A large arch with the words “Welcome back!” greeted those landing on the shore from the ship. Town citizens gathered around the bay with Japanese flags, yelling:
“Thank you for Your Work!”
How great it must have felt to come back from the ravages and suffering of the Second World War, and land in Japan to such a warm greeting?
This was a common scene on the beautiful bay of Maizuru City, a small port town along the Sea of Japan with a population of 80,000 people, not far from Kyoto. For thirteen years between 1945 and 1957, the first point of contact for an estimated 346 ships and 6.6 million Japanese landed back in Japan was this small town: Maizuru.
Among them, one group which stands out was composed of about 460,000 Japanese who returned home after enduring forced labor all over the ex-Soviet Union.
Where one might imagine it as a mere transactional process, here lies an instance of the kindness of human nature. The citizens of Maizuru, who were also poor and ravaged by war, took it upon themselves to welcome those who returned. There was singing, dancing, and generous donations of food and drink.
Bonds and special memories were formed, a small parenthesis showcasing the benevolence of man in the midst of destruction.
There is a problem though: not many people know about this history.
Keeping the Memory Alive
As the memory of WWII fades, so does the risk of forgetting the role Maizuru played in postwar Japan. Yet there are those who are trying to do something about it.
High school students are coming together to find new ways to communicate this important piece of local history to the next generation.
Teaming up with the Maizuru Repatriation Memorial Museum, one class in Higashi Maizuru High School has performed an English play based on one story connected with the repatriation, which was posted on YouTube on March 20. The play has the ambitious aim of telling this history of Maizuru to the world.
On top of that, twenty or so middle school and high school students from all over the city have offered their free time as guides at the local Repatriation Museum. By doing so they can tell the story in their own way, and therefore contribute to keeping the town’s oral history alive.
Aoi Mashimo, 17, is from Nissei High School and is one particularly active student guide at the museum. She told us about her determination to pass the message on to the next generation:
“We are often asked ‘what is peace’, but I think many of us don’t have a concrete idea. This history, it’s a shame if it gets lost.[…] I want to work as hard as I can so that as many people as possible know about this history.”
History on YouTube Through ‘Kuro the Dog’
How do you bring something which goes 75 years back to WWII into the 21st century?
At Higashi Maizuru High School, students did it by carrying out an English performance of the story of Kuro the dog.
Ten students rehearsed their lines over a period of several months, helped by their teacher Shizuyo Tanaka and their English teachers (James Kuba and Andrew Sinnes). Students from the art club did illustrations, and then ten students acted out an English voice over. Their effort culminated in a roughly ten minute video, which was uploaded on YouTube just on March 20.
The play is fairly simple, but powerful in format. It is one to move the hearts of anyone.
It narrates the true story of soldiers who were held captive in Siberia and their friendship with a black dog promptly baptized “Kuro” (black). Against all odds and hardships, the captives and their friend Kuro manage to survive. And when they went back to Japan, they landed in Maizuru.
And the kids’ powerful performance brings the message home. In natural English, they act out the glee of the soldiers when being reunited with their friend Kuro, reproducing the emotion of the time.
There were of course difficulties in creating the English version of the project, compared to the Japanese version which was done in 2016. Several of the kids referred to the difficulty of getting speed and intonation right, and putting extra emotion in their voices so as to convey the story better.
But for many, it was an opportunity to get to know the story better, and becoming active ambassadors in relaying this history to the world.
Andrea Kado, one among the participating students, grew up in the Philippines before moving to Japan. She shared with us how she first learned of the project:
“I grew up abroad, so I had never heard this specific story before. I really like dogs, so personally I thought ‘Oh there is a dog, how cute.’ But then when there was a moment when the dog risked his life, I shed a little tear…The fact that the war is bad, and that life is preciousー not just the life of humans, but also those of animalsー it’s an important lesson. For the returnees, and everyone, it’s necessary and important to relay this story to as many people as possible.”
Although most students had heard of the story before through visits to the museum, many admitted that the experience of performing the play made them more confident about passing on the stories to others.
Another project participant Aya Yokoi explained her feelings this way:
“I feel like I have really left something tangible. Until now, I didn’t have enough knowledge to share with people. But now that I have studied, I know more about this, and enough to tell peopleー not only people abroad, but people around me. When away from Maizuru, I think I have developed enough of a skill to deliver the message.”
Another student, Kanon Matsushima, reflected this way on her hopes for the future: “We don’t often get to do something like this, so I think it’s a precious opportunity to relay the story, even just in English. I hope that this is not just the first and last time, but it can be an opportunity to continue to the next generation.”
