An Orphan of Manchuria

When the sensei declared the school day over, the children ran out into the hot August afternoon. Nine year old Masao Nakajima did what he always did. He ran across the small town to the edge of the airbase, where his father was the commander. Masao loved aeroplanes; he loved his father, the two inextricable in his affections.

He would stand at the gate looking in awe at the fighter planes lined up at the runway’s edge, hoping he would see them scramble into the afternoon sky.      But not today.    Today the airfield was deserted, there was not a truck or a plane or a person to be seen

He didn’t understand what was going on. Masao ran to his house near the airfield.

He got ready to have the evening meal with his family. Again, something else he didn’t understand was going on. His father was in full ceremonial Japanese military uniform, his mother, reserved and beautiful was wearing her best kimono. Not a word was said during the meal. Masao thought he could see his mother holding back tears. His father was stiff and formal. Something had changed. He and his little sister dare not look at each other. After eating, they were sent to bed.

In his bed, Masao heard his father leave the house.

He went to sleep that night, the privileged son of an officer in the Japanese Imperial Air Force, who commanded an airbase near Harbin, the only home that Masao knew, and awoke to a world in chaos.

The sounds of shouting and commotion, made him leap from the bed to the window where he saw people running around in a kind of controlled frenzy. Cars loaded with boxes and bags and too many people, honked and weaved through the crowds. His mother came into the room and made him dress quickly. She told him that there was no time for explanations, but that they had to leave, and they had to leave now!

In the kitchen, his mother had tied a stack of lacquer wood food boxes in a scarf.  She grabbed them, then slung a bag over her back, took her children in hand and led them out into the street where, what seemed to him, the entire population of the world was on the move.

What Masao didn’t understand, couldn’t be expected to understand; was why his whole world was suddenly coming apart.   It was August 1945 and the liberating Soviet Army was swarming down from the roof of the world into the vast Chinese province of Manchuria to eject the Japanese who had occupied it since 1931. Within a week, the Soviets had killed, captured or dispersed over 3 million Japanese military & civilians.

Japanese Troops Surrender to the Soviet Army

They were to catch a train south to the port of Dalian where they might be able to get a ship across the Yellow Sea back to Japan. At the station there was barely concealed panic, but somehow, amid the struggling hoard they managed to get on a train.

During the sluggish journey, the train was ambushed by Russian troops. Amid gun fire and screaming, Masao’s mother made him climb through a window of the train. The last words she said to him were “run and “hide”

He hid in some bushes close to the railway line. He stayed put until the carnage was over and all was quiet. He walked through the burning train, stepping amongst the dead and crying. Many of the passengers had fled and not finding his mother, Masao assumed she and his sister must have escaped. Setting off down the railway line in the direction of travel, he continued his journey on foot.

How long Masao walked will never be known. Within a couple of days of a privileged child’s life he had become a refugee, reduced to drinking puddle water. Along the way he met a few people, they too just walking somewhere, some were Japanese and others, Chinese. They all looked forlorn and terrified. Occasionally people gave him a few scraps of food.

He met a railway worker who took him by the hand telling Masao that he would help him find his mother. But the man locked him in a shed by the railway line. He heard the railway worker telling someone outside the shed that he could sell the boy. Masao managed to break a hole in the back wall and escaped.

He slept under bushes. He did see some Russian soldiers here and there, but they paid him no mind. Just another Chinese kid.

And so it happened. Masao had mysteriously slipped from one nationality to another.

He jumped on a slow moving goods train hoping it would take him to Dalian but instead it veered west through a switch in the line, and Masao found himself near to Mongolia. Walking into a field he saw a farmer sitting eating his lunch. Seeing the boy, the farmer beckoned him over. Masao told him, in his best Chinese, of how he came to be there. The farmer gave him some food. Looking fondly on the boy, he invited him to live with him for a while. By now, Masao exhausted and depressed, was happy to be taken in and looked after. The offer of hospitality came with a stern warning: “you must never, ever reveal that you are a Japanese boy – there are people who will hurt you – and me also”

Although bemused, Masao understood enough that he should heed the warning.

