The orphans of Manchukuo

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 December, 2011, 12:00am


Noriko Suzuki remembers with horror the last days of the second world war. The 16-year-old was part of a settlement of Japanese farmers in Inner Mongolia. When the Soviet army invaded the region, on August 9, 1945, she and the other Japanese fled.

'Our leader ordered mothers to strangle their children to stop them crying and give away our location to the Soviets. They shut their eyes, wrapped their hands around their children's necks and did as they were told. As their babies went silent, the women screamed. They appeared to go insane,' she says.

Suzuki was one of 330,000-plus Japanese who were settled on 860 farms across Manchuria and Inner Mongolia from 1931 to 1945. When a Soviet army of 1.7 million troops, with 5,000 tanks and 5,300 aircraft, attacked the region, they were abandoned by their own army.

The weeks that followed were episodes from hell. Most of the young men from the settlements had been conscripted into the Japanese military, leaving the women, children and old people to fend for themselves. The men who remained attempted to resist the Soviets but they were either killed or exiled to Siberia.

Many settlers took their own lives, some in collective suicides in the schools and community halls they had built. Women feared rape by Soviet soldiers; many believed they had no country to return to. Parents who fled abandoned their children or gave them to Chinese families: 4,000 of these became the 'Japanese orphans'.

Of the Japanese farmers who had settled in the region, 80,000 died. Those who were not killed succumbed to disease, starvation or suicide. They were the victims of the ambition of their military leaders.

Suzuki was one of the thousands left behind. She took a Chinese husband and together they raised five children. In 1978, after an absence of 35 years, she returned to Japan, aged 49, and began a new life.

'We were stranded in China because of the policies of our government,' she says. 'It abandoned us at the end of the war. We want our lost rights as Japanese back.'

JAPAN'S PLAN TO SETTLE Manchuria began within months of its victory over Tsarist Russia in the war of 1904-05, which gave it a 25-year lease on Dalian, in present-day Liaoning province, and the peninsula around it, as well as the southern half of the China Far East Railway, from Changchun down to Dalian.

The instrument for this colonisation was the South Manchuria Railway Company (SMRC), established with a capital of 200 million yen to operate the railroad and develop settlements and industries along the route.

'Over the next 10 years, we should settle at least 500,000 Japanese in Manchuria,' declared SMRC president Shinpei Goto in June 1908. 'If possible, there should be over one million. If we can achieve a large transfer of population there, Manchuria will become the land of the empire.'

Goto wanted to model the SMRC on the British East India Company. The firm moved quickly, extracting coal and shale oil, and building steel mills and factories producing ceramics, flour, sugar, chemicals and glass; it built harbours and warehouses. Its assets rose from 163 million yen in 1908 to more than one billion yen by 1930, making it by far the largest corporation in Japan and the most profitable, with rates of return of up to 45 per cent a year. In the 1920s, it provided more than 25 per cent of the tax revenue of the Japanese government. Amid soaring global demand for soya bean oil and soymeal for fertiliser and animal feed, the company honed in on the soya market and, by 1927, Manchuria was providing half the world's supply of soya beans.

Along the railway line, the SMRC built towns with dazzling architecture, urban planning, public parks and modern sewage systems far in advance of anything that existed in Japan. Its Asia Express, which ran between Dalian and Changchun, reached a top speed of 134km/h and was the fastest train in the world.

The company encouraged mass immigration by Japanese, to work as architects, school teachers, doctors, nurses, businessmen and railway and hotel workers. By 1930, there were 210,000 Japanese residents in the towns and cities of Manchuria; by 1940, there were one million.

Japan, however, realised it would not control Manchuria unless it settled the land as well as the cities. This colonisation began in March 1915, when 40 Japanese farmers took up residence in houses in Jinzhou county, on the outskirts of Dalian. They took over 670 hectares of land and renamed the area after the two villages in Yamaguchi prefecture from which they had come. Japanese police did not allow Chinese to enter the area.

A poor harvest in the first year, however, saw most of the farmers return home. Over the next 16 years, the Kwantung army, an Imperial Japanese Army group with 24 divisions and 780,000 men, tried many ways, including the offer of money, to persuade Japanese farmers to move to the area. By 1931, however, fewer than 1,000 had done so. The Manchurian summer was short and hot while the winter was long, with temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius; the land and climate were both unfamiliar and - with a hostile Chinese population - unappealing to Japanese farmers.

