Media watch: The orphans who made it to Japan

Some Japanese people abandoned in China and their children

We rarely have anything positive to say about the late Shinzo Abe, but with his state funeral happening tomorrow we wanted to point out at least one good thing he did. This year marks the 50th anniversary of normalized relations between Japan and the People’s Republic of China. One result was the repatriation of Japanese people who had been left behind in China at the end of World War II. Almost all were children at the time. Some were even infants. They were raised as Chinese by Chinese people, but many knew they were Japanese by birth and desired to reclaim their ancestry and nationality. However, it took a long time, and some, it is assumed, have never been able to “return” to Japan and probably never will, considering how old they would be.

According to an article in the Sept. 19 Asahi Shimbun, after Japan surrendered in the summer of 1945, many Japanese who were on the Asian continent struggled to make it back to the Japan and were reluctant to bring their children because of the hardship and danger involved, so they left them with Chinese people, usually peasants. The Japanese government officially deemed such children 12 years old and younger as being Japanese “orphans,” while for some reason girls 13 and older were considered to have “decided to stay of their own volition,” perhaps because many of them were married off to older Chinese men. Over the years, the health ministry says that about 2,500 orphans have been repatriated, but of the women who supposedly stayed of their own accord, more than 4,000 have returned to Japan to live.

Asahi interviewed one 77-year-old woman who was orphaned and who now lives in Adachi Ward, Tokyo. She recalls that in 1972 when relations were normalized she was “very happy,” because it meant she could look for her birth parents. She had been left in China when she was one year old. Her parents were in Manchuria and asked a Chinese family to take care of her as the Russians approached. She was raised as the Chinese family’s own daughter, but it was known in the community that she was Japanese and she was bullied growing up. Nevertheless, she did well academically and became an elementary school teacher in 1962. When the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, she kept her head down in order to avoid being deemed a Japanese spy. 

After normalization, she found her father, who was living in Hokkaido, but the process for repatriation was extremely slow due to Japanese government red tape, so she used her own money to move to Japan. Then, later, the government said they couldn’t verify her ancestry because the blood check showed no relationship with the Japanese relatives she’d located, and she was in danger of being sent back to China. Fortunately, a volunteer group came to her assistance and pleaded her case in family court, which eventually granted her Japanese nationality. 

This sort of story was common due to a variety of factors. The orphan project was officially launched in 1981 to confirm nationality of those left behind after the war, but many who claimed they were abandoned could not produce any proof. It wasn’t until 1994 that the Japanese government started actively allowing these people to settle in Japan, when they were middle aged and older. Consequently, after they arrived, even if they found employment they couldn’t work long enough to qualify for a national pension by the time they retired. So in 2002, a group of elderly orphans sued the government, including the Adachi Ward woman mentioned above. The suits, comprising some 2,200 plaintiffs, 90 percent of whom were orphans, were heard by 15 courts. However, only one resulted in victory for the orphans. At the time the rulings came down, Shinzo Abe was in his first term as prime minister, and according to Asahi he made a “political decision” to give government support to the orphans without any strings attached. Thanks to Abe, these orphans, who had been innocent victims of the Japanese imperialist adventure on the Chinese mainland, were finally able to claim their birthright and live out their days in relative comfort and ease. 

In addition, relatives of these orphans, meaning children and even grandchildren, were allowed to join them when they came to Japan. In the article, Asahi talks about a 49-year-old woman, Takayo Mikami, whose grandmother was abandoned in China. Mikami herself was born in 1972, the year of normalization, and she came to Japan with her parents in 1989. Six years ago she learned that many elderly orphans still had problems with the Japanese language, since they were too young to speak and understand it properly when they were abandoned, so she started a service where elderly Chinese women can get together and receive assistance. Mikami said she was moved to work as a helper by the story of her grandmother, whose three siblings died during the evacuation of Manchuria. The leader of the Japanese evacuation group told her to stay at a certain farmhouse if she wanted to live, even though she was just a teen. There she was taken in by an older Chinese man who married her. She eventually had six children, one of whom was Mikami’s father.

But what haunted Mikami about her grandmother’s tale was her grandmother’s feeling of being betrayed. She did what her group leader said because she thought if she did she would be able to return to Japan. If she knew at the time that she would be forced to marry an older Chinese farmer to survive, she said, “I would have preferred to die.” 

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