Japan Still Has Cadres Remaining: Japanese in the USSR and China from World War II to Cold War, 1945-1956

Amy King, Sherzod Muminov

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


    After Japan surrendered in 1945, more than 6 million Japanese were stranded in various parts of what had been the imperial domain. From 1945 to 1956, thousands of Japanese found themselves in the USSR and mainland China, unable or unwilling to return. Drawing on Soviet, Chinese, Japanese, and Western archives, this article compares Soviet and Communist Chinese policies toward the stranded Japanese. The distinct pathways adopted by the Soviet and Chinese Communist parties during the Chinese Civil War led to significant differences in their approaches to the day-to-day lives of the Japanese, the methods and messages of propaganda they adopted, and their means of handling the repatriation issue. Soviet and Chinese policies toward the Japanese during this uncertain and unsettled decade were shaped less by Cold War ideological and geopolitical alignments than by the legacies of East Asia’s recent wars. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, soldiers, and prisoners of war (POWs) were detained or living in the Soviet Union and Communist-controlled parts of China in the turbulent decade from the end of World War II to the early years of the Cold War. But Soviet and Chinese authorities differed significantly in how they made use of, communicated with, and conceptualized the Japanese under their control. The Soviet Union treated Japanese internees with a higher degree of neglect and mistrust and employed them as a mass labor force on large-scale Soviet infrastructure and industrial projects. In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was far more magnanimous in its treatment, valuing the Japanese POWs and civilians for their skilled labor and military contribution to the Chinese Civil War and using them as a means of demonstrating the CCP's credentials as an effective and legitimate governing party. The way the Japanese were treated by the CCP and Soviet Union offers an innovative means of comparing how these Communist states responded differently to the changing international order from World War II to the Cold War. CCP and Soviet policies toward the Japanese during this decade were shaped less by ideological alignments or the formation of the Sino-Soviet alliance in 1950 and more by the legacies of East Asia's recent wars: the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), World War II/China's ``War of Resistance against Japan'' (1937--1945), and the Chinese Civil War (1946–1949). The very fact of these differences in Chinese and Soviet conceptions and treatment of Japanese under their control is puzzling from the perspective of the existing literature on attitudes toward Japan within the wider Sino-Soviet relationship. The literature emphasizes similarities in the policies of these two Communist states toward Japan and argues that shared anti-Japanese sentiment helped to bind the CCP and the Soviet Union as new allies in the unfolding Cold War. David Wolff, for instance, suggests that shared enmity toward Japan helped to guide negotiations between Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong from 1949 to 1950.2 Similarly, Adam Cathcart and Patricia Nash maintain that the two Communist states “stoked� hostility toward Japanese war criminals as a means of demonstrating Sino-Soviet solidarity and building domestic Chinese support for the new Sino-Soviet alliance.3 In this article we come to an alternative conclusion that instead emphasizes differences in Soviet and CCP conceptions and treatment of the Japanese in their territories. We reach this conclusion for two reasons. First, the article takes an explicitly comparative approach, studying how the Soviet Union and CCP each managed the welfare and day-to-day lives of the Japanese, how the two Communist states employed propaganda to instill key messages among their charges, and how they dealt with the question of repatriation. Although an extensive literature has explored separately the experience of the Japanese in either the Soviet Union or China, few scholars have directly compared how the two Communist allies dealt with the Japanese under their control.4 In taking a comparative approach, we draw on a range of Soviet, Chinese, and Japanese sources, including new materials from the State Archive of the Russian Federation, the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, and memoirs by Japanese who were interned in either the USSR or China. We also consult U.S. and British archives from the period to locate the problem in a broader international context. To the best of our knowledge, currently available Chinese and Soviet archives provide only glimpses of direct discussion between the CCP and Soviet Union about how to deal with postwar Japan and the vast numbers of Japanese in territories under their control.5 We thus adopt an approach that compares CCP and Soviet policies, attitudes, and behavior toward the stranded Japanese. Although Japanese memoirs provide valuable source material about the day-to-day experiences of internment, most of the accounts tend to portray the Japanese subjects as victims of (in particular) Soviet brutality and often fail to recognize Japan's own brutality in China and elsewhere in Asia.6 Where possible, we therefore triangulate the Japanese memoirs with surveys and other reports produced by the Soviet and Chinese authorities. Relations between the Communist parties of the three countries were important but are not directly relevant to the topic of this article and therefore are not examined here. The second reason to emphasize differences is in the article's temporal focus that connects the end of World War II in September 1945 to the immediate resumption of the Chinese Civil War between the CCP and Nationalist government and to the onset and early years of the Cold War in Northeast Asia, concluding in 1956 with the end of Japanese internment in the Soviet Union. Examining this continuous eleven-year period reveals how specific circumstances in China and the Soviet Union, and the two countries’ discrete pathways from World War II to Cold War, produced different conceptions of and approaches toward Japanese under their control and, by extension, postwar Japan. The emphasis here is thus on continuities that bridge World War II and the Cold War rather than on ruptures. The article highlights the complex negotiations between the great powers and other countries in which Japanese internees often served as bargaining chips or vehicles of propaganda. By expanding our temporal focus, we show that the early Cold War in East Asia did not represent a neat division between two ideological or geopolitical camps and was instead a fluid period in which the contours of the new international order had not yet congealed. Comparing Soviet and CCP treatment of the Japanese allows us to observe the uncertain and unsettled period of the early Cold War in East Asia and the ways it was embedded in East Asia's recent wars. This comparison reveals a new layer in the Sino-Soviet-Japanese triangle, with historical and regional realities and relationships often trumping ideological alliances. In what follows, we integrate this comparative and chronological approach to explore Soviet and CCP treatment of Japanese over four discrete periods from 1945 to 1956.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)200-230
    JournalJournal of Cold War Studies
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2022


    Dive into the research topics of 'Japan Still Has Cadres Remaining: Japanese in the USSR and China from World War II to Cold War, 1945-1956'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this