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Records, interviews shed light on Tokyo woman's efforts raising homeless orphans post-WWII

Satayo Ishiwata, center, is seen smiling and playing with children in the garden at the foster care facility "Aiji no ie," in the early 1950s, in this photo provided by Aiji no ie. The children adored Satayo, and called her "Mama."

TOKYO -- Rarely surviving documents show that Satayo Ishiwata undertook a heroic effort to help take out of extreme poverty and raise over 100 children orphaned during World War II. In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, her daughter described vividly her mother's endeavors.

    Satayo, who passed away aged 92 in 1989, raised war orphans who had been forced to sleep in Ueno Station's underground tunnels. The children she took under her wing had led tough lives, and reportedly grew so fond of Satayo that they took to calling her "Mama." The building used for a time to house the more than 100 orphans was transformed into a foster care facility, and records of the orphanage's early days still remain.

    Hiro Ishiwata, the third eldest daughter of Satayo Ishiwata, recalls the orphan home run by her mother, who was adored by the children, while standing in front of her mother's portrait in the "Aiji no ie" foster care facility in Tokyo's Nakano Ward, on June 15, 2020. The image has been partially modified. (Mainichi/Kayo Mukuda)

    The Mainichi Shimbun tracked down individuals connected to the orphanage through documents compiled for publication this year -- the 75th anniversary of the end of the war -- and visited Hiro Ishiwata, 88, Satayo's third eldest daughter.

    For Satayo, it all started in late September 1945, when she took in a war orphan to raise at home. Hiro reflected on the time at the foster care facility "Aiji no ie," (Home of beloved children), located in Tokyo's Nakano Ward, and said, "The beginning was when my mother's friend brought along a boy aged around 6 or 7. He was apparently in distress and had nowhere to go. All he knew was his name. He didn't even know how old he was."

    In November 1945, Satayo Ishiwata established a women's society for aiding war orphans, which became the predecessor organization for the foster care facility. She frequented Ueno Station, taking Hiro with her, who was then 13 years old, and insisted, "Let's do what we can do, people all over Japan are having a hard time."

    This January 1947 photo shows an underground tunnel in Tokyo's Ueno Station, where many died. (Mainichi)

    The underground tunnel in Ueno Station was dim, and adults and children alike were sitting on the ground. Satayo approached the children and asked, "Why don't you come to our place?" and brought those who wanted to home with her. In the beginning, when there was no facility, Satayo welcomed the children to her home, and lived with them like they were family.

    Satayo was of the view that "human beings must first eat. A sense of security comes only after our stomachs are filled." With this in mind, Satayo bustled about everywhere when there were food shortages. She poured boiling water on corn starch rations, and divided them up by making a porridge-like meal. The Ishiwata family had owned a commercial business from before the war, and it's thought that the family's personal funds were used during the early stages of operations. Satayo also sold kimonos and drawing room furnishings to cover expenses.

    Objects frequently went missing from the house. Hiro described their astonishment when a marble clock from the drawing room disappeared overnight. "There were kids who would take something, sell it, and come back. Even then, my mother wouldn't get mad, and welcomed them home with open arms," said Hiro.

    Documents with covers reading, "record of upbringing," "anthology of graduation essays" and other records were kept in the foster care facility's stone warehouse. Despite some discoloration, it appears they had been kept with care.

    Some documents which were kept in the "Aiji no ie" orphan home are seen in the foster care facility in Tokyo's Nakano Ward on Sept. 1, 2020. (Mainichi/Kayo Mukuda)

    Among them was a file whose words had been so worn out that they could barely be made out. It was packed with handwritten notes on the families of a total of 245 children, as well as the background of events that led to their arrival at the orphanage. The children came from various circumstances; it was not just limited to those whose parents died in the war, but also those who lost them to illness, or who had returned alone from what had been Japan-occupied Manchuria in northeastern China.

    The children's addresses and places of birth spanned a wide range of areas from Hokkaido in northernmost Japan to Nagasaki in southwestern Japan, as well as Kaohsiung in Taiwan, and Mukden in Manchuria. The orphanage had apparently been popular among children as a home that would welcome them warmly, and documents also noted the existence of children that "came on their own from Ueno Station."

    There were also children who had been in the Allied occupation forces before they were taken in, or who had been transferred to four hospitals and care institutions in a year. There were also scribbles that read, "belongings were money to the amount of one yen and fifty sen, as well as one pair each of pants and shorts, and one shirt."

    It is rare for a collection of records on war orphans to survive, and they are said to be a valuable clue in revealing Japan's situation immediately after the war ended. A group of researchers mainly compiled records of orphans who had entered the facility by 1955 in the book, "Aiji no ie archives," (Fuji Publishing Co.), and published the first volume on Nov. 16. All five volumes and a separate volume that is a compilation of photo records are set to be published by June next year.

    This 1946 photo shows people who lived in an underground tunnel in Tokyo's Ueno Station. (Mainichi)

    Haruo Asai, professor emeritus at Rikkyo University who is an expert on war orphan issues and a member of the group that compiled the records, commented, "It is often the case that documents haven't survived, as facilities were renovated during Japan's period of rapid economic growth. These records are thorough, and were completed thanks to Satayo's efforts."

    He added, "Satayo's orphanage took pride in itself as a 'home,' like its name, and her integrity can be felt from the documents. It is important to pass these down."

    (Japanese original by Kayo Mukuda, City News Department)

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