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Tetsuro Ahiko will not go home to Japan.
February 7, 2011 6:43 PM   Subscribe

The last Japanese man remaining in Kazakhstan: A Kafkian tale of the plight of a Japanese POW in the Soviet Union. This is the story of Tetsuro Ahiko, a Japanese national who was living on Sakhalin Island during WWII, and was sent to gulags after the war instead of being repatriated to Japan. Ahiko has turned down multiple offers to be resettled in Japan and has spent 60+ years in Kazakhstan (what was then the Soviet Union.)
posted by gen (38 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
What a tough old bird. Respect.
WTH was that last photo doing there - Vodka bottle thrown away on the street of Aktas?
posted by unliteral at 6:52 PM on February 7, 2011


The sorrow of war.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:03 PM on February 7, 2011


Towards the end, the article sort of starts to intimate that Ahiko is held back by his Russian family and that Japan is where he, as a Japanese person, belongs. I mean, his story is tragic, but he's lead a life that he seems to be satisfied with, so why pry? I understand why the Japanese government is offering him incentives to repatriate, but I'm less sure of the article's slant on the matter. There seems to be little sympathy in the author's treatment of Ahiko's family. Yes, it's a short article about an interesting life, but it left me somewhat unsettled.
posted by Nomyte at 7:05 PM on February 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


What leaves us unsettled and sad is hearing yet another story of a person destroyed by war and and bad policy, stupid bureaucracies. It's about to become the dominant global story if we don't do something.

If they chose, the Japanese cultural extension could send them all kinds of mementos and thank you trinkets for his service. The government could grant him a lump pension by saying that his life in Russia was an extended tour of duty; it would be a lot of money and could help his family immensely.

As for that last photo of the discarded vodka bottle, that was poetry.
posted by artof.mulata at 7:31 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


There needs to be an extra special circle of Hell for petty bureaucrats who would change the fate of a man's life because of a stupid spelling error. I don't know that at this point Ahiko-san would choose change his own past, but there are too many of these petty martinets tormenting the rest of us.
posted by Xoebe at 7:33 PM on February 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Xoebe, you're essentially sentencing large portions of the Japanese bureaucracy to that special branch of hell. Which, y'know, is okay in my book.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:37 PM on February 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ghidorah, heroes like this may still reside there.
posted by smoke at 7:48 PM on February 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


...46 years after he first boarded the train to the Gulag, the association flew him to Japan to meet his brothers and sisters... “I’d absolutely forgotten the language, I had to have an interpreter,” Tetsuro remembers.

This makes me wonder how long it typically takes a person to lose the ability to speak their first language. Is there a typical threshold? It sounds like he was speaking Japanese well into adulthood, given that was still in contact with other Japanese men for a few years after being taken to the gulag at 16.
posted by rh at 7:51 PM on February 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


This makes me wonder how long it typically takes a person to lose the ability to speak their first language. Is there a typical threshold? It sounds like he was speaking Japanese well into adulthood, given that was still in contact with other Japanese men for a few years after being taken to the gulag at 16.

My guess is that he still can understand strands, but only if spoken slowly and spoken in the dialect/ accent he's used to back in the 40's, within the context he's used to. It's not just people who change; languages do too.
posted by the cydonian at 7:56 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


artof.mulata: "As for that last photo of the discarded vodka bottle, that was poetry."

No, it was a hackneyed attempt at emotional manipulation.

If your preferred poetic imagery has been parodied in both the Mr. Plow and Jay Sherman episodes of The Simpsons, it's time to give it up…
posted by Pinback at 8:01 PM on February 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Smoke, for every Sugihara here, there's a dozen, if not hundreds who will grant, say, a temporary visa to a 13 year old junior high student, but not her parents. And of course, Japan still (old chestnut alert) hasn't signed International Child Custody Treaty, which is the source of a lot of pain, with parents not even being told where their children are, let alone allowed visitation rights.

There are some decent people in the Japanese government, specifically at the ward and city levels, like the people who continued to renew the Calderon's residence cards. The government's response has been to take those powers away from the wards, making it part of the national bureaucracy. The good people are here, it's just the government does its best to stop them.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:01 PM on February 7, 2011


heroes like this may still reside there.

Yeah, this post also made me think of Chiune Sugihara, I guess because he ended up exiled, leading a shabby existence in Russia.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:04 PM on February 7, 2011


Jeez Pinback, even for the anonymous power of the internet, that's a harsh harshness.

Dial it back a bit?
posted by artof.mulata at 8:20 PM on February 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


No, that shot of a vodka bottle is a pretty transparent appeal to the reader's emotions. Based on what's given in the article, I would not describe Ahiko's current situation as one of plight. He's been living there for decades. He has led a working life and is raising grandchildren. So the author tries to depict his subject's life as one of extreme privation. Clearly, no one could be happy living in Kazakhstan. To parody/paraphrase the narrative, "It gets really cold, so it's clear that Ahiko's uncomfortable living here! Also, here's a picture of him drinking some vodka, and another unrelated photograph of a vodka bottle in the snow! These people are driving him to drink!" Well, you know, Japan has its own issues with alcohol, and there are certainly plenty of dilapidated places there too. Nobody's sending charity missions to rescue the old people of Japan's rusting countryside.
posted by Nomyte at 8:34 PM on February 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


Regardless, I'm going to knock back a shot of vodka tonight before I hit the sack. I'm sure Tetsuro remembers "Kanpai!"
posted by kozad at 8:43 PM on February 7, 2011


I don't know that at this point Ahiko-san would choose change his own past

Choose to change. Please report to Gulag Camp 443 for correction.

