National / History

Paradise lost: War brought hell, starvation to Japanese immigrants in Palau

by Yasuhito Hashiba

Kyodo

“If the war had been prolonged for half a year, all Japanese immigrants would have starved to death,” Zensho Kinjo says of the situation faced by Japanese settlers in Palau toward the end of World War II in 1945.

Kinjo, 92, moved in spring 1938 from Okinawa to Palau at the age of 15, following his father and older brother, and got a job as an accountant at a phosphate mine on Peleliu Island.

The Western Pacific islands were then controlled by Japan as a mandate territory under the League of Nations, and the number of Japanese residents in Palau peaked at more than 20,000, roughly half of whom were from Okinawa.

Kinjo was pleased to find he could use his abacus skills for his job. He had no problem getting food and was surrounded by fellow Okinawan immigrants. “I had a good time then,” Kinjo recalled. “It was paradise.”

But the paradise turned to hell as American aircraft bombed the Palauan islands following Japan’s loss of local air superiority in March 1944.

Kinjo was then engaged in construction work at an airstrip on Babeldaob Island, the largest of the islands in Palau. He said fighter aircraft approached and no air raid siren was sounded. “I welcomed them, believing they were friendly aircraft, but later identified them as foes as they began to strafe the airport,” he said. “I felt miserable then.”

Four months later, Kinjo was on a transport ship on its way to Peleliu Island and saw its captain killed in a bombing raid.

As he carried the captain’s body to a crematory on Koror Island, which served as the capital of the Japanese administration, he found it crowded with dead soldiers and failed to take the body into the facility. “I then felt the war was so terrible and hateful,” he said.

A large number of Japanese soldiers were sent to Palau in April 1944. When transportation to the islands later ceased, food shortages grew serious.

Kinjo was locally recruited to military service in November 1944 and his mission was collecting food. “Local food then was limited to coconut juice,” he said.

While he was suffering from malnutrition, more than 10,000 Japanese soldiers died in heavy fighting with U.S. forces on Peleliu Island in a battle that lasted about two months from September 1944.

After the war, Kinjo returned to Okinawa but found his hometown had burned down. Working for an electric power company, he rebuilt his life from scratch.

After retiring, he launched in 1983 an Okinawa association of returnees from Palau to help remember their hardships there. However, in 2007, as members grew older, the association was disbanded.

Kinjo still attends a monthly meeting of returnees from Palau, where some members say they are delighted at the planned visit to Palau this week by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. “But none of the people who worked with me on Peleliu Island are still alive,” said Kinjo.

Also among those prewar Japanese settlers in Palau were the parents of Fuyuko Hiroichi, 78, who was left in Koror and raised by a Palauan couple after the war.

Her father had worked as a tinsmith in Koror, while her mother made umbrellas to supplement the family income.

The war forced the family to flee into the jungle, Hiroichi said during an interview in Koror.

The food soon ran out, and her father and two of her siblings died of malnutrition. Her mother had no choice but to entrust Hiroichi and her two elder sisters to a native Palauan couple’s care.

As Japanese immigrants began to leave Palau for Japan after the war, Hiroichi’s two older sisters were repatriated first. But the Palauan couple refused to hand over Hiroichi to her mother despite the mother’s frequent requests, she said.

Her mother and younger brother got on the last ship for Japanese immigrants’ repatriation from Palau, leaving behind Hiroichi, who was then 8 years old.

In May 1960, 15 years after the war ended, Hiroichi visited Japan with support from the Palauan government and was reunited with her mother in Yokohama. Hiroichi’s mother and sisters had kept sending letters to Palau to ask about her whereabouts.

Her mother hugged Hiroichi and collapsed into tears, apologizing for leaving her in Palau. Hiroichi, who had children of her own by then, sympathized with her mother rather than holding any blame for her, and also cried.

But she felt that she would not be able to stay in Japan. “I had many children so my move to Japan was likely to bother my mother,” said Hiroichi. “Our customs were different. I gave up on living in Japan.”

Hiroichi met her mother three more times before she died.

She said she has accepted her war-caused separation from her family as “my destiny.”

Asked about her message to the Imperial Couple ahead of their visit to Palau, Hiroichi hesitantly said, “Return me to Japan.”