Reiko Nakai was shocked when her father told her on his deathbed that she had been adopted.
“Your parents are Japanese,” she quoted him as saying as tears rolled down his face. Half an hour later, he was dead.
Nakai, 72, was 28 years old at the time. Her parents were so loving that it never occurred to her that she might have been adopted. Her father was a popular professional storyteller and the family was well off. Her mother was an excellent cook and took good care of her, dressing her up and combing her hair every morning until she got married at 19.
After her father passed, her mother said they had bought her for about 100 yuan from an opium-addicted woman when she was around 2 years old. The parents were given no information except that her biological parents were Japanese.
After revealing this secret kept deep in her mind for so many years, Nakai’s mother passed away three months after her husband.
Nakai became so eager to meet her real parents that she repeatedly wrote to the Japanese government to seek permission to resettle in Japan as a war-displaced child and submitted several related documents to the Chinese government.
Nakai lost her job as an elementary school teacher after China’s decade-long Cultural Revolution began around 1966. Her husband, from a wealthy farming family, was forced to work as a carrier of lumber from mountain forests. Nakai wanted to start a new life.
Tokyo recognized Nakai in 1985 as an orphaned Japanese who had been left in China after the war. As she didn’t know her real name, she decided to call herself Reiko Nakai.
Her last name was derived from the kanji for China, pronounced naka in Japanese, and the kanji for water well, pronounced i, to signify Japan’s wealth. Her first name combines rei, from her Chinese name, with ko, a Japanese character often found at the end of Japanese women’s names.
Nakai decided on the name because “China, Japan and my adoptive parents always exist within my mind,” she said.
Nakai relocated to Japan with her husband and three adult children in April 1987. Her lack of fluency caused hardships at work, especially during a two-year period when she lived apart from her family to be a live-in cook at an orphanage in the town of Hayama, Kanagawa Prefecture.
“Why can’t I speak the Japanese language even as a Japanese?” Nakai remembers thinking bitterly alone in her lodgings. “If it hadn’t been for the war, I could have had a better life.”
But her sadness was somewhat eased by her view of the sea at the orphanage. There was no sea in China’s Jilin Province where she grew up. “Big waves, small waves. . . . It’s like me, isn’t it?” she thought as she reflected on her life so far.
On the beach, young people allowed her to join them in drinking beer and lighting fireworks.
Nakai now likes to write in Japanese to former colleagues at the orphanage. “I want to thank them for teaching me lots of things,” she said.