War-displaced returnees face tough time in Japan

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“At the thought of finally being able to leave (China), I was so excited that words failed to come.”

Ansei Toyomasu, 66, was looking back at the events of 30 years ago, when he heard the news on the radio about then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka’s visit to China and the normalization of Japan-China diplomatic ties.

Toyomasu, who was among the Japanese children left behind in China during the chaos at the end of World War II, had been branded a “Japanese intellectual” in the course of China’s Cultural Revolution.

But he was able to make a toast in secret after close friends bought him some “precious” liquor.

After returning to Japan, Toyomasu began firing a kiln in Arita, Saga Prefecture, in 1975, to make the local pottery known as Arita ware. Incense burners, vases and ornamental animals now line shelves and desks at his workplace.

His unique designs — combining techniques cultivated in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, a famed Chinese porcelain-producing center, with Japanese touches — are highly valued both in Japan and China, and go under the A La Ansei name.

“I owe what I am today to a foster father who let me receive an education. I was lucky,” he said.

In 1945, Toyomasu, on the verge of starvation, was saved by a Chinese farmer. Later he studied at an art school in Zhejiang Province and honed his porcelain-producing talents in Jingdezhen.

About 20,000 Japanese, including war-displaced people and their relatives, came to Japan at government expense after diplomatic ties were established. Also included were Japanese women who stayed in China after the war.

Including those who returned home or settled in Japan at their own expense, one estimate puts the total figure at 200,000.

According to a 2000 survey of war-displaced Japanese by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, some 65 percent of 2,200 respondents were on welfare. Toyomasu’s story seems to be a rare case of success.

“I want the government to give all the returnees a chance to receive lessons in the Japanese language at public expense,” said Zensei Yamaguchi, 55, whose 80-year-old Japanese mother remained in China.

Yamaguchi came to Japan in 1989 at his own expense, together with his three family members. He was not eligible to receive Japanese-language training funded by the government and had to make it on his own.

Without even knowing how to say “good morning” in Japanese, he found himself changing jobs frequently, including being a tile dealer and a delicatessen employee, in Fukushima Prefecture.

Until finding his current job at a confectionery store after arriving in Tokyo, Yamaguchi lived on unemployment or welfare benefits of around 130,000 yen a month, which had to pay for the needs of his four-member family.

His 25-year-old son, bullied because of the language barrier, suffered mental illness and was occasionally hospitalized. Given the circumstances, his family was on the brink of collapse.

Hirohisa Nagano, secretary general of a group that supports Japanese settling in Japan after living in China, criticized the government for failing to have a backup system for the settlers.

The Yamaguchis are a typical example of Japanese coming from China who face isolation due to the dearth of opportunities to learn the Japanese language, Nagano said.

“Behind the touching scenes of blood relations being confirmed through face-to-face searches, returnees have experienced humiliation again (in Japan),” he said.

There are said to be more than 300 Japanese still living in northeastern China after being left behind at the end of the war.

The Yamaguchis’ son visited a farm village in Heilongjiang Province, northeastern China, during the summer as a member of the support group’s investigative team.

He heard a 63-year-old Japanese man in tears saying: “I’m Japanese. I want to return home as soon as possible.”

The son said he was overcome with emotion when he imagined the hardship the man would face if he settled in Japan, but at the same time, he prayed for his wishes to be fulfilled.

The Yamaguchis’ son graduated from a university last spring with the support of family members and others. He is now involved in translating Japanese returnees’ letters as part of support activities for them.

“Half of me feels Chinese. So my dream is to have a job that will help bridge the gap between Japan and China in the future,” the son said.