The Making of Karafuto Repatriates


A review of The making of Karafuto repatriates, by Jonathan Edward Bull.

Japan’s defeat in World War II ushered in the rapid dismantling of its colonial and Wartime Empire. However, whilst the map of East Asia could be redrawn relatively quickly, on the ground at least, the situation was a much more complex and protracted affair. In some parts of the former Japanese empire sporadic fighting continued after formal surrender and millions of people found themselves caught on the wrong side of shifting borders, some facing immediate hardships and uncertainty regarding their return. The human aspect of this decolonization process was of a scale that ranks among the largest mass migrations in human history, and involved almost seven million Japanese and approaching two million former colonial subjects. Repatriates made up approximately 9% of Japan’s total population in the initial postwar years and given this scale it is surprising that little historical research has been generated on the subject. Indeed, demographic significance aside, the repatriation of Japanese from their former empire is also important for understanding Japan’s relationship with its imperial and wartime past. The often tragic individual stories of repatriates have been ingrained in the public consciousness in Japan through museums, monuments, publications, etc., and so representations of repatriation have come to play an important role in the ‘Japanese as victims’ narrative for which Japan continues to get a bad press in international media.

Jonathan Bull’s dissertation adds to recent work (notably that of Lori Watt and Mariko Tamanoi) on the repatriation of Japanese by offering a more in-depth assessment of those who were repatriated from one former colonial territory: Karafuto (Southern Sakhalin)—a colony that Japan had acquired in 1905 and by the time of the Soviet invasion in 1945 had a Japanese resident population of approximately 400,000. By zooming in on the Karafuto case, Bull’s analysis provides a much overdue counter to a literature that has come to be dominated by the case of Manchuria. Furthermore, Bull’s lens follows Karafuto repatriates to Hokkaido—where two-thirds of Karafuto repatriates resettled—and as such adds much more localized detail to existing accounts.

The value of Bull’s work is not however limited to his offering of a much needed and detailed case study. He also makes a number of contributions that strike me as particularly important to improving our understanding of the topic of repatriation specifically, and postwar Japan more generally. Firstly, Bull skilfully examines the mechanisms by which the Karafuto repatriate as a category was constructed in the early period of the postwar by multiple agents, including SCAP (the occupying forces), local and national governments, and the heterogeneous repatriates themselves. The place of repatriates in postwar society—indeed the very meaning of the category ‘repatriate’ itself—was highly contentious. Yet, contests also bring about the opportunity for cooperation among certain individuals/groups, and by differentiating among the repatriate mass, Bull was able to challenge preconceptions in the existing literature that on various levels a sizeable gap existed between officials and repatriates. Instead, managing the problem of repatriation and reintegration was an opportunity for many repatriate leaders to build a lasting working relationship with officialdom, and in some cases secure their place within it. The relationship between the local government and Karafuto repatriate groups would have important consequences for politics in Hokkaido, and also for the public memorialization of Karafuto and repatriation.

Another important aspect of this work is that it admirably traces the “trans-war” histories of repatriate leaders, showing how the prewar Karafuto social structure replicated itself in postwar repatriate groups—especially the Zenkoku Karafuto Renmei. This kind of research demands a command of the voluminous source materials of the prewar, wartime, and postwar periods. This is a daunting task, and as a result most scholars have tended to accept the war as a neat cut-off point for their research. However, in his dissertation Bull has shown the value of tracing the passage through the war of what he calls “men of influence.” His trans-war approach has shown that despite the common claim in the standard repatriate narrative that they returned “with only the clothes on their back” and “without a red cent” (p. 48), in reality repatriates carried with them prewar ‘baggage’ on their return. The aforementioned phrases attempted to flatten prewar society in Karafuto; however, as Bull highlights, repatriation did not destroy existing hierarchies, and as a result repatriates come across as a diverse group, not always in tune with the leadership of repatriate organizations. Prewar connections allowed these men of influence to regain leadership positions within the repatriate community and as a result they survived the passage through. A result of this was that the discourse of the prewar elite on what kind of society Karafuto should be impacted significantly on the efforts of the Zenkoku Karafuto Renmei to narrate what kind of society Karafuto had been. By following the repatriate group’s leaders from prewar to postwar, Bull shows convincingly that efforts to “make the memory of Karafuto a beautiful one” (p. 115) commenced even before official repatriation had begun and long outlived it.