In the transience of war, the Chinese farmer, unmarried and childless, was able to pass the boy off as an orphaned nephew. He settled down to a new life helping out in the fields; the days and weeks rolled into months.

The boy was enrolled in the new local school, where he did very well, never losing his love of areoplanes.  If a plane passed over head, Masao couldn’t resist pausing and watch its passing.      Two, three years rolled by and hope of escaping to Japan to find his family had all but faded.

All around him there was bitter resentment of the years spent under Japanese rule; collaborators with the Japanese were exposed almost weekly. People were beaten up and sometimes worse; killed. Houses were taken from families who prospered from the occupation. He soon understood the warning his adoptive father gave him that first day.

With the coming of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution it became even more imperative that the boy hide who he was. The whole land was in turmoil once again.

Masao was lucky, after a short spell at Technical College he was conscripted into the Red Army. With his high grades in Maths and engineering, and his expressed interest in aircraft he was transferred to flying school.

Masao as young cadet in the Red Army

Russia was supplying the new MIG 15 jet fighter to China. Masao was chosen to be one of the privileged pilots who were sent to Russia to learn the ropes on the new plane which was to become the backbone of the Chinese Air force and would soon be used in the skies above Korea.

While in Russia he heard of his adoptive father’s death. He was now truly alone

He came back to China flying one of the new Mig15 jet fighter planes. It now fell to him to train the new pilots who would engage with American planes over North Korea, so he was spared combat.

When on the ground Masao’s mother and sister were never far from his thoughts; but above the clouds it was his father at his shoulder – with a gentle hand on the joy stick. He wasn’t alone for long – he met and fell in love with a girl at his airbase. After many happy months they planned to marry. But the joy however,  was short-lived.

Masao’s commanding officer summoned him to his office and told him that he could not marry that girl!

Why ever not?   asked Masao.    Because her father was a traitor and a collaborator with the Japanese!     The Chinese officer spat the words out as though bile had issued into his mouth. He told the young man his career would be finished. No one would be his friend, privileges would be lost.

Masao and his new found love.

There was an upside to the situation, his commander told him. He was  to be promoted to command a squadron of new recruits and was to be stationed at airbase far away, where he could continue his promising career and slowly forget about the girl. He had no choice but to accept. Within a week, he was standing at the entrance to a small air station in a modest town close to the city of Harbin, where those few years before, his real father had been the commander. He could tell no one.

He met another woman, married and had children; but not a day went by when he didn’t think of his mother and sister, when he wouldn’t wonder where his father had gone after he left the house the night of the strained evening meal, never to return. Every day the girl who had been denied to him was added to the litany of loss that Masao silently carried with him.

The years slipped by, the Cultural Revolution gave way to the new Chinese Capitalism and there came a thawing of Sino-Japanese relations. One of the many bits of unfinished business between the two countries was the Orphans left behind in 1945. If anyone could demonstrate that they were between 1 and 16 years old and were left behind by their Japanese families then they could go home at government expense.

Hundreds of people, now in their later years, came out of the shadows, and enrolled in the “Relocation” programme, Masao was amongst them. He invited his wife to go with him to Japan, but she was not interested much in Masao and even less in his quest to find his family. So, with little regret, he left her behind and arrived in Tokyo with a group of other lost children.

And so it happened again; he slipped back from one nationality to another.

Returning lost children are greeted by volunteer helpers and the press in Tokyo

Housed in dormitories, that were built for the athletes of the 1966 Tokyo Olympics, these Orphans of Manchuria waited, longing to be recognised in the national hullabaloo that was created by the Japanese press. They were taken to the nearby NHK Television studios to be presented to the nation on live TV.    They sat in front of the cameras like a row of lost umbrellas at a railway station. Each person told their story, holding up a small sliver of a kimono dress, an ornate hair clip, a toy or a photograph; items kept secretly locked away for nearly half a century, that one day may be the key to their past.

