Progress from the War YearsVideos Testimonies of War Survivors During and After World War II

Crossing the Manchurian Deadline

Mr. Keisei Kawamitsu

Birth year:1933

Birth place:Miyakojima City

Emigration to Manchuria as a pioneer group

My home village of Karimata on Miyako Island was not very wealthy and sons other than the eldest son could rarely inherit fields from their parents, so they had to rent fields from others or leave home to find work. When I was three years old, my dad had been working at an ironworks in Tobata, Fukuoka as a factory worker. After two or three years, he returned to Karimata. Sometime prior to summer vacation during my second year at elementary school, my father was very happy about being given fields in Manchuria as a member of a team of agrarian emigrants, and he agreed to join the pioneer group. Soon afterward, our whole family moved to Manchuria. I was fine with emigration, but I was suddenly moving from a warm climate to a cold climate. Carriages were used for transportation at the time. After being bumped around in the carriage, we arrived at a village called Inaminegou. I remember the journey there being a rough time, as it was long and very cold. I had no idea that there was a place so cold. Two to three months passed after moving to Manchuria and the ground would freeze as the season changed to winter.

Life begins to change as the war begins

During the winter of December 1941, I heard that the war had begun and that the Japanese army had attacked Hawaii. We were militaristic at the time, so I was delighted since I thought that Japan would definitely win. My parents were pleased that moving to Manchuria allowed them to receive a large field the likes of which they couldn’t imagine having when they were in Karimata. We were children back then, so we only cared about playing. It was originally me, my older sister, who now lives in Yaeyama and my younger brother, but after arriving in Manchuria, three more siblings were born. The fourth, fifth, and sixth were born in Inaminegou, Manchuria. My mother, just as my father, was from Karimata.
About 2 km from my school in Manchuria, there was a village called Hokushingou where about 20 households from Miyako Island had lived, and we lived there for a while. We had our own fields near our home, and at the time the army provided horses as well as a gun to each household for self-defense. Rounds of live ammunition were provided once a month as well. I think it was quite an affluent lifestyle for a Japanese person at the time. However, as the war situation gradually deteriorated and the end of the war approached, the fathers from each family were summoned to the army, and all guns and horses were confiscated. The horses back then were from Hokkaido and they were very large. The army took back those horses. The food shortages followed after. When it came to working in the fields, all the men in their prime were conscripted, so the only people left were women and children. This made it difficult to grow enough food to feed ourselves.
Under such circumstances, my family grew in size. We were a family of six children then, but my younger brother died the year the war ended. We were still able to dig into the ground to bury him, but when my next younger brother died, we were living in a winter camp and the soil had frozen, so we couldn’t dig a hole to bury him in. Even pickaxes were unable to pierce the soil during the winter. Typhus was spreading at the time. It was an infectious disease that killed both adults and children. Those who died in the summer could be buried in the ground, but those who died in the winter couldn’t be buried, so most were just left lying around. The camp was filled with abandoned bodies, and the Chinese government in Manchuria got rid of them, insisting that they were unsightly. The bodies were piled onto carriage beds like piles of dead wood. When my mother saw this, she said that she felt terrible about having her son be laid to rest like that so we decided to find a way to bury him. My mother somehow managed to find a pickaxe, and told me to use it to dig a hole. I spent an entire day digging a hole to bury my little brother. Around then, young men from the “Giyugun”(volunteer army) had returned to Manchuria, so I asked them to help dig holes. I also helped with digging.
During that time, Russian soldiers would come to Manchuria. The women were afraid of the Russian soldiers, so they smeared soot on their faces and completely shaved their heads. There was a ditch around our village that was dug out as a defense against bandits. The Russian soldiers would drag women into the ditch and do terrible things including rape. The only ones there to protect them were the 11 and 12-year-olds like us so we would shout,“The Russian soldiers are here!” and run into the house, then put firewood in the furnace to produce smoke. Then, we closed the windows, filling the room with smoke. The Russian soldiers would cough from the smoke and be forced to leave. That’s how we kids protected the women and small children. If adults tried the same thing, they would be shot right away, but we were told that even Russians wouldn’t bring harm to children. So the adults asked us for help to protect the women. That’s what it was like to spend one winter in Manchuria.

