The Wartime Evacuation of Children, 1944-1945

As Japan’s war situation worsened in the Pacific, it became clear by early 1944 that Allied bombers would soon be able to reach the home islands to attack civilians in the cities. During public debates in the Diet and behind closed doors in government, politicians argued about whether, and when, to evacuate children from the cities. Japanese leaders were trying to decide how to remove the children without making it seem a public announcement of defeat; the beginning of the air raids over Japan forced their hands.

In Japan, as elsewhere in World War Two, there were two kinds of ‘evacuation’: (1) private evacuations and (2) those organised by the government. Before the government arranged mass evacuations of elementary school children (gakudō shūdan sokai), many other young people had already left to stay with relatives or by making other private arrangements (enko sokai). They often left with adults, such as grandparents and physically infirm relatives, whom the government and society considered less useful for war labour. Throughout the war, very small children (up to eight years old) remained with their families in the major towns and cities, exposed to Allied firebombing campaigns. Likewise, many students in higher elementary and secondary school (twelve to seventeen years old) remained behind to help adults with war work and national defence (see page on Mobilising Children for War Service).

On 30 June 1944, the Diet ruled that local cities could finance the evacuation of school groups in cases where there were children without relatives in the countryside. After 7 July, when the Americans gained a foothold in Saipan from which they could more easily conduct strategic bombing raids on the Japanese homeland, the Air Defence General Headquarters (防空総本部) issued guidelines to evacuate groups of elementary school children in years 3 to 6. On 20 July, the Ministry of Education issued guidelines for school evacuations from twelve major cities. The mass evacuation of schoolchildren from Tokyo began on 4 August 1944.

As in Great Britain, the central government considered it most important to defend the capital city, but some regional cities would suffer much more greatly per capita. Tokyo’s evacuation came first, followed quickly by Okinawa Prefecture and Osaka; other regional cities with important industrial targets, including Kawasaki, Nagoya, Kōbe, and northern Kyūshū, were quickly cleared by October 1944, totalling at that point four hundred thousand children. By the end of the war, over one million children would be evacuated from home.

The Japanese government had already studied the mass evacuation experience in other countries, including in Great Britain, and was keen to avoid making the same mistakes, such as the abuse of children by locals and the loss of their education. It ordered the school staff members to travel with children to fulfil their duties as protectors, educators, and moral exemplars. According to this order, these teachers ‘must earnestly apply their energies to the education of these children, and fulfil this duty with the same honourable resolution as a man who has been called into military service’. In another official document, national authorities provided examples of what sort of belongings an evacuated child should bring, assuring parents that they would be well taken care of.

Like their counterparts in Britain, Japanese children were given name tags and sent along with a rucksack of ‘necessary items’ restricted by weight. As soon as Japanese children were dropped off in rural areas, they became the problem of local authorities and families in the area, from which the government expected ‘full cooperation and assistance’. Evacuated city children found themselves thrust into an utterly alien world without the benefit of family support—only the support of a state apparatus that had many other priorities to worry about. Unlike British children, who were billeted almost at random in private houses, Japanese children were often housed together in temples, hot spring resorts, and other large rural establishments; personal diaries, memoirs, and letters by children suggest that the Japanese system was slightly less traumatic for this reason: at the very least, they had their mates with them. Despite this important difference, however, their experience was highly dependent on the competency and kindness of local people in rural areas.

Nevertheless, some of the more traumatising aspects of the British experience were replicated in Japan. First, ‘weak and infirm children’ were to be sent to relatives, because they were deemed to be too difficult for the government to handle. Second, working class children could be treated quite harshly. From the third to the sixth year, elementary school children from the slums of Tokyo were doused with anti-louse powders, fed meagre school dinners, and shipped off to dormitories in the countryside where locals viewed them with suspicion. In contrast, as shown by our interviews, children from at least one elite Tokyo school were housed with relatively well-to-do local merchants, who could provide a few extra comforts. The living conditions of evacuated school groups depended on how well connected the school principal or parents of pupils were.

Food was scarce across the country, and even though the countryside suffered less than the cities, evacuated children were still viewed by some as a burden. Japanese evacuees were given just a few cups of rice per day, and some pickled vegetables and sweet potatoes; meat and fish were treats. Sometimes children were taught to hunt and fish for frogs, crabs, and eels as a matter of survival. Gifts from local farmers were a special treat, with one teacher warning his children quite bluntly: ‘You have to make the local people like you.’ In the last months of the war, rice was reduced again, to less than two cups, and children began to go hungry. In this context, some children began stealing from local farmers in desperation, for which they could be beaten severely.

Evacuation was not always safe for children. Adults sometimes abused the children, the children constantly felt hungry, and, as in Britain, they were increasingly used for farm labour instead of being sent to class. Most dramatically, a group of children in Aichi Prefecture, who had been evacuated from Nagoya, died in a terrible earthquake in 1945 when the temple they were sleeping in collapsed. Their parents did not learn of it for weeks, falsely believing that the government and school were looking after the children. It is understandable, then, why so many working families in Japan refused to let their children go, even when the Allied firebombing campaigns began.

Nevertheless, the records left by children, and the memoirs the survivors wrote as adults, do not paint a completely grim picture. Many recorded and recalled happy days spent going to hot springs, making their own toys, and playing with their friends. City children were able to experience, for the first time, skiing, sledging, and skating in the winter, hiking, fishing, and swimming in the summer. Most evacuees remained friends after the war ended, and continue to meet and share their memories of life in the country to this day.

Aaron William Moore and L. Halliday Piel

How to Cite This Source

Aaron William Moore and L. Halliday Piel, ‘The Wartime Evacuation of Children, 1944-1945’, in Childhood, Education and Youth in Modern Japan [add URL and access date].