On 9 August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki and three Soviet armies invaded imperial Japan’s puppet state of Manchukuo. Six days later, Emperor Hirohito’s recorded broadcast to the Japanese people told them that the end of the war had arrived. Most Japanese troops in Manchukuo surrendered or withdrew by August 19. The fate of 2.7 million Japanese soldiers and citizens in the former Manchurian colony would be determined by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
As Sherzod Muminov, a Lecturer on Japanese History at the University of East Anglia, who was educated in Uzbekistan, England, and Japan, notes in Eleven Winters of Discontent, Stalin had issued a secret decree to transport more than a half-million of the Japanese enemy to forced labor camps in the Far East and Siberia. Pursuant to this order, more than 600,000 Japanese were interned in camps between 1945 and 1956. This 11-year (for some) odyssey in a subset of Stalin’s Gulag known by the acronym GUPVI (camps for POWs and foreign internees) is less about the horrible conditions in the camps (though Muminov mentions them) than it is about “a political and social history of Japan’s transition from empire to nation-state told through the lens of the Siberian Internment.”
Muminov calls his book a “global” history of the internment and places it in the context of Japan’s conquest of Manchuria and its other imperial conquests, World War II, and the early years of the Cold War. He sees this book as a corrective to the narrow nation-state focus in Japan that previously viewed the internment through the lens of Japanese victimology and the Cold War rivalry between Japan’s ally and occupier, the United States, and its rival the Soviet Union. This is not a Solzhenitsyn-like history of the cruelties and horrors of the Gulag archipelago.
But cruelties and horrors there were. Muminov estimates that 60,000 internees died in captivity from cold, malnutrition, disease, accidents, and mistreatment. Japanese survivors remembered the “Siberian trinity of suffering”: bitter cold, backbreaking work, and hunger. There are small echoes of Solzhenitsyn here, but not enough. Muminov makes use of internee memoirs that are rife with examples of camp horrors, yet at times he suggests that memories were shaped by postwar themes that sought to align the internees’ experiences with Japan’s victims of American bombings and the postwar government’s demonization of the Soviet Union. And often left out of these memoirs and other scholarly works in Japan were references to Japan’s responsibility for starting the war and the many cruelties inflicted by its soldiers on innocent victims in Manchuria, China, and elsewhere before and during World War II, though none were perpetrated against the USSR.
Soviet propagandists used the camps to reeducate the internees about the evil of Japan’s imperial past, the exploitation of the capitalist system, the virtue of helping to rebuild the USSR, and, of course, the tenets of Marxism-Leninism. When the Japanese internees were repatriated, Muminov writes, those who expressed sympathy with Marxism were subjected to criticism and treated as potential communist fifth columnists. And, indeed, some of the repatriates joined Japan’s Communist Party. In postwar Japan, the first few years of which was overseen by US occupation, communism was viewed as the enemy. Muminov, however, attributes this as much to American propaganda as to the actual Soviet threat.
Muminov throughout the book has a tendency to downplay Soviet responsibility for the emerging Cold War, portraying the Japanese repatriates as caught in the middle of the Cold War ideological struggle. He downplays the systemic nature of Soviet forced labor. He attributes the “hardships” endured by Japanese internees to the overall bad economic conditions in the postwar Soviet Union. He declines to attribute any “premeditation” to Stalin’s archipelago of slave labor. He calls notions of Stalin’s Soviet Union as backward, brutal and threatening “myths”, and he approvingly quotes historian Masuda Hajimu’s description of the Cold War as a “constructed conflict” and an “imagined reality.” He writes about setting aside “the chorus of self-righteousness on both sides of the ideological divide” to better understand and interpret the Siberian internment.
Muminov concludes the book by detailing the internees’ political campaign in Japan to receive compensation for their internment—not from the Soviet Union and later Russia, but from the Japanese government. In 2010, after decades of efforts, the Japanese Diet adopted the Postwar Forced Internees Special Law, which provided for modest compensation to surviving internees. Muminov writes that the law, at least, gave some of the surviving internees historical closure.
Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.