Petty Bureaucrat 61823703
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:46 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Smoke, for every Sugihara here, there's a dozen, if not hundreds who will grant, say, a temporary visa to a 13 year old junior high student, but not her parents.

Japan isn't the only place these things (and worse, though that story has a positive update) happen, though?
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 8:47 PM on February 7, 2011


I think Ahiko just gets a huge kick out of driving the folks at the Japan Sakhalin Compatriot Exchange Association batty. I bet it's one big cat and mouse game with the Japan Sakhalin Compatriot Exchange Association coming up with different and wily fabulous new offers to get him back to Japan, and Ahiko drinking some vodka, bowing politely and saying: Umm....errr..hmmmm



No.



Besides which, if he did repatriate the Japan Sakhalin Compatriot Exchange Association would no longer have any reason to exist...

So it seems like a good deal to me. He gets to annoy those busybodies over at the Japan Sakhalin Compatriot Exchange Association, and they get to keep their jobs.
posted by Skygazer at 8:58 PM on February 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


these petty martinets

I might have to steal this as the name of my next band.
posted by Skygazer at 9:01 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


two or three, no, it's not the only place, just the one where I live, and the bureaucrats I have to deal with, and the friends of mine who'll never see their children again. Shit's bad all over. It doesn't make the shit in our respective backyards any less bad.
posted by Ghidorah at 9:04 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I hear that Japan is seriously considering singing onto the Hague Convention in 2011.
posted by gen at 9:37 PM on February 7, 2011


Maybe the Internationale ;-)
posted by unliteral at 9:44 PM on February 7, 2011


If anyone is interested in a similar story in the world of fiction, I highly recommend Martin Booth's The Industry of Souls. Same author as A Very Private Gentleman, the book made into the recent movie The American.
posted by sapere aude at 9:58 PM on February 7, 2011


I saw that too, Gen, and I'd like to believe it's possible, but they were seriously considering giving permanent residence voting rights in local elections until Kamei threw a shit-fit. Most recently I saw a poll on signing the treaty. For whatever reason, the Foreign Ministry decided to poll only people who have actually been involved in 'the so-called parental ‘‘abductions’’ of children.' That means that some of the people they were polling were essentially the people who had either already kidnapped their child (who, unsurprisingly, were against it) or who'd had their child kidnapped, and were in favor of signing the treaty.

If that's the kind serious consideration being given, I doubt it will ever get signed.

Sorry for the derail. Back to the language thing, when some of the Japanese people were returned by North Korea, there was the case of Charles Jenkins, who had defected, and ended up marrying one of the Japanese women abductees. As I recall, his English had been pretty much stuck in the 1950s, and had deteriorated pretty badly from there.
posted by Ghidorah at 10:19 PM on February 7, 2011


This makes me wonder how long it typically takes a person to lose the ability to speak their first language.

A friend of mine went on exchange to Germany for a year at the age of 17. By the time she got back she was forgetting less-common words from her English vocab and needed a few months before she got back to being able to speak fluently.
posted by rodgerd at 10:25 PM on February 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


My father has lost his native language. He could probably understand it when spoken to slowly, but conversation is not possible. He hasn't spoken it daily in more than 50 years, though.
posted by maxwelton at 1:15 AM on February 8, 2011


Actually, he told me the worst part is that he has no words or understanding of many modern concepts in his native language. Things like computers, the internet, cell phones, and many other day-to-day things weren't part of his youth and he finds it frustrating to try and follow a "modern" conversation.
posted by maxwelton at 1:16 AM on February 8, 2011


On the change of language back home, I remember reading an article about James Veneris, one of the Korean War UN forces POWs who chose to stay on in China - he had kept his English (and was teaching it in his latter career having been a factory worker for a number of years) but preserving a now-lost Brooklyn (IIRC) accent and soldier-boy slang of the late '40s early '50s.
posted by Abiezer at 2:35 AM on February 8, 2011


Besides which, if he did repatriate the Japan Sakhalin Compatriot Exchange Association would no longer have any reason to exist...

Actually, there are quite a few Japanese remaining in the Russian East, and the Association (日本サハリン同胞交流協会 in Japanese) receives funding (16 million JPY [~160,000 USD] spent between 1994 and 2006) to support their visits to Japan and/or their permanent repatriation. They also do things like provide shortwave radios and satellite TV dishes as well as hold Japanese language classes for locals. Here's a list of their annual activities and funds spent, albeit in Japanese.

For an NPO supported by the Japanese government, I could think of far worse examples of political largess. This one seems pretty tame, if not productive, by comparison.

