During this Obon weekend, I was in Higashiyama Kyoto among worshippers at their family temples and groups of sightseers, while soaking up a distant scent of incense in the air. I felt I shouldn’t miss the last performance of the Russo-Japanese play “When Cherry Blossoms Bloom in Siberia,” performed in Kyoto on August 14, 2011.
The story was originally written in 2007 by Nelly Matkhanova, residing in Minusinsk near Irkutsk by Lake Baykal. I read that the playwright was inspired to write by reading Shizuo Yamashita’s book of ball-point sketch collections called Retained for 1,450 days (1993), and the Russian translation of Kyuzo Kato’s Diary of Siberia (published in l980). Both Yamashita and Kato were Japanese prisoners of war held in Krasnoyarsk, in their respective camps.
There must have been plenty of Japanese plays dealing with Siberian Gulags, but this play is important as the first from a Russian’s perspective. As a child, writer Matkkanova had seen Japanese prisoners toiling on streetcar road construction projects in Taishet and felt pity for them.
The play was first performed in Minusinsk in 2009 without Japanese participation. Then a collaborative effort between Russians and Japanese was proposed as the Sakura Project. Funding and preparations for the project followed, supported by the Japanese MOF, Ministry of Cultural Affairs of the Krasnoyarsk Region, Minusinsk Drama Theater, Japan’s People Theater, Maizuru City (the port city facing the Japan Sea that welcomed returnees from Siberia), the Japanese Association of the bereaved families of prisoners and other organizations.
In 1952, Japan regained its sovereignty through the San Francisco Peace Treaty with the U.S. and its allies. However, Communist countries, the Soviet Union and China, did not join the Treaty as they were in the middle of the Korean War. Mostly neglected from that Peace Treaty were 570,000 Japanese prisoners of war, detained by the Soviet Union. The unofficial number could actually total 600,000 if Japanese civilians, such as 270,000 immigrants tasked with developing Manchuria, were included. My uncle, the youngest of five of my mother's brothers, was one of the immigrants and he went missing right after Aug l5, 1945.
The play opens with the arrival of Japanese prisoners of war at the barb-wired Taishet Camp, about 800 km northwest of Irkutsk, and ends with the “Damoi (homecoming)“ departure, after 1450 days of forced labor. The guard calls roll and crossly examines prisoners’ personal belongings, confiscating some. A rosary is spared. Each of the seven roommates are spotlighted after they go to bed to show what he is thinking. Individual episodes ensue; a skilled mechanic repairs a tricycle and establishes a friendship with the Camp Headmaster’s boy and wife; an artist exchanges poems with a Russian interpreter; student-turned soldier meets a Russian girl and is attracted to her; an eccentric unable to handle paranoia attempts suicide in the snow; a fever stricken man saved by a Russian housewife on his way to the hospital gets into a car wreck and is dropped off in the middle of nowhere when the Russian driver leaves him to report the emergency; a soldier is pinned under a fallen tree while attempting to save the life of a Russian female guard; an apprentice medic helps deliver a baby of a Russian guard’s wife, which completely changes the guard’s attitude towards Japanese. At the conclusion of the story, four soldiers out of seven leaves Taishet. Two die in the camp and one decides to stay to marry a Russian girl.
These episodes are continuously played out alongside the hard labor assignments, treading in the deep snow for outdoor duties. Helped with the solemn, yet rhythmical Japanese music, the stage scenery rapidly changes by the actors’ coordinated dexterity and well designed stage set. One basic stage for multi-scene usage was magnificent, worthy of applause.
l) I wish to refer to Yasuo Kazuki (1911-1974), another Siberian artist born and died in neighboring Yamaguchi Prefecture. I visited the Yasuo Kazuki Art Museum in Nagato when I went to Nishinagato Beach (see summer memories - Riosologgers). He spent about half a year in Syya Camp, in the territory of Khakassia (once Kyrgyz but now under Russia). Syya Camp was reportedly one of the smallest (250 prisoners) yet worst detention camps in Siberia. I'm not sure where Syya is but his recollection is that he got off the train at a station called Shira, south of Achinsk, was then trucked to Syya village in the mountain and walked another 3 km on snowy roads to arrive at the camp.
There artist Kazuki saw Dante’s hell. I was so shocked to see the skulls peering out from the prison and explored why Kazuki's experience was so tragic and desperate. I found out why when I read Takashi Tachibana’s (see Note 2) book based on his fact finding Siberian trip. The average mortality rate at the camps was 10% over a 5 year span. The mortality rate at Camp Syya was 10% over a 3-4 month period. The main work for Syya camp prisoners was to bring down timber for the old steam power generating station which supported the Communal Gold Mines nearby. In addition to inadequate food rationing, scandals among the Russian officers were rampant. When this was brought to light, the camp was closed. Kazuki saw friends dying one after another from hunger. Shown here is Kazuki's artwork "Damoi" on S.S. Esanmaru in 1947.
2) Takashi Tachibana (born 28 May 1940, Nagasaki) is a Japanese independent journalist, known for his articles on Japanese social problems. He called the forced labor camps in Siberia the biggest human tragedy of the 20th Century.
He claims, at one point, Siberia had 10 million prisoners, of which 7 million were Russians, 2.4 million Germans and 600,000 Japanese. The Kremlin sent Russian prisoners of war, who were returned from Germany, to Siberia for the camp's administration, without any experience or motivation.
3) Russians appropriated Japanese plants, disassembled them and transported them to Siberia. They used Japanese prisoners to reassemble and restart the plants.