At the end of the Second World War, about 600,000 Japanese soldiers were taken prisoner after the Soviet Union swept through Manchuria in the very final days of the war. Instead of returning them to Japan, the Soviet Union held them in prison camps in the Russian Far East for over a decade. The last group was released in 1956, eleven years after the Japanese surrender.
Those eleven years are the subject of Eleven Winters of Discontent: The Siberian Internment and the Making of a New Japan (Harvard University Press, 2022) by Dr. Sherzod Muminov. The book tells the story of the Japanese prisoners: how they were captured, their time in the camps, and how they tried to acclimatize to Japan after their release.
Sherzod Muminov is a Lecturer in Japanese History at the University of East Anglia and winner of the inaugural Murayama Tsuneo Memorial Prize. He is a historian of transnational and international processes in East Asia and Eurasia, whose primary research deals with Japan’s makings as a modern nation from the Meiji Restoration of 1868 to present day, through the rise and fall of the Japanese Empire and its remaking as a nation-state following defeat in World War II.
Fellow New Books Network host Shatrunjay Mall joins us for this interview. Shatrunjay is a PhD candidate at the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He works on transnational Asian history, and his dissertation explores intellectual, political, and cultural intersections and affinities that emerged between Indian anti-colonialism and imperial Japan in the twentieth century.
The three of us talk about the experience of the Japanese prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, their life in camps, how they handled their return to Japan—and how the experience has repercussions today for Japan and its relations with Russia.
Nicholas Gordon is an associate editor for a global magazine, and a reviewer for the Asian Review of Books. He can be found on Twitter at @nickrigordon.