Wednesday, 29 August 2007


One of the most astute observations that most astute observer, Milan Kundera, made, was that it is always the most banal discoveries that shock us the most. I was thinking about that earlier, while re-reading Embracing Defeat, a book I've written about in this blog before. It's a truism that during the Second World War and in its aftermath the world suffered incredible trauma on a scale never before experienced. And yet that banal fact still finds the capacity to be shocking in the most unexpected ways.

It was one paragraph that floored me. In the last weeks of the war, the Soviets declared war on Japan, and in a final desparate land grab, invaded Manchuria. The Japanese soldiers facing them were utterly demoralised, and the Soviet victory was absolute. Some 1.6 million Japanese were taken prisoner. By 1947 625,000 had been repatriated, but for years there was only silence from the the USSR regarding the rest, some of whom arrived, illegally, in dribs and drabs.

In the spring of 1949, Dower writes, after repeated prodding by occupation authorities, the USSR announced that only 95,000 prisoners remained, all of whom would be returned by the end of the year. According to Japanese and American calculations, the actual number should have been 400,000. Suddenly, more than 300,000 Japanese were unaccounted for. And here's the part that still has the capacity to shock: Over four decades later, the Soviet Union finally released the names of 46,000 Japanese known to be buried in Siberia. The overall numbers never jibed.

Dower goes on to say that "the fate of these Japanese is a neglected chapter among the countless epic tragedies of World War II," and he is undoubtedly right. What sorrow: over 200,000 men still formally unaccounted for, with families who never saw them again and yet never had the closure of knowing that their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers were dead and they could begin grieving. Who still, to this day, don't know what happened to them. I don't know how one could live with that unbearable not-knowing; obviously, thousands upon thousands of Japanese had to.

The saddest thing is that such cruelty was perpetuated so casually. It was as if it never occurred to the Soviet authorities that it might be possible to behave in a decent, humane way - that at the very least they might be able to provide some basic information that would console hundreds of thousands of devastated families. Instead their Japanese prisoners were consigned to oblivion without, apparently, a second thought, and their fates will never be uncovered.

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