The fate of these Japanese is a neglected chapter among the countless epic tragedies of World War Two.
- John Dower, from Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War Two
In the final weeks of World War II, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria. The Japanese forces stationed there, mostly reserve units, were ill-equipped to fight against a Soviet behemoth honed by four years of war with the Nazis and possessing arguably the finest military hardware in the world. Within 11 days the Japanese Kwantung army had ceased to exist as a fighting force; 80,000 men had been killed and over 600,000 were taken prisoner. Along with civilians resident in Manchukuo who were also captured during the Soviet advance, the total Japanese captives amounted to 1.6 million people.
It is the fate of these 1.6 million people which Dower is referring to. By 1947 approximately 600,000 Japanese had been repatriated. More arrived illegally, smuggled from China in drips. But in 1949 there were still hundreds of thousands of people unaccounted for. From Embracing Defeat:
In the spring of 1949, after repeated prodding by occupation authorities, the USSR announced that only 95,000 prisoners remained, all of whom would be returned by the end of the year. According to Japanese and American calculations, the actual number should have been 400,000. Suddenly, more than 300,000 Japanese were unaccounted for...
...Over four decades later, the Soviet Union finally released the names of 46,000 Japanese known to be buried in Siberia. The overall numbers never jibed.
There has never been closure for the families of the approximately 250,000 people who are still missing. The issue has never been resolved, and the continuing poor relations betwen Japan and Russia (the two countries are still technically at war 65 years later) make it unlikely it will be for many years, if ever. Though this is only one of the countless crimes the Soviet Union committed, and ranks as one of the lesser of those in terms of numbers, and though the Japanese government of the pre-war era bears at least some of the responsibility for its soldiers being in China in the first place, it is impossible not to feel at least some sorrow for the victims and their families, who will never know what happened to their husband, father, uncle, brother, or friend.
In some respects it doesn't quite sit well to use this scenario as the basis for a campaign, but I can't help feeling that it would be a quite compelling concept - a small group of soldiers and/or civilians travelling across the vast expanse of Manchuria, heading in the direction they hope is home. Perfect for goal-oriented sandbox play in chaotic civil war China, where bandits, communists, mercenaries, deserters, and Soviet and Kuomintang military units are a constant threat, and the civil infrastructure has been degraded almost to nonexistence by decades of conflict and famine.
You would have to use something highly realistic to get the best out of it, I think - Twilight 2000 or GURPS, maybe. Then again the historically perverse aspect of my character wants to throw magical beings of Chinese myth into the mix too, awakened by all the blood and sorrow in the land...