- The Gods Left First: The Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945-1956 by Andrew E. Barshay
The Gods Left First tells an extended history of the internment of approximately 640,000 men who were captured by or surrendered to the Red Army at the end of World War II in Manchuria and then sent to detention camps across the Soviet Union. The book explores how detention was experienced, remembered, and interpreted by those who lived it. As for experienced, author Andrew Barshay first provides a concise political and military history of the encounter between the Kwantung Army and the Red Army and an overview of the system of detention, also referred to as the gulag. As for remembered, the author strives to makes sense of some 2,000 memoirs that were subsequently generated by the detainees. As for interpreted, he provides in-depth portraits of three carefully selected individuals who devoted their postwar lives to interpreting their detention: the painter Kazuki Yasuo, the writer and editor Takasugi Ichirō, and the poet Ishihara Yoshirō. The result is a gripping treatment of an important but understudied chapter of Soviet and Japanese history during and after World War II.
One intellectually satisfying aspect of this book is its organization. Sources on this history are sparse and uneven, even if one makes use of both Japanese- and Russian-language materials, as Barshay does. In terms of the history of the camps themselves, much of what we know is retrospective, in the challenging form of memoirs. What does one do in the face of 2,000 memoirs? In this case, the author is able to identify a pattern, explaining that there was a “distinct phasing to the internment experience” (p. 42). That is, it mattered how long a person spent in camp. For this reason, he organized the detainees into three groups based on the length of their captivity: the early returners, men who survived the deadly conditions of the first year and returned to Japan between mid-1947 and mid-1948; those who spent a few more years in the camps and were subjected to reeducation; and “twenty-five year men,” people sentenced to long prison terms as war criminals (p. 44). Barshay then uses an exploration of the cultural products of Kazuki, Takasugi, and Ishihara, who each represent one of those phases, to grapple with how they attempted to make sense of their captivity and of the war itself.
The three chapters that address the men who represent each phase form the heart of the book. In the unnumbered chapter titled “Kazuki Yasuo and the Profane World of the Gulag,” we learn that Kazuki Yasuo was in the midst of his aesthetic development as a painter when he was drafted, sent to Manchuria as a member of the Kwantung Army, and then detained for eighteen months in Siberia, where privations, violence, and death were ever-present realities. His experience of war, defeat, and captivity [End Page 363] on the one hand, and his artistic sensibility on the other, fused in a compelling way. Kazuki was a prolific painter, but he is best known for his Siberia Series, a set of fiftyseven large canvases painted between 1947 and 1974, paintings that depict, suggest, or describe various aspects of the camp experience. In this chapter, Barshay combines biography and an aesthetic reading of these paintings to show how Kazuki used specific tropes, including beauty amid suffering. Kazuki focused in part on the idea of the “suffering victimizer” (p. 66) as symbolized not by the “black corpse” of Hiroshima but rather by the “red corpse,” an image drawn from his glimpse, on his way to detention, of the skinned corpse of a Japanese soldier (p. 49). The chapter stands as a compelling treatment of Kazuki’s post-camp efforts to interpret his experiences during the war and in captivity and to find ways to mourn the dead.
In “Knowledge Painfully Acquired: Takasugi Ichirō and the ‘Democratic...