Abandoned Japanese colonists want to go home: Those left behind in China after the Second World War hope to die in their native land, writes Terry McCarthy in Tokyo

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The Independent Online
AYAME SUGAWARA never discovered what happened to her soldier-husband in China at the end of the Second World War. All she knows is he never came back to collect her from the village in Manchuria where they had settled as colonists from Japan seven years previously. They were farmers, but as the war turned against the Japanese army in China the male settlers were drafted into the army.

Ms Sugawara, then 30, was terrified. Northern China was in a state of upheaval as the Japanese army retreated in the face of Russian troops. Bands of marauding Chinese men roamed the countryside, raping and stealing from the Japanese out of revenge for the 15 years of subjugation they had suffered under Japanese colonial rule.

'They robbed our kimonos, our spectacles, our watches. We were stripped. Some women were attacked by 30 or 40 men. I went to hide in the forests on the mountain, and for three days I ate nothing except grasses. I thought I was going to be killed,' Ms Sugawara said. But she survived, eventually marrying a Chinese peasant to ensure her safety. 'I wanted to return to Japan, but I had no money, and no way to travel. There was nothing to do but get married to a local person.'

Nearly half a century later, now that her Chinese husband has died and her children have grown up, Ms Sugawara, 78, wants to return to die in her native Japan. But it is not that simple: even though she was born in Japan and still remembers her old Japanese identity card number, government policy decrees that she should not be allowed to stay in Japan unless she can find a relative or someone else to sponsor her.

But Ms Sugawara and four other Japanese women stranded after the war in what is now China's Heilongjiang province decided to challenge the regulations of the Ministry of Health and Welfare. They flew to Japan and refused to leave. The government, while insisting its policy remains unchanged, has decided to make an exception for them: the embarrassing alternative would have been forcibly expelling five septuagenarian women from the country of their birth.

Ms Sugawara has joined a long and disparate list of people who have recently begun seeking either compensation or some form of acknowledgement of the injustices they suffered because of Japan's invasion of Asia half a century ago. They include Korean women and Filipinas forced into wartime prostitution, Allied prisoners of war, and forced labourers from Taiwan and Korea. And despite opposition from the Foreign Ministry, the new government of Morihiro Hosokawa has shown more willingness to come to terms with the legacy of the war than past administrations.

Thousands of Japanese civilians were abandoned by the army in Manchuria at the end of the war. For a long time Japan-China relations did not permit the subject even to be discussed, but in 1981 the government started a programme to repatriate so-called 'war orphans' - children aged 12 or younger at the time of Japan's surrender in 1945. But bureaucrats deemed anyone older than 12 could have opted to return of their own accord - even though many, like Ms Sugawara, had no money, food or means of travel.

'We are old and tired, and just want to come back to Japan to die,' Yoshie Endo said. She said she felt betrayed by the Japanese government: 'My feelings for them are simply hatred.' After 50 years she cannot understand how a country that has grown immeasurably richer during her absence could refuse to accept back the estimated 2,000 of its citizens still alive in China.

'These five war-displaced women are a special case, and we don't have any measures to deal with such a special case,' said an embarrassed spokesman for the Health and Welfare Ministry. 'We are discussing the issue.'

Ms Endo said she had never forgotten Japan, even though she had to accustom herself to Chinese life. 'The thing I missed most was the ofuro (Japanese bath). They don't have them over there. They just pour water over themselves.'

The most difficult time for the Japanese women was during the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards sought the slightest excuse to persecute supposed spies or enemies of the revolution. 'That was a terrible time,' said Ms Sugawara. There were several Japanese in her village, but 'we all kept very quiet'. They could not risk being caught with any documents written in Japanese, so they burnt everything. Today although they can still speak Japanese quite well, they can no longer read it.

(Photograph omitted)