THE SILENT LAND / Prison Camps in Siberia

Jun Henmi
In the outer sea of Sado, there is a cape from where you can see Siberia. There is a place on this cape called “Sainokawara”, where several stone towers and various sizes of Jizo statues are lined up. Local people believe that they can meet the dead when they come to this riverbank.
About twenty years ago, I met an old woman at Sainokawara. The old woman’s son had been detained in Siberia and had passed away.
“When I heard that my brother died in Siberia, I came to this riverbank. By offering flowers to Jizo-sama like this and stacking stones, I feel like I can meet my brother.”
The voice of the old woman still overlaps with the harsh winter sea roar of the outer sea. My uncle’s husband, who lives in my hometown of Toyama, was also taken to Siberia and passed away there. My aunt, who is now eighty years old, says,
“I want to go to Siberia where my father died, but I still can’t. I want to go there once before the day of my departure comes.”
She repeats it over and over again. Tears start flowing as she speaks. When she received the news of her husband’s death, she pounded the floor with a mix of regret and sadness, rolled around, and cried. However, as she raised and cared for the three young children her husband left behind, she stopped crying. It’s only recently that tears come whenever she remembers her husband. She wonders if there was still a place for tears to come out.
In the defeat of August 15, 1945, it is said that over six hundred thousand Japanese people were detained in Siberia from former Manchuria, North Korea, and Karafuto. Of those, more than sixty thousand people, over ten percent, died in hunger and hard labor with homesickness in their hearts. They were buried by digging holes at the base of birch trees, so they were also called “birch nourishment”, and not even their names or dates of death were recorded.
Among these deceased is Hatao Yamamoto from Oki. He was drafted as a private second class in the summer of 1944 and left for the front leaving four children behind in Shin’ei. He was accused of “conspiracy espionage against the Soviet Union” under Article 58, Section 6 of Soviet domestic law, for his previous work in the South Manchuria Railway Investigation Department and his time at the Harbin Special Agency six months before the defeat, and was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for spying. The arbitrariness of the Soviet Union judging Japanese people by its own laws is now rightly criticized. Moreover, even women who worked as telephone operators in Shin’ei’s telephone exchange and at the Soviet consulate in Dairen were taken into custody. A woman who taught Japanese at the consulate was detained in the Soviet Union until 1955.
In August 1948, Katsuo Yamamoto died of illness in a camp in Khabarovsk, but his comrades secretly wrote down the date and name of his death on a birch tree. Birch trees were the grave markers for the deceased.
Yamamoto traveled around various places, including Sverdlovsk, but held gatherings and poetry meetings in the camps. During the days of despair when he didn’t know when he could return home, he always told his comrades, “We will definitely return home together. Until that day, I want to remember beautiful Japanese language.” Starting the “Amur Poetry Society” in the Khabarovsk camp was one of those efforts.
“What Mr. Yamamoto taught us was not just haiku. No matter what adversity we face, what’s important is how to live as honest human beings,” said a comrade.
In December 1948, Gunshiro Hayashi returned as one of the last long-term detainees from the Soviet zone, along with 1,025 others. He copied Yamamoto’s haiku, tanka, and poetry onto wrapping paper, hid them in the seams of his pants, and delivered them to the bereaved families.
He also said that people are either “on that side” or “on this side,” and which side one belongs to is merely a matter of chance. “That side” would be the world of the deceased. As someone who survived on “this side,” it was said that one had no choice but to live for the sake of the dead, at least.

I think of myself as a child when I see small icicles hanging from the eaves.
– Hatao

In Siberia, temperatures drop below minus thirty degrees in winter, and icicles become as sharp as blades. Perhaps he found small icicles and named each one after his four children whom he brought back to Japan. Until just before his death, he continued to write about how to live as a Japanese in a thin Soviet notebook. Of course, the notebook was confiscated by the Soviet authorities. If what he wrote was found, he would be sent to solitary confinement or face heavier penalties. As I learn about Yamamoto’s way of life, I can’t help but think that living well is also a way of dying well.
In his will, Yamamoto wrote:
“It is the Japanese nation that can, in the future, serve as the only mediator to integrate the cultures of the East and the West, and contribute to the reconstruction of world culture with the superior moral culture of the East — humanitarianism. We must never forget this historical mission even for a moment.”
The path of “reconstruction of world culture” that he prayed for while thinking of Japan and his family in Siberia is far removed from the reality of our country today. His question still seems heavy.
His will was delivered to his family by his fellow inmates through an unimaginable means called “memory.”
Memory is the traditional method of transmitting Japanese culture. However, what is remembered through body and mind and passed on to the next generation can become a great power of culture.
The photo book “Silent Land” by ARAMASA Taku seems to tell through the camera that memory is culture.
ARAMASA experienced the defeat of 1945 in Jiamusi, former Manchuria. He was nine years old at the time. Two years after the defeat, he arrived at his grandfather’s house in Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture, from the continent. It may have been the impulse to look back at himself, who might have become a “left-behind orphan,” that prompted ARAMASA to dig up memories of his childhood in former Manchuria. One day, there was an incident where the young men in the neighborhood who had been fond of him suddenly disappeared from the town with the invasion of the Soviet army. Later, he learned that those young men had been detained in Siberia.
The year the book was published, 1995, marked half a century since the defeat. However, shouldn’t we bear in mind that it is not “already half a century” but “still half a century”? We must not forget that our country is built on the foundation of countless deceased who died on the battlefield or in the frozen soil of Siberia. Today, when memories of wartime experiences are being lost over time, the significance of digging up another journey to find the disappeared Japanese through the lens of one photographer is profound and immense. It is because we feel that it is important to quietly listen to the voices of the land and the deceased that come through that journey. / GPT-4

Jun Henmi, Author

小さきをば子供と思ふ軒氷柱 幡男

「日本民族こそは将来、東洋、西洋の文化を融合する唯一の媒介者、東洋のすぐれた道義の文化 ⸺ 人道主義を以て世界文化再建に寄与し得る唯一の民族である。この歴史的使命を片時も忘れてはならぬ」
(へんみ じゅん 作家)