Monday, 31 May 2010

History is indeed little more than the register of the crime, follies, and misfortune of mankind

The fate of these Japanese is a neglected chapter among the countless epic tragedies of World War Two.
- John Dower, from Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War Two

In the final weeks of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. The Japanese forces stationed there, mostly reserve units, were ill-equipped to fight against a Soviet behemoth honed by four years of war with the Nazis and possessing arguably the finest military hardware in the world. Within 11 days the Japanese Kwantung army had ceased to exist as a fighting force; 80,000 men had been killed and over 600,000 were taken prisoner. Along with civilians resident in Manchukuo who were also captured during the Soviet advance, the total Japanese captives amounted to 1.6 million people.

It is the fate of these 1.6 million people which Dower is referring to. By 1947 approximately 600,000 Japanese had been repatriated. More arrived illegally, smuggled from China in drips. But in 1949 there were still hundreds of thousands of people unaccounted for. From Embracing Defeat:

In the spring of 1949, after repeated prodding by occupation authorities, the USSR announced that only 95,000 prisoners remained, all of whom would be returned by the end of the year. According to Japanese and American calculations, the actual number should have been 400,000. Suddenly, more than 300,000 Japanese were unaccounted for...

...Over four decades later, the Soviet Union finally released the names of 46,000 Japanese known to be buried in Siberia. The overall numbers never jibed.

There has never been closure for the families of the approximately 250,000 people who are still missing. The issue has never been resolved, and the continuing poor relations betwen Japan and Russia (the two countries are still technically at war 65 years later) make it unlikely it will be for many years, if ever. Though this is only one of the countless crimes the Soviet Union committed, and ranks as one of the lesser of those in terms of numbers, and though the Japanese government of the pre-war era bears at least some of the responsibility for its soldiers being in China in the first place, it is impossible not to feel at least some sorrow for the victims and their families, who will never know what happened to their husband, father, uncle, brother, or friend.

In some respects it doesn't quite sit well to use this scenario as the basis for a campaign, but I can't help feeling that it would be a quite compelling concept - a small group of soldiers and/or civilians travelling across the vast expanse of Manchuria, heading in the direction they hope is home. Perfect for goal-oriented sandbox play in chaotic civil war China, where bandits, communists, mercenaries, deserters, and Soviet and Kuomintang military units are a constant threat, and the civil infrastructure has been degraded almost to nonexistence by decades of conflict and famine.

You would have to use something highly realistic to get the best out of it, I think - Twilight 2000 or GURPS, maybe. Then again the historically perverse aspect of my character wants to throw magical beings of Chinese myth into the mix too, awakened by all the blood and sorrow in the land...


  1. Eh, considering *Japan*'s performance in WWII it's pretty hard to feel any sympathy what so ever for any war crimes commited against Japanese military forces or civilians.

    I am sure you don't need any examples of Japanese atrocities.

  2. Anonymous, I thought I might get that sort of response.

    I would feel sympathy for almost all victims of war crimes, regardless of what "side" the perpetrators were on; two wrongs don't make a right, and I don't think it's particularly difficult to separate sympathy for individuals while expressing disgust for acts of barbarism.

    This is especially true of countries like Japan, which was not a democracy at the time - why on earth should you not feel sympathy for Japanese civilian and conscript victims of war crimes, who never had anything to do with the actions of their government and were entirely at the whim of history? Are people to be considered deserving of suffering and death merely because of what their government decides?

  3. A slightly less depressing variant of trying to get home through the sandbox of Siberia could feature the Checkloslovak Legion's post WWI transit through Siberia since there is a historical happy ending and victory conditions (get to vladivostok, seize the tsars treasury) and for occult additions try the bloody Baron Roman Federovich von Ungern-Sternberg

  4. "I would feel sympathy for almost all victims of war crimes, regardless of what "side" the perpetrators were on; two wrongs don't make a right, and I don't think it's particularly difficult to separate sympathy for individuals while expressing disgust for acts of barbarism."

    I wholeheartedly agree!

  5. it's easy to "forget" and don't mention that Russia and Japan have been at war since the late thirties.

    In fact Japan invaded Russia and Mongolia in 1938, and did their best to piss them off. Russia basically declared war just to appease his allies and to sit at the winners' table.

  6. tsojcanth: In fact Japan was involved during the Russian Civil War as well. Really the 20th Century can be seen as a protracted war between Japan and Russia, dating back to the Russo-Japanese war in 1904.

    I think the Soviet invasion of Manchukuo in 1945 is one of the more interesting aspects of WWII. I don't think it was just Stalin wanting to sit at the winner's table (he had that by right, having defeated Germany) - I also think it was a move to dominate East Asia; he wanted a Soviet puppet state in Japan just as he got in Korea and almost had in China.

  7. @noism: I meant the "pacific war" table. And I never meant Stalin invaded Japan to sit at the table, just that he declared war to do it.

  8. As I recall, there are parts of Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle set in this, um, setting, and it does make for an evocative environment.

  9. BillyBillerson1 June 2010 at 14:33

    How bout a campaign including THESE dudes:

  10. On top of that view of the Russian/Japanese conflict, Noisms, is the way that European views of Japan were strongly influenced by Japanese success in those wars... Japanese success led to greater European desire for containment, and the desire for containment was part of the impulsion to war.

    heyjames, didn't the Japanese help those Czechs?

    Noisms, a related campaign against the same backdrop which could be fun is the one described in Primo Levi's The Truce - his long and complicated return through the Soviet Union after liberation from Auschwitz. I don't know if you've read the book, but it paints a very different picture of Soviet Russia to that which one would expect - chaotic, very free, and completely ungoverned.

    I have also always been interested in doing a Stalingrad campaign, especially one with a cthulhu-esque or Satanic subtext. I read The Forgotten Army (the only account I know of of that tragedy by a German) and it really evoked a world of extreme challenge and suffering. And there is that sci-fi/horror about soldiers confronting some ancient Russian evil during the battle. Could be fun!

  11. Warriors trying to get back home brings to mind some of the films that depict Robin Hood (sometimes with Little John, sometimes with Morgan Freeman) trying to get back to England after losing heart in the crusades.

  12. These discussions on Japanese and German culpability in WW2 always tease out accusations of racial/national guilt - as if an entire group of people could be responsible for the actions of a few (their leaders).

    To illustrate this: would you say all Americans deserve slavery in Siberia, because Bush pursued wars of aggression in the Middle East and Near East? Things not so clear anymore, once that imperial shoe is on the other foot, is it?

    By the way, Noisms, hella good post. In case you did not know: recent historical research has shown what happened to Japanese and German POWs: They were used as slave labor. Which is consistent to what the Soviets did to their own people.

  13. I'd go with Twilight 2000.

  14. The book The Long Walk may be of interest to you in terms of your camgaign idea. And I believe I remember hearing a related story to this one where they relate seeing a Big Foot creature in their journey. So you could do a lot with it.

  15. Gwarh a.k.a. Chris McNeil28 October 2010 at 01:38

    On a semi-unrelated, yet well related note.

    Have you looked over the miniatures line and books from Copplestone Castings.

    His "Back of the Beyond" line is set in the time period between WWI & WWII in Central/East Asia.

    It seems to me a Westerner, a very untouched/understood/unknow chapter in the history of the world. And a very trajic one at that.