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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Graphic Memories

Aug. 25, 2015

In the closing days of the war, the Soviet Union entered Manchuria in northeastern China and captured about 570,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians. They sent the captives to labor camps in Siberia or Mongolia. At least 55,000 people are believed to have died from cold, starvation or disease.

We met the survivor who painted images of what life was like for hundreds of thousands of World War 2 soldiers, who didn't see freedom until long after the conflict ended. And hear about both the horror and the camaraderie of life as an internee.

Maizuru City in Kyoto Prefecture was a key military port. For more than a decade after the war, ships would arrive here carrying people home from the Soviet camps.

A museum in the city tells the story. The collection includes letters, sketches, and a diary written on bark stripped from a birch tree. Maizuru city now wants UNESCO to list its exhibits in its World Memory Register.

Officials went through more than 10,000 exhibits to pick the 570 they consider most valuable. Among those, they chose a collection of cartoons drawn by an internee after he returned to Japan. Nobuo Kiuchi, now 91 years old, says these are scenes he'll never forget.

He says he can draw the figures and colors exactly as they were back then, even though he easily forgets other things and can’t even remember what happened yesterday.

When Kiuchi was 19 years old he was sent to Manchuria as a soldier in the imperial Japanese army. The following year, he was taken captive by Soviet troops. They sent him to internment camps where he'd stay for nearly 3 years. He returned to Japan in 1948 and began putting his memories onto paper.

Prisoners were taken away by train, without being told where they were going. What awaited them was hunger, hard labor, and temperatures of minus 30. Burying their colleagues was also part of their work.

Kiuchi says some of the paintings depict dead people. They’d make his eyes well up with tears, and he’d have to stop painting. He says Japanese soldiers were told they should die for the country before being taken captive, and that’s also how he felt. He was captured, so he didn’t want to go home.

Kiuchi doesn't just focus on suffering. He depicts some of the daily moments of camp life. He tried sumo wrestling with towering Soviet guards. He sang songs with European captives during work breaks. It didn't matter whether they'd been allies or enemies in the war.

Kiuchi says Germans were the largest in number, followed by Italians. There were also Hungarians, Czechs and Romanians. The captives whose countries were defeated in the war said they were able to take pride in going back home, so they couldn’t understand why Kiuchi felt ashamed to do so.

Kiuchi has been working to share his experiences as widely as possible. Most recently he's been working with young actors to tell the story of life in Siberia. The performers had never met anyone who'd survived a labor camp.

Kiuchi says senior officers were taken to even colder places, and probably only half of them made it back. He told the actors about his experiences, hoping they'd reflect what they heard in their performances. One of the actors says he wants to truly understand how the internees felt before portraying them on stage.

Earlier this summer, the actors performed the show in Maizuru. Kiuchi was in the audience. He says he couldn’t help but cry. He tells one of the actors he would like to thank them on behalf of all his fallen comrades in heaven.

Whenever Kiuchi returns to Maizuru, he makes sure to head 2 hours south to Kyoto and visit a memorial to the unknown soldiers who died during World War Two. Kiuchi's fallen colleagues are enshrined here too.

He says in every country, it’s always ordinary people who die in the war, and their relatives who are saddened. He says war is never a good idea.

70 years after the end of World War Two, the number of people who can talk first-hand about life in the labor camps is dwindling. But Kiuchi is still painting, and he says he'll keep going as long as he possibly can.


A UNESCO panel is expected to decide in October whether to list Maizuru's documents, including Kiuchi's drawings, in their World Memory Register.

Officials from Japan's Welfare Ministry say they're still working to bring home the remains of people who died in the camps. They estimate that more than 33,000 people are still there.