(On a totally unrelated note, February 7 was "Return the Northern Territories Day" across Japan. I imagine most people pay the date little mind, but it is all over the media -- especially in Hokkaido, where the government had a large booth at the annual Snow Festival about the topic.)
posted by armage at 4:24 AM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the article:
By 1956, when the Soviet Union made its last major repatriation to Japan, it had sent 510,000 prisoners home.
A half million? Is that right? Jesus.

As for losing the language, my Yooper mom's first language is Finnish and grew up amongst the first generation of Finnish-Americans speaking the mother tongue all of the time. That was a long time ago and these days, she can hardly hold a simple conversation in Finnish.
posted by NoMich at 4:43 AM on February 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wow, the poor bastard has been dying a slow death since he was 16. I wonder if he sometimes wishes it had been a more swift method.
posted by lobstah at 4:52 AM on February 8, 2011


Fascinating story. I think the guy simply is just used to Kazakhstan, and pension... Six month of help, pension...six months of help? I know what I'd do, plus there's his wife and kids, he can't bring them and he doesn't really know his Japanese family. The guy is making the only logical choice in what has to be a sad situation.

Off subject, his face doesn't look even, could the man have Bell's palsy or be a stroke survivor?

If he survived a stroke then I guess it's to be expected he would rather not mess with language re-aquisition.

What a story!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 6:11 AM on February 8, 2011


A half million? Is that right? Jesus.

I suppose the majority of the Imperial Japanese army were stationed in the Chinese mainland at the end of the war, and the soviets were very active there at the end and after the armistice, so it doesn't surprise me that many Japanese soldiers would end up under soviet control.
posted by Catfry at 7:36 AM on February 8, 2011


China and Japan were at war from 1937 to 1945; Japan had 3.9 million soldiers in China.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:11 AM on February 8, 2011


> Wow, the poor bastard has been dying a slow death since he was 16.

Huh? Not except in the sense that we're all dying a slow death. He's been living, in difficult but not impossible circumstances, like millions of people in his adopted homeland and billions around the world. He's got grandkids he loves and good memories as well as bad.

A fascinating article about a compelling story; thanks, gen.
posted by languagehat at 10:18 AM on February 8, 2011


English is my second language. My first language is a European dialect that has not grown, or I have not grown into, since I was six. At this point, although with effort I can speak it pretty well, it has remained the language, more or less of a six year old. My first language has an immediacy and power to it that English sometimes lacks, but my English is a full blown robust thing. It is the language of me as an adult. Being forced to speak Sicilian is always a humbling and infantalizing.

Why would this man, choose the life, language and culture of a child, and put up with being treated and demeaned as such, when he is an adult in place where he has struggled to live and be an adult for most of his life. This is a man with two wives, children and grandchildren. A man, not a child. Japan will forever, at this point in his advanced life, be his childhood, for good and for bad, and the Japan of his childhood is so far away and so lost and disappeared as to be a magical fantasy land. A magical fantasy land where he will forever be a son, and a child and have no control over his destiny. Even the privileges and benefits offered to him by the Japan Sakhalin Compatriot Association are those offered to someone who is helpless. He's obviously made a life for himself under the harshest of conditions and most desperate luck.

The association should stop trying to get him to come back to Japan. He's fine. He just wants to have an occasional shot of vodka and be able to see his grandkids.
posted by Skygazer at 12:29 PM on February 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Katjusaa RoquetteOff subject, his face doesn't look even, could the man have Bell's palsy or be a stroke survivor?

Hmm..looks just like the lines of old age, and the sort of extreme hunger and nutritional deprivation at a point in his life when he lost some of the natural fatty tissue from his cheeks that most people are lucky enough to retain.

My grandmother who also experienced serious famine through WW I and II, had a similar quality to her face. Hunger scars people's faces for life.

Other than that, it is a kind face. A lucid and good face.
posted by Skygazer at 12:38 PM on February 8, 2011


To add on to Skygazer's comment about mother tongues and childhood levels, occasionally, I teach returnee students, students who've lived overseas for some period of their lives. Their levels of English fluency vary widely, depending on how long they were outside of Japan, as well as the situation they were living in.

The thing is, some of them (especially at where I teach now) have, at 13, or 15, a better grasp of English than their Japanese English teachers, and you can run into some who have pretty obnoxious attitudes about it. I've had students who sit back and think, hell, why should I study. What can they possibly teach me that I don't know? The problem with that is that they end up trapped at the level of fluency they had when they came back to Japan, at ten, or twelve, or whatever. It's fine in junior high, and yeah, they're better at English than most of their teachers, but when they turn 30 and still have a 12 year old's grasp of English, it's not so great.

The worst scenario, which I've seen in a couple cases, is the returnee who just wants to fit in, who wants to be just one of the crowd. I saw a couple kids essentially reject their language skills, to the point that in the space of only a couple years, they went from being able to fluently (at their age level) speak English to being unable to hold a conversation. Language loss can happen frighteningly fast.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:23 PM on February 8, 2011


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