In the introduction Bull offers and outline and critique of the relevant existing literature in English and Japanese, outlines his approach, and places Japanese repatriation in the context of other mass migrations which accompanied decolonization. In chapter 1, the history of Karafuto as a Japanese colony is discussed with particular emphasis on the discourse which surrounded the attempts to form a distinct Karafuto identity within the imperial system. This discussion highlights a number of tensions within Karafuto society in which efforts to build a pride in Karafuto as a home-place, and to establish a self-sufficient agricultural settler colony, squared up against a reality in which industries based on migratory labour (dekasegi)—such as fishing, construction, and forestry—dominated the colonial economy. Of particular interest is a lively debate in the 1930s and early 1940s that appeared in the pages of the colonial media which Bull calls the “Karafuto bunka ron” (p. 97). In this debate colonial elites and technocrats put forward their visions about how best to foster a wholesome Karafuto culture and move away from the ‘get rich quick’ attitude which they felt characterized many Karafuto residents who, they claimed, only dreamed of returning to Japan once they had struck it rich.

In chapter 2, Bull critically narrates the end of the war in Karafuto, the repatriation process, and the formation of early repatriate groups. Here it becomes apparent that the process of returning to Japan itself was in the case of Karafuto a particularly complicated affair. In anticipation of, and indeed during the Soviet invasion, there were official efforts at evacuation involving mostly women and children; the flight of many individuals via fishing boats to Hokkaido, both during the Soviet invasion and after the Soviet occupation had been fully established; and of course, an official repatriation process that was conducted between December 1946 to July 1949. This meant that amongst repatriates there were widely varied experiences of the war’s end and that in Hokkaido there suddenly appeared a large population of women and children whose family remained on what had been Karafuto and was now Sakhalin. Despite the fact that most of the Karafuto elite had stayed on, those who had managed to escape, or happened to be away from Karafuto at the time, began to organize efforts for the welfare of repatriates and established early repatriate groups. As Bull notes the connections between these men and the Karafuto elites that had stayed on ensured a smooth transition for the latter into the upper hierarchy of repatriate groups when they finally returned from Karafuto. Interestingly, the prewar visions of the colonial elite to pursue agricultural settlement survived the passage through the war, making their way into early repatriate group proposals, albeit with little end product. The tumultuous early years saw the emergence of what was to become the main elite dominated repatriate group, the Zenkoku Karafuto Renmei, however Bull astutely shows that this was not uncontested, as local repatriate groups were at times highly critical of their leaders’ actions and intentions.

In chapter 3, Bull examines the interaction between SCAP, the local authorities and repatriate groups during the occupation of Japan (1945-52). Whilst it is well-known that SCAP oversaw the official repatriation of Japanese nationals, it is widely assumed that they took a back seat when it came to the reintegration of repatriates—albeit casting a nervous eye towards repatriates from Soviet. Utilizing declassified SCAP documents, Bull challenges this view and traces a change in the attitude of SCAP towards repatriates, finding that scorn and suspicion towards these former colonialists turned red repatriates gave way to something bordering on sympathy. As the cold war intensified SCAP began to actively promote an improvement in the conditions faced by repatriates and to organized local efforts to offer them a more satisfying welcome in an attempt to make repatriation the story of US goodwill.

Chapter 4 follows the postwar career of Ōhashi, who worked for Karafuto’s main newspaper in the prewar period, continued his work under the Soviet authorities during the Soviet occupation, and after repatriation was able to secure work as a journalist for one of Hokkaido’s main newspapers, the Hokkai Taimusu. In the mid-1950s, Ōhasi wrote a series of well-received articles on life in Karafuto and under the Soviet occupation which Bull argues highlight that a conventional narrative of Karafuto and repatriation had yet to be firmly established. Ōhashi’s articles express a strong sense of loss towards Karafuto as his home-place, but he clearly ascribed colonialism to Karafuto rather than portray it as an ideal society. Significantly, Ōhashi also openly criticized SCAP’s occupation forces and the colonial elite, especially for implementing a hasty evacuation during the Soviet invasion instead of seeking to end the conflict, whilst his treatment of the Soviet Union and its citizens included both elements of critique and admiration. Bull convincingly argues that the positive reception of Ōhashi’s articles suggests that such views were probably shared by other repatriates and thus in the mid-1950s a public narrative was still to be made.