Repatriation from Manchuria

Once we learned that we would be able to repatriate to Japan from Manchuria, we headed for a place called Harbin. For about two months, we walked toward Harbin night and day during hours when there were no bandits. We couldn’t see our surroundings at all at night, so the children and babies would get scared and cry. Babies didn’t know any better. The leaders of the emigrant group told the parents to kill their baby since they would cause trouble for everyone if they kept crying. I think it was a cruel command that parents could not bear. I didn’t see any children get killed, but sometimes it felt like the crying would stop after the order to kill was given. When we had to cross rivers, small children didn’t want to cross the river, so they would start crying. Parents would leave their crying children in the rivers.
When I think about it now, the road home was truly hell on earth. The situation forced us to choose between abandoning the children, or selling them to the Chinese, leaving only the adults to evacuate in either case. My family didn’t have to make those kinds of decisions. That’s because all four of my younger siblings had already died in the settlement by the end of our first winter there. My mother, older sister, and I were the only ones left. We somehow managed to arrive in Harbin.

Life in Harbin

At the time, there was a Japanese elementary school called Hanazono Elementary School in Harbin. We were detained in that school. My body was weak at the time, but I got a job at a bakery and worked there for about a month. I got in trouble for pocketing some bread. The reason why that happened was because I wanted to give my mother something to eat, so I stole bread crusts. That ended up being why I got fired.
Then I came down with typhus. My mother used our savings and sold all our belongings for my treatment. Just at a time when we had nothing left, my mother fell ill. There were no doctors back then, so my mother died just like that. I couldn’t dig a grave, and worried where to lay her to rest, so I had to bring her to a hollowed-out cave inside the camp. Those who died inside the camp had their remains put to rest there. When it became full, the corpses were transported by carriage to another location. It was summer at the time, not winter, so we used pitch forks, to load the bodies onto the carriage bed. I don’t know where my mother’s remains were taken to, but when we used a pitchfork, sometimes the head or hand would fall from the body. We never learned where the corpses were taken.
Those detained in the Harbin camp were divided into several groups and repatriated away sequentially. I walked along the road to the train with my sister, but it was very tough. When it came time to board the train, the trains at the time were so tall that children couldn’t reach them. Some Koreans lifted us onto the train. My sister often told me that some Koreans saved us that time. Even though the train we boarded didn’t have a roof, we were just happy that we didn’t have to walk. The following morning, I noticed that the adult next to me had toppled over and looked weak. When I tried to wake the person up, I found that they were already dead. We spent a few days on the train and ended up in Busan of Korea. We were loaded on a ship from there.

Repatriation to Japan by ship

When I got on the ship, I already felt like I had arrived in Japan. I felt relief from the bottom of my heart. Meals onboard the ship included white rice and seaweed. That’s all we received, but it tasted amazing. I couldn’t believe that food this good actually existed. The ship initially headed for a military port in Nagasaki called Sasebo. When we arrived at Sasebo, there was an outbreak of cholera on the ship, and we were anchored off the coast of Sasebo for about a week until the cholera died down. We were unable to dock at Sasebo even after a week, so we sailed to a place called Otake in Hiroshima and landed there. The first thing awaiting us after we landed was DDT (insecticide). So much was sprayed that we were covered in white all over. We stayed overnight in Otake, and the next day, we boarded a train bound for Kure in Hiroshima hearing that there was an Okinawa-bound ship departing from there. As we passed through Hiroshima City, the townscape was scorched ruins. The station was nowhere to be seen and only its foundation remained. Everything was burnt to the ground. We approached Kure, but we were told that the Okinawa-bound ship couldn’t leave from Kure, so this time we headed to a camp in Nagoya. At the site of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries factory in Nagoya, there was a camp for people from Okinawa. After staying there for about a month, we finally returned to Miyako Island.

