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Japanese media begins to break war orphan taboo

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Japan typically reviews the tragedy of World War II in August, focusing almost exclusively on the Japanese who died in the conflict.

As far as TV coverage goes, NHK has always led the field in terms of production quality, and this year its selection of war-related documentaries incorporated a remarkable new editorial decision. In the past, NHK was careful not to show dead bodies in its war depictions, but several programs this summer have included graphic footage that was preceded by telops warning viewers that such images will be presented.

Whatever the reason for this policy change, it’s in line with a more straightforward approach to the subject matter. In recent years, NHK has been delving more deeply into previously sensitive topics, such as the soldiers and civilians who were abandoned overseas by the Japanese government when the war ended. On Aug. 12, they broadcast an NHK special about what is perhaps the most sensitive topic of all: war orphans.

Journalist Toshio Kurihara has made a side career out of studying the Tokyo air raids of March 1945, which killed an estimated 100,000 civilians. In a March 10 article in Gendai Business, Kurihara writes about how the victims of the air raid were buried unceremoniously, without cremation.

There was “no reason for them to die in war,” he says, and blames the wartime Japanese authorities, adding that the “rights of (these) dead” have been “trampled on” because subsequent governments never properly acknowledged them as casualties of war.

Kurihara has been a vocal advocate for a lawsuit that would force the government to pay compensation to families of people killed in air raids, just as they do to families of fallen soldiers.

Among these would be the children who were left without parents and guardians when the war ended. The country was in chaos, and it was difficult for any Japanese person to get by in the years just after the surrender. However, it was especially tough on orphans, who had nowhere to go and ended up sleeping in train stations, begging for food or resorting to criminal activity to stay alive. These children were not pitied — they were vilified. The police called them “furōji,” an extremely derogatory word that was subsequently adopted by the public. They died on the streets, picked up as if they were trash. Kurihara describes an infamous 1946 “crackdown” at a number of locations in Tokyo in which more than 400 children, 70 percent aged 7 to 10, were rounded up and thrown into cells. Some of them were stark naked.

The government ignored the problem, and it wasn’t until 1948 that the former welfare ministry published an investigation into the war orphan situation, saying that there were 123,511 such children throughout Japan, though that number represented only those they could count. The survey didn’t include Okinawa, the only part of the Japanese archipelago that had seen combat. In any case, the ministry didn’t do anything with these figures, and the news media at the time didn’t cover the survey.

Surviving orphans had never had their story told, but not just because the media wasn’t interested. The orphans themselves didn’t want to discuss their past. The stigma endured, even into old age. Kurihara has been looking for them, and in his article he mentions several by name.

NHK’s special, as well as recent articles by the Asahi Shimbun and others, also tell these orphans’ stories, and there is overlap since the same people tend to appear. Most are still reluctant to come forward. The memories are too painful but, more significantly, they learned as children to never trust society and society’s representatives, including the government and the media.

The reason for this distrust is explained in the NHK special, probably because NHK, as the nation’s public broadcaster, has better access to public records. The government had its hands full after the war with returning soldiers and massive unemployment, so the policy was to place orphans in the homes of relatives, no matter how distant. However, many of these families didn’t want them and often forced them out.

The situation before the surrender was very different, or, at least, it was for children of men killed in battle. They were treated as the offspring of heroes and celebrated in the newspapers when the government brought them to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo to pray for their fathers’ souls. That all changed once the war machine shut down.

The Americans were complicit. The postwar Occupation authority was alarmed at the number of street children and demanded local governments immediately do something about it without paying much attention to what they did. This is when the notorious crackdowns that Kurihara mentioned started. Since there were no facilities for orphans, they were kept in cages. (The similarities to the United States’ current “zero tolerance” immigration policy in terms of attitude toward children is sobering.) Living hand-to-mouth in the disease-ridden stations was better, so many escaped, or at least tried to.

Even as conditions improved for society in general, the situation for many war orphans did not. Average people viewed them as a public menace and there was no incentive to help them. NHK reveals that some eventually became career criminals because, as one wrote while on death row, “living and stealing” were one and the same to him.

The stories in the NHK special had relatively happy endings. A man blinded by malnutrition as an adolescent later met a teacher who helped him get an education. Another orphan became a teacher himself, and still another eventually married and had children, although she kept her past as an eki no ko (station child) a secret from her husband his whole life.

These people understand the meaning of their tales: Children have suffered the horrors of war as long as there has been war, but when that suffering is exacerbated by deliberate, unchecked neglect, it indicates a lack of basic human decency, regardless of what enabled it. No wonder society has never wanted to talk about it.