Lost inside Japan's crumbling empire

Mr Yohachi Nakajima holding a picture of his Chinese adopted parents, at his home in Tokyo. He returned to Japan when he was 16 and could speak only once to his adoptive mother before her death.
Mr Yohachi Nakajima holding a picture of his Chinese adopted parents, at his home in Tokyo. He returned to Japan when he was 16 and could speak only once to his adoptive mother before her death.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When Tokyo surrendered on Aug 15, 1945, 1.5m Japanese were stranded in Manchukuo

TOKYO • Now 73 and sitting in his Tokyo home, Mr Yohachi Nakajima fights back tears when he thinks of his Chinese adoptive mother and the farming village he once called home - a boy lost inside imperial Japan's crumbling empire.

He was just three years old when Tokyo surrendered on Aug 15, 1945, ending World War II but also leaving about 1.5 million Japanese stranded in Manchukuo, Tokyo's puppet regime in north-eastern China.

Farmers, labourers and young military reservists had migrated into the region from the early 1930s, attracted by government promises of a better life as Japan marched across Asia in an expansionist campaign.

Mr Nakajima's father Hiroshi was among those drawn to Manchukuo, but the frontier life proved miserable and he was drafted into the military just three weeks before Japan's surrender. His fate is unknown.

Ill and poverty-stricken, Mr Nakajima's mother sought out a local family to care for her son.

"Japan was an invader for them, clearly," said Mr Nakajima, who now lives in Tokyo. "It must have been pure humanity that convinced them to adopt and raise me, a child of the aggressor."

The malnourished boy, stomach bulging from starvation, was brought into the centre of the village as curious locals looked on.

One woman, Mrs Sun Zhenqin, volunteered to be his guardian and soon gave her scrawny charge a new name, "Lai Fu" (good luck coming). "She would feed me from her mouth and gently massage my stomach," Mr Nakajima said. "She was a midwife. It must have been almost on impulse that she took me in."

After Emperor Hirohito announced his country's surrender, the situation for Japanese migrants trapped in north-eastern China deteriorated, with tens of thousands dying of hunger and disease as a frigid winter set in later in the year.

Some migrants-turned-refugees resorted to mass suicide, cramming into small houses that they blew up with grenades, while roving groups of sword-wielding male migrants stabbed women and children to death to end their suffering. It is believed that just a handful of children were adopted by local families. Many others died of starvation or sickness.

The mother of Mr Sun Shouxun, 58, a Chinese man who now lives in the north-eastern city of Changchun, was one of those who took in a Japanese child. Mr Sun described his adopted Japanese sister as "a pearl in the palm" for his loving parents.

"Public opinion at the time was rather strong against raising a Japanese child and our relatives also opposed it, but my mother insisted," he said. It is not known exactly how many Japanese children found new homes in China like Mr Nakajima and Mr Sun's sister, but Tokyo has confirmed just over 2,800.

Mr Nakajima returned to Japan when he was 16 and afterwards spoke just once with his adoptive mother, in 1966, during a trip to China. However, the country, by then in the grip of the Cultural Revolution, was largely closed to foreigners. He only made brief contact by phone with his adoptive mother - who could only shout "Lai Fu! Lai Fu!" before the call was cut off.

The two never talked again and Mrs Sun Zhenqin died in 1975.

Tokyo's efforts to repatriate those left behind in China began only several years after 1972, when it normalised ties with Beijing.

Children were not the only ones missing - there were also young women who had been dispatched as "bride candidates" to marry migrants. Ms Fumiko Nishino, 88, was one of them. She and her two sisters eventually found passage home, but Ms Nishino - who had twin baby girls with a Chinese soldier by that time - refused to board the ship.

"I lost contact - no phone calls, no letters - with my Japanese family for years afterwards," she said. "When I finally returned home to Japan (in the mid-1970s) there was a grave that said I was dead at 19."

"I pushed over the gravestone and destroyed it, crying and laughing at the same time with my family." Japan's welfare ministry said just over 4,150 women like Ms Nishino returned home while many others make occasional visits.

Mr Reimei Sakuma, 72, was the child of a Japanese soldier. Adopted and raised in a Chinese family, he initially returned to Japan in 1986 and later settled there permanently.

Mr Sakuma also found his name on a gravestone erected by his Japanese kin - in part due to government policy. In 1959 Japan declared that nearly 20,000 Japanese left overseas since the war - mostly in China - were dead or did not intend to return - abandoning them for a second time.

Mr Nakajima was one of the lucky ones. He reunited with his birth mother, who had also made it back home, and they remained close until her death at 98. But the kindness of Mrs Sun and other villagers is one of the memories forever etched on Mr Nakajima's mind.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2015, with the headline 'Lost inside Japan's crumbling empire'. Print Edition | Subscribe