Tanaka, the teacher, aptly summarized the importance of the project: “I think it’s a history that Japanese can be proud of. I think that if people go to the museum it would be great. But public memory is fading, so apart from the museum I think this sort of activity of doing videos and using SNS is really important.”
‘Find Your Own Way of Telling the Story’
The town’s memory of this period of history is preserved in the Maizuru Repatriation Memorial Museum, which first opened in 1988. It was built from a joint effort of the town and people all over the country donating funds.
It features objects and memorabilia of those held in labor camps in freezing Siberia. There are letters written in censored language for the USSR authorities, and objects such as diaries made out of white birch wood, and trumpets made out of scraps of metal, made to help the Japanese captives keep a shred of mental sanity.
In addition, there is a reproduction of a labor camp, and the verbal accounts of people who were instrumental in bringing attention to the Japanese held in Siberia ー and in welcoming them back to Japan.
The museum has come a long way since it was initially opened in 1988. At the time many didn’t know about Maizuru’s history outside of the townspeople who lived through the time. Now every student in the city visits the museum when they are in the last year of elementary school, and the last few years the venue welcomed almost 100,000 visitors per year.
The head of the museum Miharu Yamashita, told us of the importance of getting out the word of the history of the town:
“This is a very unique history, of which there is still so much which is unknown. We want to continue doing our work, spreading the word about the history of Maizuru.”
But how does one communicate this history to the younger generation?
On this point, we spoke to Aoi Mashimo, a 17-year old who is an active participant in the effort to keep the memory of Maizuru’s history alive.
Mashimo told us how, when she was 14 years old, she first approached the idea of being a guide in the repatriation museum. It was the memories of her grandfather that pushed her to become an active proponent of passing the history of Maizuru to the next generation.
“My grandfather died when I was three. But he always told us stories of when they would hear the sound of the ship approaching the port when he was in elementary school. The classes would be interrupted so that everyone could go and greet the returnees.”
In some ways, Aoi Mashimo is a direct link to this history, and she wants to keep that link alive.
She is now part of a group of 20 or so middle and high school students who dedicate their free time to being part time guides in the museum. They split up their roles and find their ways of telling the story.
She joked modestly “I am not so bright, so I can’t memorize a script, but I have an interest in this and therefore I studied, and I try to convey the history to adults and children alike in a way which reflects me.”
She described how she would adjust her language when she talks to children, and take a more interactive approach in the section of the museum which reproduces a life sized labor camp dormitory.
“I would tell them to try lying down and thinking about what it must have been like.”
Mashimo is now seventeen, explained why the activity was so important to her:
“I am especially happy when people thank me for being a guide, or when they cheer me on for what I do. In some instances, some people come to the museum and ask if the student guides are available. It wasn’t my intention, but it’s important to think how we can communicate with the younger generation. If I can be a way for people to know more about this, I will be very happy.”
Finally, she explained why it was so important that this history isn’t just forgotten:
“My grandfather was one of the people who was welcoming these returnees back to Japan. I don’t want to let this memory of him fade. But also, this history is so precious. It would be a shame if it was lost. And if someone doesn’t carry it on, it will be.
“We are often asked ‘what is peace’, but I think many of us don’t have a concrete idea. This history, it’s a shame if it gets lost… I want to work as hard as I can so that as many people as possible know about this history.”
‘A Pocket of Love in this Small Town’
It was the words of Maizuru’s mayor, Ryozo Tatami, which struck me the most when we talked about the importance of this history:
“We made a promise to those who came back to remember what happened here. […] This is a story which above all is about love, human connection, and hope.”
In fact, the city is finding ways of bringing out this positive message, even in today’s world.
In 2015, thanks to the tireless efforts of the mayor, the city succeeded to get the history of repatriation recognized on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
Since 2016, Maizuru has started ties with the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent. There, in the immediate postwar years, Japanese laborers helped build a theater, the Navoi Theater. The theater and the Japanese laborers who built it are held dear in the collective memory of the locals.
Japanese representatives and students, including Aoi Mashimo, have visited the city to keep the ties alive. The Uzbek judo and wrestling team were also supposed to visit Maizuru for their training before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.
Mayor Tatami concluded: “The people here are kind, I think it perhaps goes back to the repatriation period.[…] I would like for the city to become a place where we can always help each other, and where people from all over Japan will want to come and live.”
Perhaps the younger generation is finding ways to help this spirit become a reality.
Author: Arielle Busetto