Miyako Island directly after the war

Miyako Island was stillshort on food at the time, so life was difficult. I lived in my uncle’s house for about a year. At the time in Miyako rations and clothes were supplied by the U.S. Military Government. Children who repatriated from overseas received priority in terms of food rations. Those who repatriated from neighboring regions did not have priority. I think a lot of rations were delivered to our uncle’s home since we had both evacuated from Manchuria. The rations included dried egg yolks and canned goods. As for clothes, we received American children’s clothes like trousers and outerwear which were too big for Japanese children. These were distributed for free.
Around this time, there were smuggling ships, and the Taiwanese were often involved in smuggling operations. I could speak a little Chinese back then, so when I heard that a Taiwanese ship would be arriving at a certain place, I would go there and get free canned goods and other things when they saw I could speak Chinese. When I brought the goods to my uncle, he was pleased and said I was clever. That’s what life was like back then. I did what I could to survive.

Resuming my studies after finding a job

Around then, my sister had been living and working as a housekeeper at the home of a dentist named Takehara, and she helped me get a job there as a trainee. After a while, I was given a chance to enroll in Miyako High School’s part-time program. I couldn’t read characters since I hadn’t gone to school, but I still decided to enroll. There was a book rental shop where I was able to borrow a variety of manga and books with hiragana (phonetic alphabet) readings for the Chinese characters, so I knew this was what I needed. I borrowed the books and worked hard to memorize the characters. In those days, I didn’t even know how to use a dictionary. I didn’t understand what“one stroke” or “two strokes” meant, but I studied hard in my own way and finally learned how to use the dictionary.
I was enthusiastic about my studies and attended part-time high school. I would also read books on dental technology and medicine, and gradually came to understand their content. I figured that if I kept this up, I could somehow make it through school. Once I understood the content, studying became really fun. As for dental technicians in particular, which I had aspired to become, while I wasn’t going to be a doctor, I was able to understand the content every time I read a medical book. In the medical texts I read, I couldn’t understand the English, so I wanted to know what the English parts were about. I learned from my mentors and also on my own, and I gradually came to understand English.
I was part of the inaugural class of the part-time program at Miyako High School. But I haven’t graduated yet. Just around that time, the Takehara Dental Clinic, where I worked, was about to move to the main island of Okinawa, so I couldn’t stay at the school.

Leaving for the main island and learning English

After the dentist’s office relocated to Okinawa City, I focused my efforts on English. There were many Americans on the main island of Okinawa. Many of the patients were American, and I figured that I couldn’t talk to them without learning English. So I started studying English. I went to a US military base in Nakagusuku to study English. One day, it was raining heavily, and the madam of a US military family told me to take an umbrella. I knew what “umbrella” meant in English, but I didn’t know what “take” meant. I just stood there until she used gestures to explain that I should take an umbrella. I said “Thank you” in English and went home with an umbrella.

Reflecting on immediate post-war years

I wasn’t the only one who faced hardships. This sort of experience was probably normal for kids back then. Even after returning to my hometown, I didn’t have any major problems. But what surprised me most was when I returned to Miyako, I had almost forgotten all my characters. Kanji, katakana, hiragana… Everything had faded from my memory. It was as if experiencing fear and going through hard times turned people into idiots.

Why I could persevere

I think I was able to make it this far because of my competitive spirit, which was stronger than other people. I didn’t want my friends to beat me. I wasn’t able to graduate from school even though my peers who were the same age had graduated from middle school, high school, and college. But I still didn’t want to them to beat me. I didn’t want to lose. This is the mindset that kept me going.

A message for young people

What I would like to ask all of you is to never wage another war. I think what I experienced between the ages of 9 and 13, when I was in Miyako Island and then Manchuria, was a deep, rich experience that none of my peers who stayed in Okinawa were able to experience. I saw snowy landscapes. I saw how the wolves lived. I went to the mountains and ate mountain grapes. I’ve experienced more than those who have lived in Okinawa all their lives. So I ask that you see the world while you’re young and live fruitful lives.

Mr. Keisei Kawamitsu was the regional chief of the Japan Dental Technologists Association and served as the president of the Okinawa Dental Technologists Association from 1995. He received the Minister of Health and Welfare Award in 2000 for his contributions to dental care and associations.