Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Stereotypical Ukrainian

In 1945 George Orwell reported that the British Army had recently captured two "German" soldiers whose actual nationality was indeterminable. They were obviously of Asiatic descent, but spoke no language known to their interrogators and could not provide their names or any other information. Finally, a British officer who had spent time in India determined that the captives were, in fact, from Tibet. They had been conscripted by a Chinese warlord in the 1930s, captured by the Soviets during a border skirmish and conscripted into the Red Army, and then captured a third time by the Wehrmacht and sent to France as laborers. Orwell proposed that Britain draft these very untypical German soldiers into the army it was sending to Malaya, then allow them to wander back to Tibet, thus completing their involuntary circumnavigation of the globe.

This story always struck me as the best personal, small-scale example of the disruption inflicted upon every corner of the world by the Second World War. However, another story reported last week by the Associated Press is nearly as good. On April 18th of this year Ishinosuke Uwano, a former Japanese soldier whose relatives had declared him legally dead, surfaced at the Japanese embassy in Kiev. Uwano had been drafted into the Imperial Army in 1943 and sent to Sakhalin Island, north of Hokkaido. In August 1945 the USSR declared war on Japan, and the Red Army swiftly overran the Japanese garrisons on southern Sakhalin Island. Uwano became one of 600,000 Japanese prisoners-of-war whom the USSR did not repatriate after the end of the war; instead, he was kept on Soviet-occupied Sakhalin Island for at least another 13 years, most likely as a laborer. At some point thereafter, the former POW became a Soviet citizen, and in 1965 moved to Ukraine, where he learned the language, married, had three children, and became for all practical purposes a Ukrainian.

Last week Uwano, now 83 years old, applied at the Japanese embassy in Ukraine for permission to return to Japan, saying "I would like to visit my parents' graves and to see cherry blossoms." The BBC reported that he flew to Tokyo with his son Anatolii on April 19th and began a 10-day visit to his old home town, where he met his surviving siblings, nieces, and nephews. He apparently does not wish to stay in Japan, viewing himself as a citizen of independent Ukraine; indeed, he has largely forgotten the Japanese language, which he hasn't spoken for 60 years.

The Times of London reminds us that "lost" Japanese World War Two soldiers have turned up in strange places before -- some, trapped at war's end on isolated Pacific islands or in the remoter parts of the Philippines, never learned that the war had ended and lived for years as hermits or guerillas. In some ways, however, the war disturbed Uwano's life far more than theirs. They never had to face the new realities of the postwar world: that Imperial Japan was dead, the hated Communists were triumphant throughout Eurasia, and no-one in the "Free World" cared what the Russians did to a few million German and Japanese prisoners. Ishinosuke Uwano was lucky: the great majority of the POWs conscripted by the Soviets in 1945 wound up in poorly-marked graves in Siberia. Uwano, at least, lived to see the fall of the Soviet Empire, the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, and his own homecoming.

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