Mobilising Children for War Service

After the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, called at the time the China Crisis (7 July 1937), the Japanese government strengthened its control over economy and society for the full-scale war with China. It passed the National General Mobilisation Law in 1938 to regulate industry and labour. Mass organisations were formed to unite and mobilise the various women’s groups, youth groups, and neighbourhood associations in support of the war. Even elementary school children were expected to participate. Schools sent classmates to farms during school holidays to help increase food production.

By 1939, Japanese forces were bogged down in a stalemate in China, and Japan’s domestic economy was deteriorating. A growing labour shortage on the home front resulted in the Youth Employment Limitation Ordinance of 1 February 1940, which allowed adolescents as young as age 12 to work in the munitions industry. The Civilian Patriotic Work Service Ordinance of 21 November increased the duration of ‘patriotic work service’ (kinrō hokoku) expected of males (aged 14 to 40) and females (age 14 to 25).

In 1941, the United States broke off economic relations with Japan. The subsequent Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor of 7 December triggered the opening of a second front, the Pacific War. Faced with an economic crisis, the government outlined a plan on 4 June 1943 to deploy secondary students to work in heavy industry, the ‘Plan for the establishment of a student wartime mobilisation system’ (Gakuto senji dōin taisei kakuritsu yōkō). Students and young women were needed to do the work previously done by men now called up for military service in greater and greater numbers.

The Factory Act Wartime Exception of 16 June 1943 overturned the existing factory legislation that protected women and youth workers under age sixteen from long hours and night shifts. A little over a year later in August 1944, the mass deployment of youth to factories was enabled by the Student Conscript Labour Ordinance (Gakuto kinrō rei) and the Women’s Volunteer Conscript Labour Ordinance (Joshi teishin kinrō rei). Well over a million secondary school students were put to work for the war.

Interviews collected for this project show that elementary school students in rural areas usually helped on farms after their third year, preparing the soil by hoeing and weeding, planting sweet potatoes, and transplanting rice seedlings. In autumn, they harvested rice and barley. Some children had grown up on farms and were already accustomed to such work from a young age, but one man, who had been a city boy evacuated to a farm village in Nagano Prefecture, found it gruelling. A woman recalls the task of putting bags on the fruit of pear trees to protect them as they ripened, while at least two others remember doing sericulture ‘to make silk for silk parachutes,’ in the words of one woman. Collecting firewood in the mountains is perhaps the most common task performed by children, even those spared of farm work, such as the evacuated pupils of an elite Tokyo elementary school.

Secondary school students in rural areas likewise did farm labour in their first, and sometimes second, year. One former student recalls working alongside a Korean agricultural unit, while another cleared land for an airstrip. After their second year, some interviewees were deployed with their classmates to work in industry. A technical school student, for example, inspected torpedo heads in a munitions factory in Ishiyama, Shiga Prefecture, during his second year, while some of his classmates ended up at an aircraft factory in Kobe that was bombed by the Americans.

Interviews suggest that work was typically assigned by gender. In one factory, boys worked with lathes and girls with drills. Girls were more likely to be given work in the textiles department, making uniforms, although one interview subject insisted on protesting until she was placed in aircraft production. School graduates (or youth who were not in school) could work alongside students and others as members of volunteer squads (teishintai). The interviews suggest that most students were patriotic and willing to serve, but there is at least one who hoped to avoid work service and pursue her education. Air raids and hunger were sources of daily stress for many interview subjects.

L.Halliday Piel

How to Cite This Source

L.Halliday Piel, ‘Mobilising Children for War Service’, in Childhood, Education and Youth in Modern Japan [add URL and access date].