Abandoned Japanese in Postwar Manchuria: The Lives of War Orphans and Wives in Two Countries

Abandoned Japanese in Postwar Manchuria: The Lives of War Orphans and Wives in Two Countries by Yeeshan Chan, Routledge (Japan Anthropology Workshop Series), 2011, 208 pages, £85.00, ISBN: 0415591813

This is a superbly researched work about the lives and experiences of the Japanese women and children who were abandoned in Manchuria at the end of the Second World War. The sheer force and tragedy of most of the individual case studies makes it compelling reading. For example, in 1945 a seven year old boy, Morita, was trapped in Manchuria, his mother was killed in a Soviet attack, his father was captured and shipped to Siberia. He found himself in a harsh refugee camp from where he was adopted by a poor Chinese family and began a life of hardship and violence. He was repatriated to Japan in 1985 with his wife and four children, but even then their lives were difficult and Mr Morita eventually died of a heart attack in 1994. It remained tough for his family after his death as a few extracts from the Morita family saga illustrate. His daughter, Kasumi’s mental health deteriorated after his death, so the mother arranged for her to marry a Chinese man, “but after a few months Kasumi’s husband ran away with their savings, aggravating Kasumi’s mental condition. At about the same time, the youngest son’s [Chinese] wife divorced him the day after her application for permanent residency was approved (page 73).” The book contains many more turbulent individual case studies and family histories which illustrate the harsh lives of these people who straddle the gulf between China and Japan.

This group of abandon Japanese is generally referred to as the zanryu-hojin (残留邦人). Children are specifically referred to as zanryu-koji

(残留孤児) meaning abandon war orphans. Most were adopted by poor Chinese peasant families and absorbed into the local population. Some “led their lives as ordinary Chinese without knowing their background as adopted children or Japanese orphans until they were told in their forties, fifties, or even sixties (page 30).” The Japanese women trapped in Manchuria often had no choice but to marry a local to survive the ensuing postwar chaos.  They often suffered great poverty and other hardships in an environment where “wife-beating was common (page 94).” This group are referred to as zanryu-fujin (残留婦人) or stranded war-wives.

While in the 1950s there were some attempts to repatriate these people, many children were ignorant of their Japanese heritage. Most of the women had children with their new Chinese husbands and could not abandon their offspring and families, which was the price of repatriation. The Japanese state therefore concluded that these women “chose” to remain in China and it was not until later decades that their real plight and suffering was recognized. The example of Shizuko illustrates this dilemma (page 28). She visited Japan in 1967 and wanted to stay to look after her sick mother, but this would have meant abandoning her four daughters in China at a time of great chaos, so she was compelled to return to China. At the time the Japanese state viewed such cases as “merely a woman who had married a foreigner and thus given up her Japanese nationality (page 27).” Yuriko Sakamoto’s story (pages 82 -84) highlights a different set of issues. She was trapped in Manchuria, while her husband was captured by the Soviets and survived several years of harsh treatment in Siberia before being repatriated to Japan. He searched for Yuriko, but presumed she was dead and reluctantly remarried. Only later did he discover she was alive and had also remarried having five children. However, because they had married outside Japan proper, the Japanese state did not recognize their marriage as legitimate and she was classified has having “chosen” to give up her Japanese citizenship.  Her former Japanese husband wanted to get back together with her, but this was not possible and he eventually committed suicide in despair. She was eventually able to come to Japan in 1977 with her Chinese family.

Many of these unfortunate zanryu-hojin individuals were declared “war dead” in 1959 by the Japanese government who removed 30,000 names of the “missing” from family registries (page 26). At the same time, the Chinese government estimated the number of living abandoned Japanese to be about 13,000. Many of these people were effectively cut off from all contact with Japan until the 1970s, and most endured incredible hardship.

When Japan re-establish diplomatic relations with mainland China in 1972, the dynamics of the situation slowly began to change and gradually the zanryu-hojin were repatriated to Japan, often along with several generations of their extended Chinese families. Shifts in government policy over the decades have allowed more of these people to enter with their families and to resettle in Japan. Today it is estimated that they number at least 100,000 people (page 53). This is a significant figure and is having an impact on both Japan and China. These families are binding the two countries together and will no doubt have a long term impact on Sino-Japanese relations.  The overseas remittances this community sends to towns in northeast China has also had a massive effect which the study charts.

The book also explores how the zanryu-hojin view themselves in the context of their dual national identities. The author, Yeeshan Chan, who describes herself as a “Hong Kong citizen holding an Australian passport (page 9),” managed to gain the confidence of this community, producing many fascinating insights from her informants. She analyzes how they identify themselves, and relate to Japan, China and different groups within each country. For example, she observes that in Tokyo the zanryu-hojin, “seemed to face more severe discriminatory attitudes from other types of Chinese migrants than they did from the mainstream Japanese (page 96).” There is also some excellent theoretical analysis, but for me the most compelling sections are the gripping case studies that depict the tremendous suffering and tragedy of these people.

Yeeshan Chan is to be commended for having produced such a substantive and impressively researched work which makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the zanryu-hojin and the impact this community is having on the people of both nations.

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