War orphans in Japan continue decades-long search for family

Kawamoto Koto says she believes she is around 78 years old, but there is no way to be sure. She was separated from her family and abandoned in China during the chaotic end of World War Two. She is one of an estimated 2,800 people known as “war orphans” in Japan.

Kawamoto was about three years old when she was adopted by a Chinese couple. She cannot remember her original name, date of birth, or what her family looked like.

Kawamoto grew up in poverty in the northeast of China. The winters were cold and her farmer foster parents couldn’t afford to buy her proper clothes. She remembers walking in the snow one day and her feet getting so cold that she had to put them in cow dung to warm up.

“My adoptive mother was kind, but we were very poor,” she says. “When I looked eastward, toward Japan, sometimes I would cry.”

She eventually became a schoolteacher, married, and had four children. But she never stopped dreaming of Japan.

Kawamoto & her family
Kawamoto Koto and her family.

Her hopes of returning home improved when Japan and China normalized diplomatic relations in 1972. And then in 1981, the Japanese government launched an effort to reunite war orphans with their families.

Kawamoto wrote a letter to an organization in Japan that was working on the project: “After decades separated from my homeland, I want to meet my family.” In 1985, she was finally able to visit the country and look for her relatives. But with few leads, she didn’t know where to start. She was unable to find anyone.

Two years later, when she was around 45, Kawamoto decided to move to Japan permanently with her family. She found work as a cleaner and picked up any odd job she could manage with her limited language abilities.

War orphans returned to Japan
Many war orphans have returned to Japan since the country normalized diplomatic relations with China in 1972.

Kawamoto is one of 2,818 people the Japanese government has officially recognized as war orphans left behind in China. More than half are now living in Japan, despite not having been able to find their family.

The Japan-China Returnees Friendship Group is a Tokyo-based non-profit that supports people like Kawamoto. About 120 war orphans have registered as members. The group offers consultation services, to help members adjust to daily life in Japan, and activities, such as Tai Chi lessons and Japanese language classes.

The group also manages a communal cemetery for war orphans and their families who cannot afford to buy their own graves. More than 200 people have been buried there so far.

“Over the past years, we have lost many friends,” says Kano Kunihiro, the group’s secretary-general. “I’m concerned that we are in danger of having society forget about us. The war orphans are not just a thing of the past.”

Kawamoto has a similar worry. Her children have grown up and she says she is enjoying a happy life with her husband. But part of her is still haunted by the lack of clues about her original family.

“I don’t know whether I can find my family, or learn more about where I came from, before I die,” she says. “I think it may be difficult.”

Kawamoto Koto, who lives in Tokyo, was left in China at the end of World War Two.
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