- Return from Siberia: A Japanese Life in War and Peace, 1925–2015 by Oguma Eiji
This attractive, beautifully written English-language edition of Ikite kaette kita otoko: aru Nihonhei no sensō to sengo (A man who lived to return home: one soldier's wartime and postwar [Iwanami Shoten, 2015]) is the product of a series of father-son interviews between protagonist Oguma Kenji (b. 1925) and author Oguma Eiji (b. 1962). Although Oguma the elder is the main character, Return from Siberia is a single-author title bearing only his son's byline. Indeed, Oguma Eiji's frequent interpositions of background information to frame block quotations from interviews with his father make it more narrative history than memoir. As the title intimates, Oguma Kenji's internment in Siberia (August 1945-August 1948) forms the book's pivot. Two of its nine chapters are dedicated to Kenji's three-year ordeal in the Soviet Union, placing this work within a growing historiography about Japanese who "lived to return home" from captivity.
The Oguma family's prewar history constitutes the book's first and longest chapter. It is a tale of geographic mobility prompted by misfortune, economic hardship, and the search for opportunity. Oguma's treatment of Meiji- and Taisho-era social history, told through the lens of his father's memory, is masterful and riveting. In chapter 2, the teenaged Oguma Kenji is conscripted by a desperate Imperial Army, despite his subpar performance on the medical exam (p. 47). After Kenji arrived in Manchukuo, he never fired a shot in battle, visited a military brothel, or even interacted [End Page 204] with Chinese people. Kenji's military career consisted of violent hazing by Japanese superiors in Manchukuo, Soviet capture, and internment in the USSR (pp. 51–70). His testimony in chapters 3 and 4 regarding harsh labor, poor food, inhumane travel conditions, the perfidy of Japanese internees who participated in Soviet-inspired "democracy movements," and the postwar immiseration of Soviet citizens will be familiar to readers of Andrew Barshay's The Gods Left First: The Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945–56 (University of California Press, 2013) and Yoshikuni Igarashi's Homecomings: The Belated Return of Japan's Lost Soldiers (Columbia University Press, 2016). It cannot be doubted that Kenji suffered mightily in Siberia.
After three years of exile, Kenji's 1948 "homecoming" to Japan was a muted and awkward affair. He did not receive a ticker-tape parade. Neither did he return home to a jubilant family. Rather, Kenji showed up at the Warino village, Niigata Prefecture, house of his aged and struggling father, with whom he rarely lived as a youth. Soon after, he removed to Okayama to live with his grandparents, who also lived in straitened circumstances (pp. 134–39). Kenji's hard landing was not unusual. As Lori Watt documents, Siberian returnees faced suspicion and even social rejection in Japan in part because they were reminders of Japan's failed empire and lost war. From about 1948 onward, they were also associated with purported Soviet "brainwashing."1 Kenji himself attributed his inability to be rehired by Fuji Telecommunications to precisely this kind of discriminatory treatment (pp. 143–44). In Oguma Eiji's telling, Kenji's inability to experience a "homecoming" also stemmed from bare conditions in the countryside and from the fact that Kenji had divided his youth between parents and grandparents, and multiple geographically dispersed residences.
If one were to coax another historiographical point out of Kenji's poignant yet anticlimactic return to Japan, it might be author Eiji's criticism of the notion that settled farmers were the bulwark of "traditional Japan." For Oguma Eiji, Japanese salarymen, or farmers in rural communities, are overrepresented in studies of Japan. His father Kenji, by contrast, lived in the countryside without farming and was a city dweller without salaried employment (pp. xvi, 291). Historian of China Henrietta Harrison's kindred study in the life-story genre is suggestive. As Harrison...