomes Takasugi Ichiro
In the Shadow of the Northern Lights
The Gate of Hell
Toward Epiphany
Toward Return
Knowledge Painfully Acquired

V. Ishihara Yoshiro: "My Best Self Did Not Return"
Prologue: Ishihara Yoshiro and Viktor Frankl
The Survivor’s Question
The Primitive Accumulation of Memory
The Life before the Death
Into the Gulag
At Lowest Ebb, Stirrings
Kano Buichi, Enigma
Was this Domoi?

VI. Coda
The People Stalin Didn’t Care About
"A War to Live": Fujiwara Tei’s The Shooting Stars Are Alive
The Meaning and Message of Survival

Appendix: How Many?

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

The Gods Left First: The Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945-1956 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago