Soviet detention of Japanese shrouded in secrecy

MOSCOW - Aug. 23 is the "Day of Detention." The designation derives from Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's issuance of a directive on that date 70 years ago to "bring into the Soviet territory 500,000" of the Imperial Japanese Army officers and soldiers who had surrendered in Manchuria and elsewhere at the end of World War II.

The Potsdam Declaration, which Japan accepted, defined the terms for Japanese surrender and stipulated that "the Japanese military forces, after being completely disarmed, shall be permitted to return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful and productive lives." In defiance of this stipulation, Stalin detained Japanese as forced laborers for the reconstruction of his own country, which bad been impoverished by the recently ended war. As a result, about 55,000 Japanese died in the former Soviet Union and Mongolia alone.

I have visited official document and film archives in various parts of Russia and discovered more detailed records than I expected. I was surprised by Russia's management system for an enormous amount of public document archives. Rector Efim Pivovar of the Russian State University for the Humanities, who is a professor of history, said: "The preservation of public documents started as a state project in the late 15th century, during the era of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. The national system started with the archiving of documents on distribution of property and transfer of authority to prevent disputes following the deaths of those in power."

Documents said to be kept in the Moscow archives include decrees signed by Ivan IV Vasilyevich, who was known as "Ivan the Terrible," and a letter written by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) addressed to Czar Nicholas I (1796-1855) requesting permission to access material in preparation for writing the novel "The Captain's Daughter."

Declassification of the archived material was initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the former Soviet Union. In April 1991, Gorbachev became the first Soviet leader ever to visit Japan. He handed over lists containing the names of about 37,000 Japanese who died while under detention and promised to co-operate with investigations into the whereabouts of their remains.

Since then, the Japanese government has continued working to collect the remains of the dead, including obtaining from Russian archives information concerning those who died and their burial places. Russian researchers unanimously and definitively said that "there are still many other unclassified detention-related official documents kept at archives operated by the [Russian] Federal Security Service and the Internal Affairs Ministry."

Agencies reluctant to disclose

Public security agencies abhor public disclosure. Having lost more than 20 million people in World War II, Russia is still searching for some of the remains of its own people. Japan's desire to search for clues regarding the detainees who perished is not something to which Russians should show indifference.

The detention of Japanese - which derived from the Soviet Union's participation in the war against Japan during the closing days of World War II and includes events that were part of the seizure of Japan's northern territories off Hokkaido - has cast a shadow over Japan-Russia relations ever since. But according to knowledgeable sources, the detention issue has not been discussed in recent bilateral summit talks, although the territorial issue has been taken up.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an order to deal with the detention issue, even the country's secretive public security organisations would have no alternative but to open their doors. In order to accelerate the elucidation of facts about the detention of Japanese soldiers that have been buried under the shadow of history, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe must seek to obtain Putin's commitment in their future one-on-one talks.