6a00e009987de7883300e54f2129648833-800wi House by POWs

Almaty House Built by Japanese POWs/Snapshots, blog by Typepad

I first learned something about the Japanese prisoners of war in Kazakhstan from Bektas Mukhamedzhanov.  This was in 1993.  Bektas was Deputy Chairman of the Association of Entrepreneurs which is not to be confused with a couple of other NGOs that subsequently developed and to which Bektas’ organization might have been a precursor.

Bektas played various roles at that time, one of which was to act as Chairman of the Kazakh-Japan Society of Kazakhstan, which may have been an ad hoc group brought together at short notice for meetings with visiting Japanese delegations.  Bektas told a humerous story at his own expense about meeting such a delegation.  As customary, the Japanese delegation handed out presents to their hosts.  Unfortunately for Bektas, they did not give one to him.  Due to his close resemblance to the Japanese, the person distributing the gifts mistook him for being a fellow member of the visiting delegation.  As the Japanese are very particular about adhering to protocol, one can imagine the confusion and red faces that followed.

As told by Bektas, one of the functions of the delegation was to identify, recover and return to Japan the remains of prisoners of war who died in Kazakhstan.  That surprised me.  I had no idea that the Soviet Union had held such prisoners during the Second World War, and certainly no idea that some of them had been in Kazakhstan.  Moreover, it turned out that their forced labor had performed many tasks in Almaty, the results of which were visible to all even if they did not know that POWs had been involved.

I was reminded about the POWs and their work in Kazakhstan by the speech given by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Astana on October 27, 2015.  He said:

After the end of World War II seventy years ago, many Japanese people were detained in this region as prisoners of war. Many perished here with the memories of their homeland in their hearts. I paid respect to and prayed for the souls of those who died such a sad death.

Wherever I have gone, I heard or saw myself that the buildings raised by former Japanese prisoners of war are still intact, cared for by the people of Central Asian nations. The National Science Academy in Almaty is one such example. the Navoi Theater in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, is another. As you know, there are many others in Shymkent, Temirtau and other cities.

Perhaps, at the sight of the rising sun each morning, those Japanese prisoners of war in this land turned their thoughts to their loved ones back in their hometowns, which would be somewhere beyond the horizon. My heart aches when I think of them. Their work was forced labor, yet our forebears still did the best they could. The buildings stand as a testament to their dignity.

See the full speech here.

My favorite driver in Kazakhstan, Giorgi Momotov, told about the role of the Japanese workers at Almaty Big Lake.  That artificial lake supplies water to Almaty but to get the water to the city required the construction of a long tunnel. That tunnel was built by the POWs.  Central to Giorgi’s story was the suicide of the Russian colonel in charge of the project.  The POWs were drilling the tunnel from both ends and, after a great deal of work and the passage of time, they still had not met in the middle. Stalin was still running the USSR and there was good reason to fear punishment for failing to achieve objectives that had been set.  Apparently knowing the fate that awaited him and sensing that his project had failed, he shot himself.  It turned out, however, that shortly after his death the tunnels did meet in the middle.

Some of the POWs preferred to be called “detainees” rather than “POWs.”  They had a point.  Stalin promised to join the war against Japan when he met with Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta and Potsdam, but he insisted that this could only happen after the surrender of Germany.  Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945 (May 8 in Moscow), and exactly three months later the Soviet Union declared war on Japan.  This was after the A-bomb was dropped on Nagasaki but before Hiroshima was destroyed.  The Soviets quickly overran Manchuko, taking some prisoners of war.  Then the Japanese surrendered on August 15 with formal surrender on September 2.  So, after only a few days of being in the war, somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 Japanese soldiers laid down their arms to the Soviet forces.  Far from being expatriated to Japan, they were made to perform labor, with a large number being sent to the Kazakh SSR. Up to 10 percent of all the soldiers died while held in the Soviet Union, many in the winter of 1945-46.  For details, see this Wikipedia article.

A few Japanese POWs stayed on in Kazakhstan even after the others were repatriated.  Click here for the story of the “last remaining Japanese POW” who was left behind due to bureaucratic bungling.

I haven’t been able to make a list of the projects in Kazakhstan in which the Japanese POWs were involved.  One source says that the Japanese who lived in barracks behind Panfilov street in Almaty built the airport, Turksib house with original towers, the Academy of Sciences Building, and posh “dachas” for NKVD and MVD workers.

The Center for Asian and Pacific Studies published a symposium on Japanese POWs in Kazakhstan.  It does not seem to be accessible on the internet.  If interested, you might find it in a library or go back to the source.  It is No. 38 (2013) Articles of Special Issue: American Society in the Dynamics of Integration and Disintegration.

This article challenges the claim that Japanese POWs built the Academy of Sciences Building.

Information about the house shown in the photograph above can be found here.


Learn more about Kazakhstan by reading my book – West Meets East in Kazakhstan.  This consists mainly of articles I wrote for The Almaty Herald newspaper in the 1990s and later years.  The book is about my perceptions as an American expatriate of life in and around Almaty in the 1990s. The book is available in soft cover or as an E-book through publisher AuthorHouse, and the websites of Amazon  and Barnes & Noble.  In some countries, the book may not be available through Amazon or Barnes & Noble if they do not store copies in their overseas warehouses.

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