Those who died in a battle against Soviet troops in Japan’s far north after Japan’s surrender in World War II were honored in an August 16 memorial service at the Sapporo Gokoku Shrine in Hokkaido.
It has not been widely known that the war continued in the Chishima (Kurile) Islands and Karafuto (Sakhalin) even after August 15, 1945, the day which is said to have marked the end of World War II.
Soviet troops invaded territories governed by Japan, including Manchuria and South Karafuto (south Sakhalin), after breaking the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact on August 9, 1945. They landed on Shumshu Island before dawn nine days later.
Initially, the battle developed to the advantage of Japanese troops, but was halted three days later. The Soviet troops then moved southward, and occupied the four northern islands off Hokkaido in a post-war military campaign that lasted from August 28 to September 5 of that year.
The number of first-hand witnesses who fought in those battles has been dwindling as the years pass, and immediate family members of the war dead have also aged. In an effort to preserve and hand down the war memories, bereaved families and volunteers organized this year’s memorial service under the slogan “Continuing to tell the story of a battle fought to protect Japan.”
The Postwar Battle in Japan’s Northern Islands
Hidetaka Oda, 92, of Higashine City, Yamagata Prefecture, was a boy tank soldier in the battle. He had planned to attend the service, but abandoned the plan due to the threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Still, he expressed his anguish: “Events to mark the end of the war were held on August 15, but the battle started on August 18 for us. I must live on and continue to tell the story about the fighting there.”
Then 17 years old, Oda had received an emergency call before dawn on August 18 and went out by tank to the site targeted for reconnaissance, when fighting broke out with Soviet troops. He received a ceasefire order just before 6 A.M. on August 21, when an all-out attack was scheduled to start.
“I couldn’t move as I shed tears of frustration and disappointment,” Oda said, as he recalled that moment.
Oda and other Japanese soldiers were disarmed and taken as prisoners of war to Siberia, where they were forced to engage in hard labor, such as mining and deforestation. Many of those in the post-war battles lost their lives there.
There are various opinions about the number of people who died in the Shumshu Battle, but it is generally thought that the Soviet troops were dealt a heavier blow than the Japanese troops. In recent years, increasing credence has been given to the view that the battle stopped the Soviet Union and prevented postwar Japan from being divided into two states, as happened in the case of the Korean Peninsula and Germany.
The battlegrounds in the Chishima Islands (Kurile Islands) and South Karafuto were Japanese territories up to the end of the war. The Japanese government continues to take the position that sovereignty over these has yet to be decided. Russia at present restricts entry to Shumshu Island, where the wreckage of tanks and artillery guns remain as they were in September 1945.
Remembering Shumshu and POWs Taken to Siberia
In 2019, an association of bereaved families and those related to Japanese who fought on Chishima and Karafuto came together to hold a memorial service for the war dead on Shumshu Island, said Yoshitaka Deguchi, chairman of the Karafuto Toyohara society and one of those promoting the event. A few years earlier, in 2016, the last memorial service carried out by former soldiers engaged in the Shumshu Battle was held under the sponsorship of the Kitachishima Irei no Kai.
The memorial service held on August 16, 2020, to mourn those who lost their lives in the battles and as victims of Siberian detention was the second by the new association.
About 30 people attended this year’s 16 memorial service, sharing their thoughts and memories about the fierce battle. Among them were Sumie Ito, 88, of Sapporo, Hokkaido, whose elder brother was killed in the Shumshu Island battle, and her daughter Chizuko Nishii, 55, also from Sapporo.
“I was surprised to know that we are the only bereaved family members to attend the ceremony,” Nishii said. “I am pleased to see those who are not bereaved families show interest in the battle on the Shumshu Island that even the people of Hokkaido don’t know about.”
(Access to the article in Japanese can be found here.)
Author: The Sankei Shimbun