Wartime stories of schoolkids on the move


I recently stumbled across a war story I knew nothing about. I was at the library looking for books to keep my older son reading in Japanese, now that he no longer attends Japanese school. Since he had just made a trip to Hiroshima with his international school, I chose books about Japanese children’s wartime experiences. My son was interested, but I was the one who got hooked. What caught my attention was the gakudo sokai (pupil evacuation), a government program in which more than half a million children were sent in school groups to the countryside.

By 1944, Japan was losing the war and preparing for enemy invasion. In June, the government announced a plan to evacuate schoolchildren and teachers from major cities. The purpose was not so much humanitarian as tactical; by sending children to safer areas, the military hoped to ensure an adequate supply of soldiers for the future. It also wanted to free mothers from child care so they could focus on the home-front defense effort.

In early August, 230,000 schoolchildren boarded special trains out of Tokyo, followed by more evacuations from the capital and 12 other cities including Yokohama, Nagoya and Osaka. The school groups went to nearby rural areas to the only facilities available, usually Buddhist temples and country inns. In all, about 580,000 children were sent away from home in the evacuation program. Many other children were evacuated privately to relatives.

Life wasn’t easy for the evacuees. They were homesick. Bathing and toilet facilities were inadequate. Fleas and lice were rampant. But the biggest problem was food. War had created terrible food shortages, and the situation in the countryside wasn’t much better than in the cities. The children lost weight and many became malnourished. There was little medicine or access to doctors, and many evacuees died of relatively minor illnesses.

For me, the story of the gakudo sokai resonates on many levels. My kids, who are 9 and 12, are in the age group that was evacuated. As a parent, I know how wrenching it would be to send my children away, not knowing if they’d survive or I’d ever see them again. And there’s a parallel in my own family history: in 1939, when my father was 10, my grandmother sent him and his younger brother out of Germany on the Kindertransport, a privately organized program that took Jewish children to relative safety in England. When the war broke out, they were evacuated to the countryside along with British children and placed in foster homes. For all these reasons, I wanted to learn more about the evacuation of Japanese schoolchildren. I asked seniors I know to share their stories.

“I missed my family terribly,” recalled Machiyo Shimura, who was sent away as a third-grader and spent more than a year in a temple in Higashi Ome on the outskirts of Tokyo. “There was little food and what we did have was of poor quality. I was always hungry. Always.”

Participation in the evacuation was voluntary but most people considered it hobo kyo (almost compulsory). “If you didn’t go you wouldn’t get any schooling,” explained Yasuko Harada, who was a second-grader when she was sent to Tochigi Prefecture. “That was unthinkable for most Japanese parents.”

Some children were kept at home. “My parents said, ‘If we’re all going to die, let’s die together,’ ” Kimie Ando told me. “I was glad not to be sent away but sometimes I think it was self-centered of my parents to assume I’d be better off with them. They couldn’t know that, not in a war. So much is just fate.”

Fate was cruel to many of the evacuated children. Most sixth-graders returned home for graduation ceremonies, arriving in late February and early March of 1945. On the night of March 10, the United States attacked with unprecedented ferocity, sending nearly 300 B-29 planes over Tokyo to drop incendiary bombs. The resulting fires killed more than 100,000 people, including hundreds of the would-be graduates, some of whom had returned that day.

A story that hit me hard is the sinking of the Tsushima Maru. The unmarked ship was carrying about 800 schoolchildren from Okinawa to the mainland when it was attacked Aug. 22, 1944, by an American submarine. Only 9 children survived and the tragedy was hushed up until after the war.

When I talked about the Tsushima Maru with my senior friends, they tried to help me put it in perspective. “I think you focus on that one incident because you don’t know what war is really like,” Shimura told me.

“For those of us who have experienced war, the sinking of the Tsushima Maru is just one tragedy among many,” seconded Michiko Hanaoka, who was evacuated as a sixth-grader after her school was destroyed in April 1945. “That’s what war is.”

Looking back at the four months she spent living in a temple in Gunma Prefecture, Hanaoka said: “It was a very difficult experience. We didn’t know if we’d see our parents again, or live to see another day. But I view it positively now. In our group, it was one for all and all for one. We shared everything and helped each other. I got to experience true group solidarity.”

Does she talk about the war with her children and grandchildren? “A little,” she allowed, “but I wonder if there’s any point. Someone who hasn’t been through it can’t truly understand what it’s like.”

I agree. But it’s important for those of us who have never experienced war to learn from those who have. Everyone can relate to the story of the school evacuations because we’ve all been children. That’s why the story has such power to teach.

My younger son attends a Japanese elementary school that was evacuated in August 1944. I’m going to talk to the principal about inviting alumni who were evacuated to come speak to the children. I know the kids will listen eagerly because it’s a story about children, and their own school’s history.

If you lived through the war, I encourage you to share your experiences with younger generations. Maybe if more us have some understanding of the realities of war, we’ll all work harder to prevent it.