Saturday, December 26, 2015

Maizuru Repatriation Museum Part 1

The North Shore and Tango Peninsula of Kyoto shares the west end of a designated quasi-national park of Wakasa Bay, well known as a deeply indented rias coastline, clear water and white sands, embracing its Maizuru Bay and Miyazu Inlet Aso Sea. Maizuru, "dancing crane" in Japanese, is a graceful name. The name originated from two possible sources. There was a (Tanabe) castle built by Yusai Hosokawa during feudal times that is no longer there. The Tenshukaku (The Tanabe Castle Tower) of the castle was said to have looked like the dancing crane. The other is from how the bay is shaped like a wing span of a crane. I prefer the latter explanation.

Maizuru Port, bordering with Fukui Prefecture at Oura Peninsula, once thrived as a Japanese Imperial Naval Port and after the war, served as one of the main ports to disembark 70% of homecoming Japanese, particularly from Nakhodka, Russia. They were there for years, sent to hundreds of Russian Gulag Camps as war prisoners for forced labor and survivors of bleak diets and harsh conditions.

The Repatriation Support Bureau, together with citizen volunteers, received them with a hearty welcome at the pier and boarding quarters. Many emotional reunion scenes and episodes were recounted on multimedia by their kin. The pier was the haven where mothers awaited sons of war

Maizuru Port was the only port which continued to be opened for 13 years between 1945 and 1958, even after other repatriation ports closed, reflecting the long time detainees remained in Siberia. Maizuru Port has recorded 664,000 returnees and 16,000 departed souls who never made it back. It follows Hakata and Sasebo Ports of Kyushu, both of which recorded more than 1.4 million returnees from China (Huludao, Liaoning) and Korea.

Maizuru City and Port have been taking the lead to build the Repatriation Museum. The initial site was housed in the old redbrick quarters once owned by the former Navy until the end of 2014. It was later relocated to Taira Bay, consolidating all the facilities, pier, parks (62,000m2 or 15 acres), monuments, epitaph posts, and the newly refurbished museum (1000m2 or 11,000 sq.ft) into one area, close to where the boats actually anchored and returnees landed on barges in groups. Thus the reason the site was located far from downtown Maizuru.

The returnees have been contributing their mementos to the Maizuru Repatriation Museum as exhibits, including diaries, artwork and artifacts, which total 12,000. The Museum has submitted selected items for UNESCO memory heritage application. Now they are successfully registered “documents related to the internment and repatriation experiences of the Japanese 1945-1956” as of October 2015. About 1000 items are shown as permanent exhibits.

The highlight attraction is the diaries written on birch tree barks. The idea was very reminiscent of the narrow strips of wood used in the Nara Period (710-794) for message and other writings among court nobles. Necessity is indeed, the mother of invention.

I visited the Museum, extending my Kyoto visit in December. I was aware there are no buses from December to March to and from Maizuru Station. I bargained with a taxi driver to go to the museum. After first circling around the Naval brick building. I was at the museum a little after 9am, an hour earlier than when the museum opens.

However, I had plenty of time to go up the hill where I could view the modern bridge crossing Taira Bay and look down on the small wooden pier where the repatriates landed. The bridge across Taira Bay is called Maizuru Crane Bridge. On the top of the hill are a number of commemorative stone monuments. Also along the paved walkway on the slope are hundreds of epitaph posts, standardized in size and height, each representing groups they belonged to, such as battalions and gulags. One of the docents confided that each post cost 30,000 yen to erect.

Just before leaving the museum, I noticed a tall foreigner, alone by himself. I guessed he might be Russian. We were in a room with a large Russian Federation map depicted on the floor, which showed the various locations of gulags where the Japanese were imprisoned. I started a conversation with him to test my theory, while standing on the City of Almaty, Kazakhstan. I asked, “"Do you know where apples originated?” He said he didn’t know. I told him Almaty. When asked where he was from, he pointed in the direction of Europe. I wanted to talk some more but time was approaching for me to leave.

I had to catch a noon bus to return to JR Maizuru. I stood alone at the bus station and the volunteer docent I talked to saw me and offered me a free ride. He was on his way home. It was a lucky and unforgettable day.

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