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Woman who spent childhood in Palau reflects on misery of wartime life

Chiyo Nakaima is seen in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward with her graduation certificate from girls' school, which she received while working at a wartime field hospital in Palau. (Mainichi)

Chiyo Nakaima, 88, a resident of Tokyo's Katsushika Ward who spent her childhood years on the Republic of Palau's Koror Island after her family emigrated there, describes her experience with these words: "It was pitiful. There was no food, and we did not know what was going on with the war. We were also unable to return to Japan."

    Palau, where Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited last year in April in order to memorialize the war, was the site of intense battles that resulted in some 16,000 people losing their lives -- many of them immigrants and other civilians.

    Located around 3,000 kilometers south of Japan, Palau remained under Japan's mandate for a period of around 30 years until 1944. Koror, an island that was known as the "Paradise of the Southern Seas," was home to the Administrative Headquarters of the South Pacific Mandate, which presided over the surrounding islands.

    Nakaima's parents were among the numerous Japanese nationals who, encouraged by the government, emigrated to Palau in search of work.

    Koror was also home to shops run by Japanese individuals and Japanese schools, and Nakaima attended a girl's school there. "It was an affluent and an enjoyable life," she says.

    Recalling events on the island during World War II, however, as well as her subsequent repatriation following the end of the war, Nakaima said that everything changed in 1941 when the war first broke out.

    She began doing laundry and caring for soldiers at a hospital as a volunteer laborer. Following a serious attack by the U.S. military in March 1944, she later fled with her family to the jungle of a neighboring island along with other survivors, where she continued her volunteer work in a field hospital that had been set up by Japanese soldiers.

    The hospital was a simple small wooden hut in the jungle where injured troops lay sleeping atop planks. One by one, the soldiers began dying from causes including malnutrition. Nakaima then carried each of their bodies to a small local shrine, where she was told that since burning the bodies over a long period of time would produce smoke that would alert the enemy to their presence, only the hands would be cut off for cremation.

    The only available food, Nakaima recalls, was a porridge so thin that you could count the grains of rice inside it. Even so, she says, "The military was better because it at least had a stock of food."

    A number of Nakaima's fellow immigrants-- as well as her elder sister -- succumbed to death from malnutrition, and some of her relatives died in battle after being drafted on site.

    After Japan lost the war, its soldiers were the first to return home. Civilians, meanwhile, were left behind. Nakaima was repatriated back to her home of Okinawa via a U.S. military ship in February 1946, together with a group of individuals including her parents.

    Hearing that women would be violated by U.S. soldiers, Nakaima stayed inside the ship, hiding behind her family. Once back in Okinawa, the family continued to go hungry.

    "Even today, I cannot leave a single grain of rice uneaten, since there were so many people back then who died without being able to eat anything," she comments.

    "I was a real militaristic young woman, even though I had no idea for what purpose we were fighting," says Nakaima, who participated in an event last year to recount her experience to others. "Back then, I believed Japan would win. Isn't that just nonsense?"

    "Nowadays, we are living in a period wherein we can freely talk about numerous things, and where we are able to think," she adds. "I want people to know, and to think about, what happened -- and the types of sacrifices that were made -- during the lead-up to the peaceful period in which we are now living."

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