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Japanese WWII orphan shares his tough upbringing to prevent more neglected children

Isamu Ogura is seen reflecting on the past at the beach he went to upon running away from his relatives, in this image taken in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, on July 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Ryoichi Mochizuki)

OSAKA -- The first city on the Sea of Japan side of the country to be hit by World War II air raids was Tsuruga in Fukui Prefecture. On July 12 this year, a siren rang out to mourn those who lost their lives 76 years ago. At a Buddhist memorial service in a city temple, mourners and others observed a silent prayer.

    There, a tearful 89-year-old Isamu Ogura prayed with tears in his eyes for his mother Matsu, who lost her life to the air raid aged just 45.

    Ogura was born and raised in Tsuruga. To attend the service, he left his home in the west Japan city of Kyoto early in the morning, and appeared at the service with a white cane in his hand and someone to support him. Though normally a good-humored man with a cheerful disposition, when summer comes around his mood is weighed down by anger and sadness.

    His father, a sailor, was away from home. The 13-year-old Ogura was attending school and living with his mother in Tsuruga. That night, he left her at home while he went out to take a bath. On his way back, the air raid started. He ran from the city.

    The next morning, he found his mother completely transformed, inside a water storage tank near the house. Her face was burned. "She had trouble with her legs so maybe she was slow getting away," Ogura reflected. His mother was a kind, hard-working person. Her go-to phrase was "do your studies." She would make hot pot udon noodles just for him when he got good grades.

    His father returned after the war, but died suddenly in February 1946. Ogura began a hard life in the home of relatives who took him in. As food was scarce, one relative would ask him why he had even been born, and his cousin would also bully him.

    Isamu Ogura is seen in prayer at a Buddhist ceremony to mourn the lives taken in bombings on the city of Tsuruga, at a temple in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, on July 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Ryoichi Mochizuki)

    In August that year, he fled the house with the clothes on his back, and stole a ride on a train. He repeatedly took trains without paying to board, and went from station to station in the cities of Fukui, Ueno in Tokyo, Sannomiya in Hyogo, and Osaka. He became a "station child" staying in them.

    His friends Yama-chan and Kame-chan, who were all about the same age, would do things together, including even stealing from empty homes to find food to sustain them. The black market near the station was bustling, and they filled their bellies there.

    In the autumn of the same year, while Ogura was sleeping at Osaka Station, he suddenly developed a searing headache and nausea; his left eye went completely white. He had glaucoma, and slowly lost sight in his right eye, too. Kame-chan worked so hard to take care of Ogura. But one day, Kame-chan jumped onto the train tracks, killing himself. While Ogura relied on Yama-chan, he wondered if he wasn't causing a burden, and began to feel uneasy about the vagabond life he was leading.

    In October 1948, he entered the Fushimi dormitory, a temporary care facility for orphans in Kyoto. There, he met a teacher who changed his life. They gave respect to each of the children staying, and didn't leave out honorifics at the end of names when speaking to them. Sometimes, they would take Ogura out to a sento public bath and wash his back. "If I don't listen to what this teacher says, I'll have a hard life," he thought. The experience alleviated his distrust of adults.

    At his teacher's recommendation, he began attending the Kyoto Prefectural School for the Visually Impaired, and afterword started working as a masseur. Even now, he works from his home studio in Kyoto's Sakyo Ward.

    In late July, Ogura went to Fushimi Ward where the Fushimi dormitory used to stand. There, he took part in an event to pass down war experiences.

    Isamu Ogura is seen pouring water on his mother's grave in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, on July 12, 2021. (Mainichi/Ryoichi Mochizuki)

    "Those stories aren't the kind of thing to boast about; they were so terrible that I didn't want to remember them," he divulged. For years and years, Ogura never told his wife about his childhood experiences. In 2015, when the national security bill paving the way for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense was forcibly passed, he felt the country was edging close to war again. He felt that adults had a responsibility not to make any more war orphans, and came to speak about his experiences at places including schools as part of their peace studies.

    Speaking at the event, Ogura touched on the fact that many children died after the war due to malnutrition and other hardship, saying, "We cannot have a society where the weak are left to die. I want you to tell people that orphans existed," he said to the assembled people including parents with children. One 2021 junior high school history textbook includes information on his life. It is reportedly the first published textbook in Japan containing the story of a specific orphan.

    Since 2020, he has also been helping at a children's canteen opened in Kyoto. Ogura says he wants to be of help to children who feel afraid and isolated. "I understand children who are starving for some warmth. I don't push them with questions about why they are like they are, I just hold their hand and give them a hug," he said.

    On July 12, after the service in Tsuruga ended, and Ogura had finished praying at his mother's grave in the city, he went to a nearby beach. "This is the start of everything, for me," he said. Then he listened to the sound of the quiet waves.

    Seventy-five years ago, he came to this beach in despair after leaving his relatives' home. A fisherman who was worried about him came over and said, "There'll be good times one day. You're young, so don't get any stupid ideas now." Then he fed him, giving him a small pilchard and some rice he'd cooked. Ogura said he rode the train out immediately after.

    "I want to say to that man, 'Thank you.'" Ogura wore a peaceful expression as he reflected on the past.


    Station children

    After the war, major train stations including Ueno Station in Tokyo, Osaka Station and Kyoto Station became gathering spots for children who had been orphaned by air raids and other events in the war and came to sleep at the stations. They were referred to as "eki no ko" in Japanese, which roughly translates to "station children."

    (Japanese original by Sachiko Miyakawa, Osaka City News Department)

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