There are many heroes, both Japanese and Chinese, in Sumiko Haneda’s deeply moving documentary, “Aa Manmo Kaitakudan (A Story of Manchurian Settler Communities).”
Set in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, which was created in 1932 in northeast China, the tragic theme of the film is the destruction of millions of lives in the 13 years before Manchukuo collapsed with Japan’s World War II surrender in August 1945, and the years of suffering it brought in its wake.
One of those heroes is Chie Matsuda. After she and her husband arrived in the hinterland of the Japanese dependency as settlers, her husband — who she was never to see again — was drafted into the Kwantung Army, the Japanese military force based in the region to protect Japanese investments from attack by Chinese soldiers and partisans. In Fangzheng, some 180 km east of Harbin, her only child, a daughter, died; and she, abandoned by her country’s military, had no choice but to remain where she was.
In the late 1950s, Matsuda, who had married a local farmer and raised a family, discovered a huge number of bones in a field. Knowing they were those of Japanese settlers fleeing the area after the surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, she felt she had to do something about them.
But before I go into what, exactly, that was, a bit of background history may shed a brighter light on her story.
Japan in the 1930s expanded its empire deep into China. The exploitation of the land, chiefly for the cultivation of soybeans that Japan sold to Europe (as fats and oils) and shipped home (as animal feed and fertilizer), was the primary aim. Japan built the South Manchurian Railway (Mantetsu), which was, in its heyday — along with the company’s factories and mines — one of the country’s most profitable enterprises.
Japanese farmers were encouraged to settle in Manchukuo, and “The Settler’s Paradise,” a pamphlet issued by Mantetsu stated: “We are the apostles who descended to Manchuria from the holy land of Japan. . . . We now build a new home of the gods in a corner of north Manchuria.”
To this “home of the gods,” more than 200,000 farmers from all over Japan were lured with tales of brave pioneers, who through hard work and patriotic effort, created prosperity for their country, themselves and their families in what was known as the shintenchi (new heaven on earth).
The largest number of settlers were from Nagano Prefecture (nearly 40,000), followed by Yamagata Prefecture (about 17,000), although most prefectures saw far fewer than 10,000 leave. So, despite Japan’s goal of diluting the 30-million population of Manchuria by 10 percent, the total number of its settlers came to little more than 200,000 — less than 1 percent of the population.
“Aa Manmo Kaitakudan” tells the story of a few people among this 1 percent — some of whom were duped into settling as late as the end of May 1945, less than three months before the Red Army invaded and their lives were crushed?
Leaders of the ruthless Kwantung Army, fully aware by mid-1943 that the war was not running in their favor, began to draft settlers into their ranks. Men who had moved to Manchukuo to farm, teach or perform administrative duties suddenly found themselves locked in battle with Chinese regulars. Then, from 1944, the army started recruiting underage boys in its so-called nekosogi (scrape-the-bottom) policy.
Haneda’s film takes up the story of a number of Japanese families, many of whom were forced to kill or abandon their babies and toddlers as they fled for their lives after the surrender. Some of the incidents recalled by survivors in the film are among the most heartrending that I have ever witnessed on film.
However, these stories are not only about Japanese settlers. Chinese farming families who took in abandoned Japanese children and brought them up as their own are also depicted here. And how Japan doubly abandoned those children by not welcoming them back to their homeland after they grew up, or failed to provide for them if they did somehow manage to return, exposes one of the nastier stains on the social fabric of peaceful postwar Japan.
Now back to Matsuda’s achievement.
She and the local people of Fangzheng, which had been a center of settlement in the colony, gathered all of the bones and, over three days, burnt them for burial. Then, in 1963, the government of Fangzheng provided funds for a grave and monument to the fleeing Japanese settlers who died, mainly of suicide or starvation. It is estimated that the grave holds the remains of 4,500 people, and it was hearing about it that gave Haneda the idea of making the film. Why, she wondered, would the Chinese do this for people who had exploited them?
During the Cultural Revolution in China that began in the mid-1960s, Matsuda was arrested, charged with being a spy, among other things, and sentenced to death. The execution would have taken place if it had not been for the intervention of Prime Minister Chou Enlai, who ordered her release.
“The people of Japan and the settlers (in China),” said Chou, “were also victims of Japanese imperialism.”
Masako Ishihara, another settler who appears in the film, tells her story: “My father and mother and we five children went to Manchuria after being told we would have rice and big crops there. We arrived on May 26, 1945. Before we knew it, the war was over. . . . I lost my parents and my sisters. Even today, I still want to ask the bureaucrats: Why did you send us to Manchuria?”
In effect, these people have been abandoned by their country ever since August 1945. As the Red Army approached Japanese settlements, officers of the Kwantung Army arranged trains for themselves and their families. They boarded the trains with masses of luggage and pillaged items as soldiers kept settlers and their families at bay. Very few trains or trucks were made available to settlers, of whom more than 5,000 died by their own hand or that of a parent. More than one-third of all settlers — 78,500 — starved to death after the defeat.
“Aa Manmo Kaitakudan” is about those who survived — and the testament they dedicate to those who didn’t.
“Aa Manmo Kaitakudan” opens at Iwanami Hall in Tokyo on June 13.