Things changed after the Japanese military conquest of September 1931, following the Mukden Incident, which was engineered as a pretext to invade Chinese territory, and the establishment of the puppet government of Manchukuo, which covered Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia. In January 1932, at a meeting in Shenyang, the Kwantung army decided to introduce settlers who had been given military training. They would be able to protect themselves and serve as army reserves. They would stay for two years and then bring over their families.

On October 1932, the first group - 492 demobilised soldiers - left Tokyo and were taken to a farm near Jiamusi, on the Songhua river, Heilongjiang province. The settlement was named 'the village of prosperity'. After an attack on the compound by anti-Japanese guerillas, the villagers built a wall three metres high and two metres thick, with a moat and barbed wire. The residents carried weapons, which women and children were trained to use.

Inside the compound they built a school, a hospital, shops, a grain-processing plant, a veterinary room: a small Japanese community.

The second group, of 455 people, arrived in July 1933. By 1935, there were five settlements.

In March 1936, the cabinet of Prime Minister Koki Hirota adopted a plan, as one of seven major objectives of the government, under which one million families - a total of five million people - would emigrate to Manchuria over the next 20 years. That was 7 per cent of the entire Japanese population. As with those of Portugal, Spain, Britain and France, the colony was seen as a place in which to dispose of surplus people and reduce pressure on the land at home.

The settlement of rural Manchukuo became a national project. Nearly 100,000 young people were chosen as pioneers and given three months of agricultural and military training; they began to move to their new homes in June 1938.

The military's methods in taking over land and property were often brutal; they seized ownership deeds and burnt them, and ordered the residents to leave. If the residents refused to leave, the military burnt down their houses. The indigenous farmers fled to surrounding, often mountainous, areas, with poor soil, and lived in makeshift homes. Lacking adequate food and warmth, many died.

The Japanese government launched a huge propaganda campaign, presenting Manchukuo as a fertile land, devoid of people, where farmers could have plots of land larger than any they could expect at home. It painted the colony as a place where Chinese, Koreans, Manchus, Mongolians and Japanese lived in peace and harmony. The Ministry of Colonial Affairs gathered large numbers of young women to marry the settlers. It promised would-be farmers that, if they settled in Manchukuo, they would not have to enlist in the army.

The government chose as places of settlement areas that had anti-Japanese armed resistance and those close to the border with the Soviet Union, where they could serve as a line of defence against an attack.

The migration never reached the targeted amount, however. There were simply not enough people willing to migrate.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government reneged on its promise and many of the migrants were enlisted into the military; men as young as 16 and as old as 45 were called up. There were not enough Japanese men left in Manchukuo to farm the land; instead, the settlers leased it to Chinese and lived off the rents.

Nonetheless, migration continued until the end of the war. As late as April 1945, when defeat was imminent, 1,056 farmers migrated. Between 1915 and 1945, a total of 331,000 Japanese farmers moved to Manchuria. They were among the 1.43 million Japanese in the region at the end of the second world war.

Like most Japanese, the settlers were kept in the dark about how the war was unfolding.

Senei Matsuda, a settler in Yilan county, Heilongjiang, described in her memoirs the events of August 15, 1945: 'That morning I went to cut grass. When I returned, we were all told to gather at the headquarters of the settlement. We were told that Japan had surrendered and that we should prepare to leave immediately, go to Harbin and back home. Except for the settlement leader, there was only one man left. When we heard the news, it was as if the sky had gone black. It was so sudden. We could not believe that it was true. This had happened in front of our eyes; we were completely blind.'

Matsuda was lucky; she and her daughter managed to escape with their lives. In Huachuan county, Heilongjiang, the settlement leader and the army gathered 1,600 settlers - men, women and children - in 20 rooms and set them alight. They also threw grenades and raked the rooms with machine gun fire. Few survived. In Fangzheng county, Heilongjiang, 82 settlers killed themselves with guns and fire.

In Boli county, Heilongjiang, on August 26, 1945 - 10 days after the surrender - settlers shot down a Soviet aircraft, killing two pilots. Enraged, the Soviet army killed 700 Japanese, while 500 more took their own lives.

Male settlers captured by the Soviets were sent to Siberian hard-labour camps. Those left behind were the elderly, women and children. Terrified that the Chinese would seek revenge, they fled, avoiding the main roads and travelling by night on rural tracks. Many died of disease or hunger.

