At a language class earlier this year for war-displaced Japanese left behind in China as children at the end of World War II, Tsuyako Suzuki was suddenly reminded that it had been exactly 29 years since she managed to make it to the country of her parents.
Suzuki was attending the class in Yokohama with three other elderly female war orphans, and the instructor was teaching seasonal customs. When the instructor explained that Jan. 7 is a day for eating rice porridge with seven herbs, Suzuki found herself blurting out: “That’s the date when I arrived in Japan.”
Suzuki, 71, was born in January 1944 to Japanese parents who had emigrated to Manchuria in northeast China. Following Japan’s surrender to the Allies in August 1945, she and her parents, like many other Japanese settlers, moved to a refugee camp in Ning’an, Heilongjiang province.
Suzuki and her mother fell ill, and when her mother died, her father decided he could not bring her back to Japan and left her with a childless Chinese couple. He wrote down her name, date of birth and other information on a piece of paper for them.
Suzuki, who was given the name Yang Yanhua, says her foster parents were not kind to her. The family was poor and Suzuki’s education was limited to just four years of elementary school.
When she was 5 or 6 years old, she learned for the first time from hearing her neighbors talk that she was Japanese. She then began to imagine what Japan was like and wanted to see her real father, though she sometimes resented him. It was her dreams of going to Japan that made life possible to endure.
Her foster mother later gave birth to three boys, and Suzuki was kept busy by household chores. The toughest time was winter, when she had to wake up at 5 a.m. amid temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees. One of her jobs was to fire a stove under the floor, using coal she gathered around a nearby power plant. If she failed to gather enough coal, she was kicked in the leg.
She recalled wishing at the time that she could die like her real mother did.
At 29, Suzuki married a man recommended by a relative of her foster family. To her relief, he was kind and hardworking, unlike her foster father.
When Suzuki told her husband that she wanted to resettle in Japan sometime in the future, he said he would spend the rest of his life with her in Japan. When she was 42, she arrived with her husband and two daughters.
Japan felt like “my country that I had come back to at long last,” Suzuki said. But while her dream of resettling came true, her new life has been a struggle because of the language barrier and her failure to track down her relatives.
Suzuki feels like she belongs nowhere, neither in China nor Japan. Back in China, people would talk about her behind her back as a Japanese girl, while in Japan, she sometimes feels an icy stare as a Chinese. Nonetheless, she is happy in her ancestral country.
Some 28 years after relocating to Japan, she found a part-time job at an auto parts plant where she was cold-shouldered by coworkers as a Chinese.
While Suzuki herself was too busy to learn Japanese, her two daughters, who were of elementary school age when the family relocated to Japan, quickly picked up the language. Suzuki’s husband, who had begun studying Japanese before coming to Japan, even became better at speaking it than her.
“I’m sad because I’m the worst speaker,” she said with a bitter smile.
Suzuki encouraged her daughters to pursue the careers they desired because her Chinese foster parents had never allowed her to finish elementary school.
Her daughters listened to her and studied hard, making her believe that she had made the right decision to live in Japan.
But her younger daughter, who had been a weak child, was diagnosed with a brain tumor soon after the family moved to Japan. Hospitalized on and off, she continued to study and managed to pass a university entrance examination. After developing trouble walking alone, however, she passed away in October 1999 at the age of 21.
Suzuki’s husband, meanwhile, developed Parkinson’s disease around 2005 and died in November 2010. Out of gratitude to him, Suzuki took good care of him at home, as he wished, until his death.
Suzuki accepted the deaths of her daughter and husband as “fate.” She now enjoys attending Japanese class once a week and has learned how to use a personal computer.
Her studying has paid off. Suzuki at first could only roughly grasp the meaning of her younger daughter’s Japanese diary. But two years ago, she happened to come across it again while cleaning her home and, leafing through it, understood her daughter’s feelings for the first time.
Her daughter had thought of committing suicide because of her tough battle with her illness but refrained from doing so as “not to let my mother down,” she wrote. “It is good for me to be sick because I have come to understand other people’s minds.”
The daughter also wrote that she wanted to become a counselor and that there was a man she was attracted to. As she grew sicker, she was unable to write in her diary by hand and used a PC instead. Suzuki is filled with grief whenever she thinks of her daughter’s battle with disease.
The husband and daughter are buried in China’s Heilongjiang province and Suzuki has already had her name inscribed on their tombstone. But she wants her ashes to be scattered in the sea between Japan and China when she dies, she said.