After serving as president of a public athletics college in China for decades, Bunji Tanaka resettled in Japan in 1988 at age 47 and found work at a liquor wholesale warehouse in Yokohama.
He retired from that job in 2001 and last July applied for public livelihood assistance. Tanaka needed the aid because his short working life in Japan means he is eligible for only limited pension benefits, which barely cover the cost of living for him and his wife.
Tanaka’s wife suffers asthma and leg disabilities. The couple live in Yokohama.
Tanaka, who believes he’s 62, was a child when he was left behind in China after Japanese troops pulled out following Japan’s defeat in World War II. There were thousands of others like him.
“I came to Japan full of hope, but the hope has diminished little by little due to the harsh reality, my advanced age, the language barrier and a lack of public assistance for ‘war orphans’ from China,” Tanaka said.
Children abandoned in 1945 “were one of the worst-hit victims of the war and other wrong policies by the Japanese government, and I now feel that I came here only to realize again that we still are,” he said.
Tanaka cannot remember his Japanese family, who settled in Heilongjiang Province, or even if he was born in Japan. His father was beaten to death by a Chinese mob when Tanaka was 4. He was brought up by a Chinese family.
He had no relatives to turn to after resettling here.
In December, Tanaka joined a group of 650 war-displaced Japanese who jointly sued the Japanese government, demanding an apology and compensation for their abandonment and the insufficient support they have received since their resettlement.
And in a second wave of lawsuits on Sept. 24, 612 people joined a movement against the government, filing lawsuits at courts across the country, bringing the number of plaintiffs to 1,262, or more than half the number of recognized war-orphans who have resettled in Japan.
As of Sept. 30, Japan had taken in 2,468 war orphans.
Additional lawsuits are being prepared in Nagano, Hyogo, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori and Okinawa prefectures, probably bringing the total to 1,500 by the end of the year, said lawyer Jun Toriumi, who represents the Tokyo plaintiffs.
“These lawsuits are not an expression of dissatisfaction by some but represent the fundamental problem of the government’s policy and are aimed at realizing a policy change to restore the rights of these people,” he said.
Toriumi believes the number of plaintiffs will eventually top to 2,000.
He said the primary aim of the suit is to push the government to enact special legislation that stipulates the government’s responsibility and provides a decent livelihood.
The plaintiffs are each demanding 33 million yen in damages, claiming the government failed to implement a program to bring them to Japan quickly after the war and did nothing to help those who later resettled here.
They claim the government was duty-bound to bring all the Japanese colonists in Manchuria to Japan after the surrender. The government neglected its duty until nearly a decade after Tokyo restored diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1972, they said.
The plaintiffs say the government’s other initial policy errors, including barring those who could not prove their Japanese ancestry from resettling, unnecessarily delayed their resettlement and made the process more difficult.
They also charge that even after their eventual resettlement, the government did not provide enough support for their day-to-day living, thereby violating their rights as Japanese citizens.
A law to promote the resettlement of the war-displaced Japanese in China and help them become self-dependent after they come to Japan took effect in 1994.
It stipulates that the government is responsible for helping them adjust to Japanese society by offering them employment and housing assistance, education and counseling.
Under the law, those who are confirmed as war orphans through interviews and research by the Japanese and Chinese governments and identification by their next of kin are flown to Japan at the Japanese government’s expense.
After arriving in Japan, they spend four months in one of the government’s three resettlement shelters, where they undergo language and other training. When they leave the shelter, they are given 160,000 yen.
According to health ministry figures, most then rent public apartments, and more than 90 percent continue to receive public livelihood assistance in the first year following their arrival.
There are 12 training centers that offer counseling and job training as well as providing help on living and other issues.
But it is not easy for those who have resettled here. They don’t speak the language and must restart from scratch late in life.
More than 65 percent of those who came to Japan on the government’s resettlement program remained recipients of public livelihood assistance, according to a 1999 survey of 2,225 returnees.
Those who do manage to find regular jobs often hit mandatory retirement age within a few years of starting work and must then turn to public aid because they are only eligible for limited pension benefits.
Many of the war orphans say life on public aid is humiliating and the restrictions imposed on welfare recipients, including a ban on remitting money to relatives in China, are also a serious inconvenience.
According to the survey, only about half of the former war orphans — 53 percent — are glad they came to Japan. Some 11.8 percent said they regretted leaving China.
Of those who said they should have stayed in China, 33.9 percent found it difficult to communicate in Japanese and 36.5 percent were worried about life after retirement. Others complained about the lack of jobs available to them and cultural differences.
Rei Aimoto, 65, a former electronic engineer who taught at a college in China, said it is not simply a matter of living. He said the lack of government help has denied him of his dignity.
“We gave up all our achievements and social status in China and now we live marginally as second-class citizens in our home country, with language and age problems,” he said. “It is hard for us to have dignity while the government refuses to fully acknowledge its responsibility for our plight.”
Aimoto, who resettled in Japan in 1981, blamed the government’s attitude for the lack of public understanding toward war orphans.
“During my days in China, I often apologized to people for Japan’s (wartime) wrongdoings,” he said.
“More than anything, I want sincere words of apology from the government for abandoning us there and still leaving us with a life of agony.”
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