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‘War orphan’ recounts feeling of abandonment

Both in China and back in their homeland, the government has let them down

by Akemi Nakamura

Second in a series

It was a rainy day in mid-August 1945. World War II was about to draw to a close, but nobody in the tiny Chinese village knew it. All they knew was that chaos was breaking out, and that the Russian military was approaching from the north.

Noriko Suzuki was among some 600 Japanese sent to northeast China, in the region historically known as Manchuria, under a colonial government program for settling the region. That plan was clearly falling apart. The settlers had to flee for their lives.

They wanted to reach Hsinking, now Changchun, where the Imperial Japanese Army’s Kwantung Army was based, to get information on the war situation and how to get back to Japan. Suzuki didn’t know it at the time, but the settlers’ exodus would be the start of her 33-year life in China as a war-displaced Japanese — a life that would begin in a “living hell.”

An official document says that as of May 1945, about 320,000 Japanese settlers were living in the region under an immigration program to secure control of Manchukuo, the puppet state Japan established there in 1932. But Suzuki and thousands of other Japanese would be left behind in China at the end of the war.

Suzuki, now 78, was repatriated in 1978 and lives in Tokyo. Looking back, she says the Japanese stranded in China became victims of their own government’s policy. As she sees it, not only did Japan abandon them at the end of the war, but it also failed to provide them with sufficient support after they resettled in Japan.

“We want our lost rights as Japanese back,” Suzuki said, her tiny frame poised but her voice tinged with anger.

In July 1943, 14-year-old Suzuki arrived at the village (now in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia) with her family. For four generations, the family had run a wholesale vegetable business in central Tokyo, but Suzuki dreamed of becoming a physician.

“When we arrived there, locals came to the railway station to carry our luggage with carts and greeted us with profound bows. I was impressed by that and thought Japanese were doing something great to keep the peace in Asia,” she said.

At least that’s what the government propagandists had told the Japanese public, she added.

But life started going downhill. Illness claimed her father four months after they arrived, and her mother died the following year. Their medical treatment had been insufficient.

Suzuki stayed on in Manchuria, living with her younger sister. She found work as a substitute teacher at an elementary school because male Japanese teachers had been drafted into the military. Her three older sisters also lived in the village with their husbands and children.

In summer 1945, Allied planes flew low over the area, and Chinese farmers around the village, aware that Japan was losing the war, became hostile, Suzuki recalled. Then came news of the dreaded Soviet encroachment. Fearing for their lives, the Japanese settlers set out under heavy rain for Changchun. It was Aug. 12, three days before Japan’s surrender.

Pandemonium broke out. Local Chinese, armed with guns and spears, attacked the Japanese group repeatedly, taking away their possessions.

Soviet forces swarmed into China. The Japanese exiles’ leader grew frightened that as they traveled, babies might give away their whereabouts by crying and bring death upon them all. The leader, a civilian with a commanding air, ordered mothers to strangle their children before the enemy came within earshot.

Suzuki described the nightmare in a quiet, steady voice. Mothers shut their eyes, wrapped their hands around their children’s necks, and did as they were told. The women screamed as their babies went silent.

Though the mothers in the group “appeared to have gone insane,” there was no choice but to move on, Suzuki said.

“We usually hid in cornfields and wrapped ourselves in corn leaves. Some farmers gave us clothing and food, but soon other Chinese attacked us and took them away,” she said.

Her left leg was knocked out of its socket when a Chinese mob hit her in the head with sticks and pushed her over a cliff. The injury ails her to this day and she walks with a cane.

“I kept wondering why Chinese people attacked escaping Japanese,” she said.

Amid the confusion, Suzuki was abducted by a Mongolian soldier and separated from her group. Before he could harm her, she was rescued by a Chinese farmer of Inner Mongolia who looked after her for a while. She then settled with a kind, elderly woman there.

The woman spoke no Japanese but explained the chaotic situation to her young charge as best she could, writing messages in Chinese characters that Suzuki could understand.

” ‘Japan lost the war. The Japanese military ran away. But you are safe with me,’ ” the old woman wrote. Suzuki was fed and clothed well.

“That was the first I’d heard about Japan losing the war,” she said, recalling that the news almost made her faint. “I thought: If this is true, then it’s no wonder that Chinese people attacked us. But I still couldn’t believe that Japan had done something wrong. Because of my (militarist) education, I couldn’t believe it was a war of aggression.”

After living with the woman for a year, she moved from one Chinese family to another. A gambler took her in but abused her mentally and physically. Relief, however, came in 1948 when another man took pity and paid the gambler to take custody of her.

In 1950, the adoptive father requested that Suzuki, now a woman of 21, marry his son. Marriage would give her stability, he suggested. The son, however, hated Japanese after having been forced to work for the occupying army. Notwithstanding, the father insisted the two live together.

Suzuki took a look at her life and, feeling increasingly comfortable in Chinese society and her adopted home, decided to devote herself to this man — putting aside the fact that he was her adoptive brother. The two became common-law husband and wife and had five children.

As time passed and Suzuki matured, her native Japan’s role in the war came into focus.

China’s government had started holding exhibits on the war, and Suzuki learned about such atrocities as the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and the infamous Unit 731, which had conducted germ warfare research and vivisections on Chinese captives and prisoners of war.

“I felt betrayed,” she said. “I understood that Japan caused Chinese people tremendous pain. Then I decided to live with a feeling of apology in my heart, to live for others in a forward-looking manner.”

Though China had become a second home, her desire to return to Japan never disappeared. Under an agreement between Japan and China, about 32,000 war-displaced Japanese were resettled in Japan between 1953 and 1958.

Suzuki heard about the program but decided not to join because returning to Japan would mean leaving her husband and children behind. Instead, she would wait for another opportunity to come around.

Then came the 1972 normalization of diplomatic ties between China and Japan, and in 1974 a Chinese official informed Suzuki that her sister had also been left behind in China. They were able to reunite for the first time in 30 years. Suzuki decided to go home.

The two finally landed in Tokyo in 1978, welcomed by their brother, who had stayed behind in Japan during the war. Also there to greet them was their youngest sister, who had managed to make it to Japan only a few years after the end of the war.

“When I looked at the Japanese archipelago from the airplane, I cried. I was finally back in my home country. I was glad,” Suzuki said.

Her husband, their five children and their families eventually followed. Suzuki worked as a dressmaker and cleaning woman until retiring in 1990.

She was one of many “war orphans,” as they are known in Japan, to make the emotionally charged journey home. As of March 2005, 6,286 were permanently resettled in the second wave since 1972, while 5,478 visited Japan temporarily, according to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry.

By all measures, Suzuki’s reacclimatization was relatively smooth. Her nationality was never questioned because she had been registered in China as being a Japanese citizen and was recognized by her brother and sister upon her return.

Many other war orphans have faced greater difficulty resettling in Japan, especially those without papers and those who were so young when they were left behind that they never learned the Japanese language. Others were born in China before being abandoned by their Japanese parents.

In 1982, Suzuki formed a group to support such people, providing advice on everyday life and instructing them in Japanese. To this day, she still lends a hand to those seeking help.

While some 2,200 war orphans, including Suzuki, have filed lawsuits over the past six years demanding better care for confirmed war orphans, the government decided only last month to increase financial support.

Suzuki is not fully satisfied with the aid plan but thinks it will help those who have resettled in Japan have a better life.

“The war took a heavy toll on people, trampling on their precious lives,” Suzuki said. “I will continue to talk about what I experienced. It’s my way of conveying the feelings of people who had to die in the war.”

Read more articles in the series Witness to War.