Unable to provide adequate food, mothers entrusted their children to Chinese families or abandoned them. About 4,000 children were taken in by local households. Japanese women who had given up hope of finding their husbands married Chinese men; they included Matsuda, who married a farmer in Fangzheng, Heilongjiang, and bore him a daughter.

In 1963, with the approval of China's State Council, the county government of Fangzheng built a cemetery for the Japanese. In later years, ashes of other settlers who had died or committed suicide elsewhere were taken there. It is the only such cemetery in China.

IN THEIR NEW RURAL families, the orphans grew up as Chinese, speaking Putonghua, going to local schools and hiding their origin for fear of persecution. During the Cultural Revolution, many destroyed photographs, identity cards and other items that linked them to their Japanese parents.

It was only after Beijing and Tokyo established diplomatic relations, in 1972, that those left behind could consider going to their 'mother' country - a place they had never seen and knew almost nothing about.

The orphans first had to prove their identity to Japanese diplomats, an often difficult task since most could remember little of their parents and had scant evidence of their real identity. The first repatriations came in the mid-70s. It was not an easy homecoming.

After arriving in Tokyo, they were housed in a reception centre and their identities broadcast in the media; relatives were invited to come forward to 'claim' them. Brothers, sisters and even parents came forward; reunions were highly emotional affairs.

After the initial intensity wore off, though, each side realised how distant they had become from the other. The orphans were, except for their Japanese origins, rural Chinese, from a society and environment a world away from the highly competitive and regulated life of Japan. Most could not speak Japanese while their relatives knew no Putonghua.

Having grown up in Maoist China, the orphans were ill equipped for work in Japan, where education and qualifications have long been essential tools for life. A few went to live with their relatives; most lived on their own. Many Japanese did not want to be associated with their estranged relatives - because they could not communicate with them, they did not regard them as Japanese and feared claims on their assets. Many relatives had raised another family, who did not welcome the arrival of the previous one.

Society did not consider the returned orphans to be true Japanese, but rather migrants from China. The government gave them a monthly welfare payment of 20,000 to 30,000 yen, a fraction of the monthly living cost for a Tokyo resident. They were forced to live off social security and other welfare payments.

In 2003, more than 600 orphans filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government, claiming it bore responsibility for their having been left behind and each claiming 33 million yen in compensation. By 2006, more than 2,100 orphans had filed suits.

In December 2006, a court in Tokyo ordered the government to pay 7.7 million yen each to 61 orphans, but other courts dismissed the claims, saying that while the government had moral responsibility, it had no legal obligation to pay.

Those who found it hardest to adjust were the elderly, the poorly educated and those who had never learnt Japanese.

Among the few who received a good education was Isamu Endo, who was five at the end of the war and living in a Japanese refugee camp. His mother died and he was adopted by a Chinese family named Liu in Fangzheng; they gave him the name Liu Changhe. His adopted father was a carpenter and the family had a relatively comfortable lifestyle.

Liu - or Endo - graduated with a degree in Russian from Heilongjiang University, in Harbin, and became a teacher at a secondary school in the city. In 1974, he moved with his wife and two children to Tokyo, where he set up a trading company. At his request, his adoptive parents also moved, but, unable to adjust to life in Japan, they returned home.

Endo returns each year to see them. He has made donations to the school and government of Fangzheng. In July 1995, he donated 130,000 yuan to build a cemetery for the Chinese who adopted the orphans. He wrote an inscription at the entrance: 'We will never forget the debt we owe our adoptive parents.'

'In the 70s, the Japanese government had no co-ordinated policy for the orphans, so few went back. In the 80s, with the remarkable growth of its economy, it became very attractive to the orphans,' he says.

In 1982, Suzuki, 82, a retired dressmaker and cleaning woman, set up a group to advise the orphans on everyday life and teach them Japanese. Since she had been registered in China as a Japanese citizen and was recognised by her brother and sister on her return, her repatriation was relatively easy. Her brother had stayed in Japan during the war; her sister had returned from China a few years after the war.

She was 14 when she arrived with her family in a village in Inner Mongolia in July 1943. For four generations, it had run a wholesale vegetable business in central Tokyo. Her parents died of illness over the next two years. She married her Chinese husband in 1950. When she returned to the land of her birth, her husband, their children and their families followed her to Japan.

'We were victims of our government's policy,' she says. 'Japan abandoned us at the end of the war and failed to provide us with sufficient support after we resettled.'

Nearly 80 years after the mass migration, the descendants of the settlers are still paying the price for the ambition of those Japanese military rulers.