Masao holds up a picture of his former self on Television

In the first of ten years of the “Orphans Relocation” scheme over sixty percent of the Orphans were reunited with their families. Each year there was a new group, but the success rate began to fall sharply. The Japanese on the crest of the economic wave soon got bored with the phenomenon. In the penultimate year of the scheme when the calls had fallen off to a trickle and only three percent were being claimed, Masao held up a small black and white photograph of himself as a school boy and told his story to the television audience. A few calls came in after the broadcast, but none of them were for him.

A few lucky ones were reunited with their families and the others, like Masao, slipped into a kind of no-man’s land of obscurity in Japan, living on a stipend from the Japanese government. Some of the unclaimed Orphans went back to China, but most stayed. Speaking only Chinese they remain forever lost – strangers in a strange land.

In the relentless stampede of historical events; the screams of chaos, gun fire and explosions; possessions spilt from a hand cart, a child’s hand let slip never make it into the chronicles of the times.

The last I heard of Masao was that he was living alone in a high rise apartment in a Tokyo suburb writing his life story.   Sadly, it will remain a flawed narrative without discovering the fate of his mother and sister he last saw on that train, and his father who was ordered away to another battle front just before the Japanese military were forced to “endure the unendurable” and lay down their arms.

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About Bill Hayes

I have a very large sea shell collection; it's too big to keep at home, so I have left the collection scattered on various beaches around the world. Perhaps you've seen some it.
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10 Responses to An Orphan of Manchuria

  1. slworkshops says:

    This is great stuff Bill. Thanks for posting it, it made a really interesting read. And still he has found his family……

  2. What a terribly sad story.

  3. I hate the matter-of-fact way I learned history. If it were told your way in every lesson, we’d grow to understand ideologies with a magnifying glass rather than a distant memorization of dates and names.

  4. I’m spellbound by this story, Bill. I thought of John Thaw in Goodnight, Mister Tom. People talk about ‘closure’, but in this story, there may never be one. Keep the stories coming please.

  5. cleverfreckles says:

    I feel bad for him, because he didn’t choose to move to China during the war, but I don’t feel bad for the Japanese who came to China during the war as adult civilians OR the Japanese sympathizers who were trapped when the Russians stormed Harbin. I was born in Harbin to two American academics, and no one who can remember the Japanese occupation wants to. My family knew neighbors and friends of people who were victims of Japanese-led biological testing in the mini Auschwitz-style concentration camps of Manchuria.

    I’d like to read a story you write about an orphaned German child of a Nazi officer stationed abroad and the sadness the Nazi officer’s family experiences with being ejected from the country. Maybe then I’ll feel sympathy instead of channeling a collective nightmare and remembering the stories of what the Japanese officers, like the boy’s father, did to people in my hometown, Harbin. To encourage a reader like myself to feel sympathy for the plight of a Japanese officer’s family at the end of WWII is like asking my Polish Jewish aunt to feel sympathy for the plight of a Nazi family at the end of WWII. It’s a tall order.

    • Bill Hayes says:

      Thank you for dropping by and reading. This is a story about a lost child, a child who is not repsonsible for what the adults around him are doing to the world.

      I am fully aware of the evils done by the Japanese in Manhuria but that does not mitigate the pain and loss this child suffered. After the Japanese and the Russains had left, the Chinese had no trouble inflicting years of evil on each other without any outside help.

      I didn’t encourage any particular reader to feel sympathy. I offered up the tale to the world as an antiwar story if you will. As a dedication to all war Orphans, regardless of nationality or the actions of their parents.

      I don’t think that is such tall order.

  6. What a sad story. Beautifully told, but I was hoping so much for a happy reunion, a happy ending! sometimes there just aren’t happy endings.

  7. We need antiwar stories now more than ever. I found this story haunting, and would like to lern learn more.

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