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Keeping Memories of Japanese POWs Alive

Seiichi Tsukagoshi

At the end of World War II, the former Soviet Army seized 600,000 Japanese soldiers and held them in forced labor camps.

Most were kept in Siberia, but about 25,000 were taken to Uzbekistan. They were forced to work in coal mines, and on major building projects in the capital, Tashkent.

Their story has inspired one man in the central Asian country, who has made a documentary about this little-known chapter of history.

Jalil Sultanov made the film after hearing about the Japanese POWs from his father when he was a child, sparking a life-long interest.

"When we had an earthquake, most of our buildings collapsed. But those put up by the Japanese POWs remained standing," Sultanov says.

He began researching more deeply after Uzbekistan became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. He discovered that the prisoners were able to forge links with the local Uzbek people.

"We used to hold shows together in the labor camp," one local man recalls in the film. "They were just ordinary soldiers, but they were skillful with their hands."

Sultanov has set up his own museum in his house so that the story will not be forgotten.

Last month, he was invited to Japan, in recognition of his work. He traveled to the port city of Maizuru, which was the re-entry point for the POWs who made it home.

He was shown around a memorial museum in the city. He also met Shigeru Niinomi, who was one of the POWs in Uzbekistan.

"I am so happy," Niinomi says in Russian, as the two men shake hands.

"I'm very happy to meet you," Sultanov says in return. "Were you in Tashkent?"

"I helped to build the Navoi Theater there," Niinomi replies.

Sultanov examined notes written by the POWs and letters from their anxious families. He was able to see what it meant to people like Niinomi to finally come home.

"We're lucky to have someone like him," Niinomi says. "This history needs to be preserved."

"I hope this memorial museum and my museum will become a bridge of friendship between our two countries," Sultanov says.

Having seen how important his project is to people in Japan, Sultanov has pledged to carry on his efforts to spread the word about the POWs' experiences.

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