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The Gods Left First

The Captivity and Repatriation of Japanese POWs in Northeast Asia, 1945–1956

Andrew E. Barshay (Author)


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At the time of Japan’s surrender to Allied forces on August 15, 1945, some six million Japanese were left stranded across the vast expanse of a vanquished Asian empire. Half civilian and half military, they faced the prospect of returning somehow to a Japan that lay prostrate, its cities destroyed, after years of warfare and Allied bombing campaigns. Among them were more than 600,000 soldiers of Japan’s army in Manchuria, who had surrendered to the Red Army only to be transported to Soviet labor camps, mainly in Siberia. Held for between two and four years, and some far longer, amid forced labor and reeducation campaigns, they waited for return, never knowing when or if it would come. Drawing on a wide range of memoirs, art, poetry, and contemporary records, The Gods Left First reconstructs their experience of captivity, return, and encounter with a postwar Japan that now seemed as alien as it had once been familiar. In a broader sense, this study is a meditation on the meaning of survival for Japan’s continental repatriates, showing that their memories of involvement in Japan’s imperial project were both a burden and the basis for a new way of life.
List of Maps and Illustrations
Note on Names and Terms

I. Prologue
The Gods Left First
Sources and Method

II. The Siberian Internment in History
The Prince’s Tale
The Soviet-Japanese War
Hot War to Cold
The Soviet-Japanese Conflict: Prehistory into History
Toward Internment
The Internment Remembered

III. Kazuki Yasuo and the Profane World of the Gulag
Icons of the Profane
The Red Corpse
“My Vision Broadened Tenfold”
The “Siberia Style”
From Image to Text
The Responsibility of the Artist
“The Beauty only I Can Grasp”

IV. Knowledge Painfully Acquired: Takasugi Ichiro and the “Democratic Movement” in Siberia
Thank You, Iosif Vissarionovich!
A Humanist Interprets the Gulag
Siberia, School of Democracy
Ogawa Goro Becomes Takasugi Ichiro
In the Shadow of the Northern Lights
The Gate of Hell
Toward Epiphany
Toward Return
Knowledge Painfully Acquired

V. Ishihara Yoshiro: “My Best Self Did Not Return”
Prologue: Ishihara Yoshiro and Viktor Frankl
The Survivor’s Question
The Primitive Accumulation of Memory
The Life before the Death
Into the Gulag
At Lowest Ebb, Stirrings
Kano Buichi, Enigma
Was this Domoi?

VI. Coda
The People Stalin Didn’t Care About
“A War to Live”: Fujiwara Tei’s The Shooting Stars Are Alive
The Meaning and Message of Survival

Appendix: How Many?
Andrew E. Barshay is Professor of History at University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Social Sciences in Modern Japan: The Marxian and Modernist Traditions.
"Barshay provides a chilling account of the coercive power of the state of individuals who nonetheless mature sufficiently to speak for themselves. The Gods Left First is a rich and deeply moving book."—Shu Cao International Affairs
"An intensely personal book."—Laura Hein Journal of Japanese Studies 41, no. 1
The Gods Left First is so well written that there were times I found myself engrossed as if reading a novel or viewing a film.”—Monumenta Nipponica
"In a gripping narrative, Andrew Barshay analyzes the geopolitical context of the Soviet internment of Japanese soldiers in Siberia, followed by a searching exploration of three wisely chosen individual cases. The result is a masterful account of the diverse and devastating experience of men seeking to make sense of loss on the desperate edge of Japan's wartime empire."—Andrew Gordon, author of Fabricating Consumers

The Gods Left First bears witness to the little-known story of Japanese POWs in Stalin's postwar gulag. From among the thousands of scarred survivors who would eventually stagger back to Japan, Andrew Barshay singles out a handful who struggled for the remainder of their lives to wrest meaning from their Siberian internment through painting, poetry, and prose. His commitment to understand these men takes the author deep into the terrain of psychology, philosophy, and theology. A masterful, haunting account.”—Kären Wigen, Stanford University

“The fate of the many hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers captured by Soviet forces in the last days of World War Two is a story hardly known outside of Japan. Barshay’s sensitive rendering of the trauma experienced by the Siberian internees is told with the narrative gift of a first-rate historian. It brings to life a new dimension of the despair and pathos of ‘ordinary Japanese’ after surrender.”—Kenneth B. Pyle, Henry M. Jackson Professor of History and Asian Studies, University of Washington

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