Wednesday, August 03, 2005

 
A slightly rewritten-for-blog-use version of the column I'm filing for this weekend's Standard. Special thanks to James The Temple Guy for barroom and Internet research assistance from Tokyo.
Song to the Orphans
I've never met Liu Lianyun, but I learned about her through the incredibly cool Japanese dresses and blouses she occasionally sends C.
``Hey, spiffy dress. Is it new?''
``Thank you. Yes, it's new. It's from my mother's friend again.''
I've also never met Maiko Kato, but I first learned about her through the Japanese threads she sometimes sends to C.
Liu and Kato are 64-years-old and the same person. In her native city of Dandong (also C's hometown), bordering North Korea in Liaoning province, her family and friends know her as Liu. But since 1982 she's been living in Tokyo where her Japanese passport identifies her as Maiko Kato -- her birth name.
It's a name she said she never knew she had before 1981. And it's one she said via phone from Dandong (with C translating) that she had trouble getting used to. But it was the name her Japanese birth parents gave her before left her behind with a Chinese family in Dandong and fled with her older sister to Japan from advancing Soviet forces in Manchuria in August 1945.
Her father was a Japanese military officer. Her mother died enroute to Japan, but her sister and father -- whom Liu saw in 1981 for the first time since 1945 via a video phone hookup in Tokyo -- survived.
She's one of about 2,700 Japanese ``war orphans'' who have been repatriated from China beginning in 1981 after a Sino-Japanese Orphan Search Group contacted authorities in northeast China looking for people such as Liu and Japanese women who had married Chinese men during World War II for survival, Chan Yee-shan, a Hong Kong University Japanese studies scholar working on a doctorate degree on the repatriation program said via e-mail.
Liu was matter-of-fact about being left behind. ``It was common to leave children behind if we were too young or too sick,'' she said. ``I was only 4 and I was also sick. My Chinese family had lived in the same neighborhood as my Japanese parents and they felt sorry for me and wanted to help me. They didn't even think about sending me back.''
But she said it wasn't all love and charity. ``I had three Chinese older brothers and they didn't treat me well because I was adopted and a `foreigner.' But while my Chinese mother was alive my life was okay. But she died in 1958 (the first year of the Great Leap Forward famine) and I wasn't treated well because there wasn't enough food for us. I ate last and there wasn't always anything left for me.''
Still, Liu said she rarely dwelled on her Japanese roots before the two countries established formal diplomatic relations in 1972. The little she knew of her birth parents and sister was only gleaned through stories and comments from childhood neighbors. Her adoptive family told her virtually nothing. ``I think grew up like most Chinese children. But sometimes I thought about my sister -- what she looked like, if I looked like her and what it would be like to have a sister because I had only brothers.''
After getting a junior school education and studying accounting Liu worked as an accountant in Dandong. She later married and had two children, a boy and girl, and said her life was routine, except for some tension during the Cultural Revolution.
``I was scared during the Cultural Revolution. I worried I would be picked out because I was Japanese but nothing happened.'' Later that she changed jobs to the human resources department of the Dandong propaganda bureau and became close friends with C's mother who also worked there.
In 1981, though, her life changed dramatically.
``One day the Chinese government told me that my Japanese father said he had left a daughter in Dandong and he provided the address. I was still living very close to that old address and that's how they found me ''
After establishing that she was indeed the same person that her Japanese family had abandoned, the orphan search organization flew her, her husand and teenage children to Tokyo for a three month preview of what life might be like if they became Japanese citizens. The offer included a year's free rent, low-level jobs for the parents and free Japanese language training school for all.
Liu's family liked what they saw and the Chinese government had no objections
``The Chinese government's official interest is to send as many `peasants' to emigrate to Japan as possible,'' said Chan at Hong Kong U. ``So the Chinese authorities have been very helpful. The Japanese citizenship law had been very rigid and the Japanese government had been passive and tried to procrastinate.
``But the Japanese government's attitude has changed, mostly because of pressure from domestic lobby groups, made up of some ex-Manchurian-Japanese who repatriated in the 1940s and 1950s, and they have been supported by liberal lawyers and journalists.
``One repatriated orphan told me emotionally that the only reason they could live in their `mother country' was because of the volunteers. The Japanese government has done nothing but continuously try to abandon them,'' Chan said.
Indeed on July 7 this year the Osaka District Court turned down a damage suit filed by former Japanese war orphans demanding that the government pay 33 million yen (US$295,700) to each. It was the first ruling among 15 lawsuits filed by 2,063 plaintiffs, representing 80 percent of repatriated war orphans. The Osaka plaintiffs are appealing to a higher court but Liu and her family were never among them or others who felt isolated in Japan where they are often described as Chugoku zanryu koji(orphans abandoned in China) and often viewed as objects of sympathy and national guilt.
``We came to Japan for better living conditions and we have them,'' Liu said. She became a waitress in a Tokyo old age home while her husband worked construction. Liu's retired on a pension now and says her subsidized rent for a three bedroom apartment is the equivalent of 500 yuan (US$62). Her children have married, the daughter to a Japanese and her son, who became a plumber, to a Chinese woman.
But it has not come without a heavy price. Liu said her husband found life in Japan ``too good'' and began drinking heavily and sleeping around. Before she could make the decision to divorce him he died in 1998 of a heart attack while on a visit to Dandong.
Liu said she's learned to speak conversational Japanese, though her literacy skill is poor. She's made a few friends with fellow repatriated war orphans.
``We always talk about being raised in China and how we appreciate what Chinese people and our parents did for us. That is all we talk about. I will never forget what Chinese people did for me. I don't want any wars to happen anymore because children like me were also war victims.''
She says she is uncomfortable now when she hears or reads anti-Japanese propaganda in China or Sino-slagging in Japan.
``When I hear anti-Japanese news I understand how Chinese feel. But Japan did do wrong and should apologize, I think. And when I hear Japanese people talking about how bad China is, I feel upset and I feel very Chinese. I don't want to hear that kind of news. I just always hope that the countries can get along.''
Mostly, Liu said she misses Dandong where she returns for about a month every year to touch base with some of her Chinese family and friends such as C's mother to whom she's been bringing trendy Japanese clothing since the `80s.
Liu is in touch with but not especially close to her Japanese sister and father -- whom she said both she and her sister resemble.
``He struggled a lot after the war and became a farmer, but is old and retired now. I was very happy to meet my sister because I didn't have one in China. Looking at her was a little strange at first. It was a little bit like seeing my face and also a face I had never seen before.''
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