Heritage and the Politics of Culture
When World War II ended, over 600,000 Japanese servicemen defeated in its final battles found themselves in Soviet labor camps. Since many camps were in Siberia, their captivity became known as the “Siberian Internment.” The Soviets released almost all Japanese by 1950, but several thousand remained imprisoned as “war criminals” until late 1956. While the road to the camps had been covered by land, the return lay across the Sea of Japan, in repatriation ships departing the Russian port of Nakhodka for the Japanese harbor of Maizuru. It was a long-awaited journey for all survivors of the “Siberian hell,” but not everyone made it to Japan, thrown overboard for collaborating with the Soviets in the camps.
In this paper I join the Japanese returnees on their journeys home across the Sea of Japan, in search for memories and meanings. Through memoirs and archival documents, I recreate their crossing as not simply a traversal of the sea, but a transit between eras, a kind of time travel. Trapped in labor camps in complete isolation from the world, the Siberian internees were unaware that on board repatriation ships they were making the trip from Japan’s wartime to its postwar. They were crossing the sea of change into the “new” Japan, of which they knew little beyond distorted propaganda messages, and where a Cold War struggle for justice and recognition awaited them.