It was when Hisao Mesaki, now 85, returned to Japan from Saipan in early 1941 with his parents and siblings that an offhand remark to his new classmates aroused suspicion he was from a family of spies.
They had been living in Saipan since the spring of 1940, with Mesaki’s father working in the shipping industry. But they were told by the Japanese government to return, as Tokyo was preparing for war with the United States and Britain in addition to the ongoing conflict with China. Pacific islands including Saipan were likely to become battlefields.
When he entered a Tokyo elementary school as a second-grader, Mesaki was asked by his classmates why he returned to Japan. Without thinking too much about it, he repeated what he had heard from his parents: “We left because Japan is soon going to war with the United States and Britain.”
Since most Japanese at the time did not think the nation would enter a new war, the rumor that the Mesaki family were spies spread quickly. His father, suspected of having information on enemy countries, was detained for about a month for allegedly violating the Maintenance of Public Order Law.
Mesaki remembers his father being bedridden for about three weeks after he came home, possibly due to harsh and even violent interrogations.
For roughly three months, officials of the Special Higher Police — a police force known as tokkō that investigated political groups and ideologies deemed to be a threat to public order — kept watch over the family.
But according to Mesaki, what was most intolerable was how people around him treated his family. Someone scribbled “spy’s house” on the wall of his home, and stones, feces, animal carcasses and even fire-lit straw were thrown inside. All of the family members, including his mother and younger brother, were verbally attacked, branded hikokumin (traitors) or told to die. At school, a teacher placed red tape on Mesaki’s mouth in the shape of an X mark.
His mother, who became mentally unstable, brought a rope and asked the family to die together by hanging themselves.
Soon after the Pacific War began in December 1941, the family moved to Nagoya. “Because of what I said casually, my family was on the verge of committing suicide,” Mesaki said.
In Nagoya, neighbors accepted the family warmly, although some were aware of why they moved there. But Mesaki recalls that near the end of the war, when children including him were told to take part in a military drill, a serviceman supervising the drill said, “There is one person with a crooked mind” and hit Mesaki with a wooden stick.
Mesaki, a resident of Nagoya’s Kita Ward who used to work for the Aichi Prefectural Government, said that even after the war ended, he always felt restless when he visited Tokyo for work or pleasure.
Although he had long kept silent about his experience because of his regret for what he had said, Mesaki said that considering his age he had decided to speak up for the first time.
“I only want young people to listen to my story and think about what should be done so that society will never again become abnormal like before and during the war,” Mesaki said.
This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on Aug. 12.