Children, Education and War, 1931-1945

In September 1931, Japan’s Kwangtung Army on the Chinese mainland staged an explosion, which it represented as an attack by Chinese forces. Using this as a pretext, the army took over Manchuria (north-east China) and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. The takeover of Manchuria was enthusiastically supported by Japan’s mass media, including newspapers, magazines, movies, and magazines for children such as Shōnen kurabu (Boys’ Club). In 1932, Japan recognised Manchukuo, and after the League of Nations refused to do the same, Japan withdrew from the League in 1933. Weakness and division within China enabled the Japanese army to maintain control over Manchukuo, and push into other parts of north China. In July 1937, a skirmish between Japanese and Chinese troops near Beijing led to the outbreak of all-out war between the two countries. In December 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor and Japan declared war on the United States and Great Britain.

The conflict and war between 1931 and 1945 had deep effects on children and young people, some of which, such as evacuation and work service, are dealt with in other pages on this website. It should be emphasized that Japan’s education system promoted patriotic enthusiasm for the military not only from 1931, but from the Meiji period onwards. Military heroes were celebrated in schools, through textbook stories, songs, and artistic performances. Boys performed military drill in higher elementary and selective secondary schools, made visits to army camps, and went on long-distance marches bearing military gear. From 1925, a serving military officer was stationed in boys’ selective secondary schools, to supervise and inspect military drill. Patriotism and military enthusiasm was also stimulated by stories in magazines like Shōnen kurabu. However, the Manchurian Crisis and its aftermath intensified such military enthusiasm and provided new opportunities for promoting patriotic loyalty, as had the earlier Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Evidence can be seen in photographs of sports day displays, speeches by elementary school principals, and essays in school magazines, for example. When newly enlisted soldiers made their formal departure from a town or village, school students would often be taken to give them a send-off, or might go to do so of their own accord. Such occasions became more frequent the more soldiers were enlisted, after the outbreak of war with China in 1937 and then the start of the Pacific War in 1941. Participating children would sing military songs (gunka), some of which dated from the Russo-Japanese War, others of which had won recent newspaper competitions. Some interviewees also recalled how elementary schools would take their children to attend village funerals for dead soldiers whose remains were returned home. Interviewees tended to see the outbreak of the Pacific War as the point at which their experience of war intensified; a number said that as children, they did not feel the impact of the war much until then. This may partly have been because the war between Japan and China from 1937 was not called a ‘war’ in Japan at the time, but was referred to as the China Crisis (Shina jihen), which was the term many interviewees continued to use for it, eighty years later.

Emigration to Manchuria was assiduously promoted through the 1930s, and in 1938, the Pioneer Youth Corps of Manchuria and Mongolia (Manmō kaitaku seishōnen giyūgun) was established to encourage boys between 14 and 21 to settle in the rural areas of this new frontier. From its start until 1945, the programme recruited about 90,000 youths, mainly from more impoverished rural areas where prospects were bleaker. Elementary schools played an important role in promoting this emigration programme, and were even given quotas to fill. The numbers recruited fell far short of expectations, however, as reports came back of harsh conditions for the young settlers, who were expected to act as an auxiliary military force as well as farming in a difficult and unfamiliar environment. Many died or were killed before or during the Soviet invasion of Manchuria at the end of the war.

Within Japan, interviewees for our project recalled some activities that took place during the war, but which might have been prevalent earlier; more research is needed on this. For example, some recalled activities at boys’ selective secondary school, such as having to memorize the Imperial Rescript for Soldiers and Sailors, or undergoing barefoot assemblies in winter. In other cases, it seems likely that war had influenced school practice, as with an interviewee who remembered having to march into his elementary school in step with other children, and also recalled that in art class, warlike pictures were better evaluated than others. Several interviewees also commented that schools discouraged or forbade them from bringing what were considered ‘luxurious’ food items such as meat or fish in their lunchboxes, or instructed them to mix rice and barley in what was called mugigohan, rather than bringing pure white rice. Better off children were more likely to be affected by such injunctions, as poorer children would probably not be bringing such items in their lunchboxes in any case. Girls started to wear work trousers (monpe) rather than skirts, while boys at selective secondary schools might wear a military-style uniform. Interviewees also remembered making bamboo lances (takeyari) and training with them to resist an expected enemy invasion, as well as writing letters of support to soldiers. Girls were often asked to stitch senninbari, garments with stitches from a thousand people that it was believed might protect from enemy fire.

From the 1930s onward, increasing numbers of boys seem to have either entered the military academies on graduation from middle school, or else applied at age 15 or 16 to enter a military training school such as the army (rikujun hikō gakkō) or navy (yokaren) pilot training schools. The 1930s also saw an expansion of army cadet schools (rikugun yōnen gakkō), which could be entered from age 14. The school system itself was reformed in ways that were influenced by the war. In the reform of the elementary school system in 1940, the purpose of education was redefined as rensei, a term with connotations of ‘disciplined training’, and rensei often came to replace kyōiku (‘education’) in educational discourse. Schools often seem to have interpreted rensei as demanding more quasi-religious activities, such as shrine visits, or militarised training, such as drill; some interviewees remembered starting the school day by turning in the direction of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo and bowing deeply (a ritual called kyūjō yōhai). Another notable educational reform was the establishment of part-time youth schools (seinen gakkō) in 1936, as a merger of two former institutions, supplementary vocational schools (jitsugyō hoshū gakkō) and youth training centres (seinen kunrenjo). Youth schools were supposed to be attended part-time by working youth between the ages of 14 and 20; exact hours varied with local employment conditions, but often seem to have been for three hours or so a day, several days a week. Besides providing some subject teaching, they involved a large element of military drill, with a view to preparing boys for military service. However, the disappointing take-up led the government to make attendance compulsory in 1939. As the war situation became increasingly desperate in its final stages, meanwhile, a 1944 government decree took the drastic step of converting some commercial secondary schools (shōgyō gakkō) to technical secondary schools (kōgyō gakkō), which caused outrage among some commercial school students.

Although the war against the United States and Great Britain brought hostility towards those countries, boys’ selective secondary schools seem to have continued to teach English throughout the war, according to the testimony of interviewees. English was considered too important for its teaching to be abandoned. In contrast, interviewees who attended girls’ selective secondary schools generally report that lessons in English were stopped at some point during the war, presumably because English for girls was considered more an adornment than a necessity. Clubs for ‘enemy sports’ such as baseball were also closed down.

The war led to labour shortages due to the absence of able-bodied men who had been conscripted, and as a result, students at elementary and secondary schools were required to do work service in fields and factories for increasingly lengthy periods, as detailed in the webpage on that topic. Evacuation programmes were also put in place – again, these are described on a dedicated webpage. Children who were not from farm families, especially urban children, were most affected by the food shortages and intensive fire-bombing of the last years of the war. Urban interviewees described accompanying parents on trips in search of black market food, and talked of cuts that healed slowly and badly because of malnutrition. It was also urban children who were most likely to lose home, family, or life itself as a result of the devastating fire-bombing raids that killed hundreds of thousands in Japan’s great metropolises and secondary cities, not to mention the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Peter Cave

How to Cite This Source

Peter Cave, ‘Children, Education, and War, 1931-1945’, in Childhood, Education and Youth in Modern Japan [add URL and access date].