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Japanese sister remembers the war

The Good Samaritan Sisters in Australia posted the memories of Japanese Sister Theresia Hiranabe
on their website on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II

On 8 December 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour. I was eight-years-old and living in Manchuria, China, at the time. My family had moved there from Tokyo in 1938 when I was six-years-old.

We lived in Botanko, close to the Russian border, and my father worked for the Japanese military.

As the war progressed, we began to hear about the bombing of Tokyo, Osaka and other industrial cities in Japan. We also heard how people were suffering from shortages of food. In Manchuria, however, we were a long way from the battles and did not suffer like that.

But on 8 August 1945, life changed dramatically. At 5.00am I was woken by a terrible noise. People were shouting that Russia had declared war on Japan in Manchuria.

That same afternoon, Russian aircraft crossed the border and began dropping bombs. That evening, Russian tanks invaded Manchuria and a fierce battle was fought in which the Japanese forces were defeated.

Earlier in the day the evacuation of civilians had begun. As we were waiting for cars to take us to the train station, the bombers came again. At that moment we became refugees; my mother, my younger brother and myself.

My elder brother, who had just turned 18, had been called up for military duty. It would be some years before we would meet him again. There was no time to say goodbye to friends or teachers; I have never met any of them since.

There were thousands of terrified people crowding the platform and struggling to board the train. We thought ourselves lucky to get onto the train, even though it was an open top wagon.

It was packed, but did not leave until the next morning. My father found us to say goodbye and promised to come as soon as he could.

It was August, mid-summer and hot. Every day there were sudden showers and we got wet, but dried out quickly. It took two weeks to reach Shinkyo (now Chosum), the capital of Manchuria. The train was slow, stopping often, and we were able to buy food from Chinese farmers.

Since ours was the first train to leave Botanko we were spared the bombing by Russian planes. Later trains were bombed, killing many women and children.

When we arrived in Shinkyo on the morning of 15 August 1945, we were told over a loud-speaker that at noon there was to be an important announcement. We heard the voice of the emperor announcing that Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration and that the war had ended.

Everyone knelt down on the ground and wept. We all asked ourselves, “What shall we do?” I still remember this terrible despair.

The train moved on that afternoon and, a week later, we arrived in Hoten. Everywhere we saw Russian soldiers. We were so frightened. I still feel that fear when I think about it. Even now when I hear the sound of a big truck, I’m reminded of that fear.

We women and girls were each handed a pistol in case of an attack by Russian soldiers. That made us even more frightened, but fortunately we did not have to use it.

Russian soldiers were everywhere, but they did not have total control of the city. The Japanese army did what they could for us. At first we were given shelter in an army building.

I remember feeling safe on the ninth floor. But there were thousands of refugees and, two weeks later, we were all moved into a school.

Although Hoten was a Japanese city, it was not safe. The Chinese, who had been invaded by the Japanese forces, took their revenge by looting and burning Japanese houses.

Winter comes early in Manchuria and in 1945 temperatures ranged from -10 to -30 degrees. Every day settlers arrived from the north. They had lost everything. 

Many died of hunger; babies died on their mother’s backs. One mother killed her small child who was dying, after which she herself died.

Towards the end of the year my father came and found us in a Chinese hotel. He got work with a Chinese employer and we began to have hope of getting back to Japan. But in early 1946, my father caught typhus and died on January 12.

My mother also died a few weeks later on March 4. My 10-year-old brother and I (now 13) became orphans.

Before my mother’s death, the man my father worked for helped my mother with the cremation. I wanted to put his ashes somewhere holy, so I went secretly to the temple and, when I thought no one was watching, I dug a little hole and left them there.

There were many orphaned children. We were not left without help. Much of it came from a Zen Buddhist temple where people made sure we had food and shelter, and arrangements were made to get us to Japan. We went on the first ship after the war.

We were looked after by the Japanese Welfare Authority. Most of the children were taken by their relations. Two months later my elder brother returned to our home town in Hokkaido.

When he heard about our parents’ death and that my young brother and I had returned to Japan, he came to Hakata (Fukuoka) to take us to Hokkaido. He died two years later.

In Hakata we went to school. One of the teachers was a Catholic, Setsuko, who cared for us as well as taught us.

She had been baptised by an Australian volunteer, Father Kevin Flynn. He had introduced Setsuko to the Good Samaritan Sisters. Setsuko worked with them in Nagasaki and later in Sasebo.

Setsuko invited me to Nagasaki and I still remember the strong impression the sisters made on me. I was not Catholic, but felt something happened to me.

I began learning about the Christian life. Two years later I went to Sasebo and worked with the sisters. On Christmas Day 1952, I was baptised in front of the sisters. I had a wish to join them. It kept growing, but my health was poor, I had no money and my education had stopped because of the war.

I helped the sisters with the opening of Seiwa High School and after working with them for a year, I began my education which was followed by five years at university.

I then worked as a teacher and became a Good Samaritan aspirant. Three years later, in 1964, I became a postulant and this was the beginning of my life as a Good Samaritan.

When people sympathise with me for what I suffered, I answer in my mind: Japan did serious wrongs as a colonial ruler.

I offer my suffering in China, the death of my parents—the loss of everything, as compensation for what Japan did. It is my small sacrifice.