When Tomee Takahashi, 81, remembers being evacuated from Tokyo to the countryside as a child during World War II, food is all that comes to mind.
Starting in the summer of 1944, an estimated 670,000 schoolchildren were sent in groups to the countryside from Tokyo and other cities when Japan was facing the prospect of defeat in the war and preparing for U.S. air raids.
“I was able to return home safe after the war,” Takahashi said. “Possibly because I was so hungry then, nothing but food occurs to me whenever I remember it.”
Takahashi was a fifth-grader when she was sent away with her third-grader brother from Tokyo to a small village in Nagano Prefecture.
At first she welcomed it, as her parents, who ran a small lantern business, had been too busy with orders for banners for sending off soldiers to spend much time with their children.
“I felt happy about going on a long trip with friends,” she said.
But life was not easy for the evacuees. They soon became homesick.
“We badly wanted to go home but we were not allowed to complain,” Takahashi said. “All of us sobbed under blankets every night.”
Although Takahashi’s group was put up in a hot springs hotel, bathing was inadequate and the children had to endure food shortages.
A male teacher accompanying the children was like a drill sergeant, slapping boys on the cheeks as collective punishment when one of them played a prank, Takahashi recalled.
When her brother complained about hunger, the teacher threw him to the floor, yelling: “Come on! We’re at war!”
In the spring of 1945, when the presence of disabled soldiers in the local spa town became noticeable, the schoolchildren were transferred to Buddhist temples. Boys and girls were separated, and Takahashi could no longer be with her brother.
The children had to care for themselves. They planted potatoes, prepared baths, shopped and cooked.
One day, Takahashi and some other girls saw a train with an emblem showing that it was bound for Ueno, Tokyo. Although the train was out of service, one of the girls whispered, “We can go home if we board it.
“We then said nothing, and just stared at the train,” Takahashi recalled. “We were really sad.”