Chapters 5 and 6 demonstrate how this public narrative was constructed by an alliance of repatriate groups and local state authorities. Chapter 5 covers the construction of monuments related to Karafuto and repatriation in Wakkanai, Hokkaido’s northernmost town and closest to Sakhalin, focusing in particular on the Gate of Ice and Snow (hyōsetsu no mon). Wakkanai had seen a large number of Karafuto repatriates pass through the port and many also settled there. The disproportionate concentration of repatriates there meant that at times tensions were high between them and Wakkanai’s non-repatriate residents. Nonetheless, such tensions were soon forgotten as repatriate leaders in unison with Wakkanai politicians sought to diversify the local economy by developing the city’s tourism industry. At the centre of these plans was the construction of a number of Karafuto related monuments in Wakkanai Park which turned Wakkanai to the site for remembering Karafuto, bringing in a number of Karafuto repatriate visitors and even the Emperor in 1968.

In chapter 6, Bull’s attention turns to the go to work on the war in Karafuto: The history of the war’s end on Karafuto (Karafuto Shūsenshi) which was published in 1973 by the Zenkoku Karafuto Renmei. Even though this remains the main text on the subject, scholars have been largely dismissive of its academic credentials, rendering it a highly selective interpretation. Bull’s interest is less on the academic value of the work and more on how it came into being. Here he shows that the research process was led by leading repatriates, but also included prominent academics and journalists, and importantly it was funded by the Hokkaido prefectural government. In this regard, Bull demonstrates that far from their being a gap between academics, journalists, government authorities and repatriate groups—as is often assumed in the existing literature—the book was a “joint effort” (p. 394) and thus provides another case in which the public narrative on the former empire represented the views of repatriate leaders as well as the influence of local state actors.

In this highly original dissertation Bull has provided a work that compliments that of Lori Watt (Lori Watt, When empire comes home: repatriation and reintegration in Postwar Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Watt provided a useful ‘bird’s eye view’ account of the repatriation process, the “co-production” of the category ‘repatriate’ (chapter 2) and the negative stereotypes associated with it (chapters 3 and 4). Bull’s work compliments this by adding local detail to Watt’s overview, bringing the cases of Karafuto and Hokkaido—which at one point was the prefecture with the most repatriates—firmly into the spotlight. Yet, the main contribution of Bull’s thoroughly researched work is to be found in how he complicates Watt’s account. Bull shows that whilst some repatriates did face hardship and discrimination in the postwar period, they were proactive in their efforts to reintegrate socially and then eventually, to narrate their stories. Bull’s account shows that repatriates did not lack agency, and for Karafuto repatriates in the context of Hokkaido at least, the repatriate was not a moniker that prevented them from successfully staking out a place in elite circles. Bull provides what is to my knowledge the first detailed account of how public narratives of colonial empire were constructed and entrenched in postwar Japan, and thus this is a work that deserves to be widely read.

Steven Ivings
Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in Global Perspective”
Heidelberg University

Primary Sources

Hokkaidō ritsu monjokan etsuranshitsu 北海道立文書館閲覧室
Karafuto (magazine published by Karafuto sha) 樺太 (樺太社)
Chūō Jōhō & Kabaren Jōhō (the bulletin of the main Karafuto repatriate group) 中央情報 樺連情報
Karafuto Shimbun (Karafuto’s wartime newspaper) 樺太新聞
Materials on the Allied Occupation of Japan

Dissertation Information

Hokkaido University. 2014. 418 pp. Primary Advisor: Yamazaki Mikine.

Image: Hyōsetsu no Mon (The Gate of Ice and Snow) statue for Karafuto
repatriates, Wakkanai City, Hokkaido, Japan. Photo by Author.

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