Shoso Kawamoto

Don't Forget about the A-bomb Orphans

3.A-bomb Orphans and the Yakuza

Lives of the A-bomb orphans

Children, whose families had not come to evacuation sites to pick them up until August 15, returned to Hiroshima accompanied by an officer of each village. It is estimated that there were about 2,700 school boys and girls whose parents died in the A-bombing and had no relatives to take care of them. Among them, some were even refused to be taken in by their relatives. Everyone had his hands full with everyday life. These children were first taken to the City Hall, but they could not be accommodated. About 700 children were able to enter orphanages; however, the other children were forced out of City Hall because there was no place to accept them. Those children gathered around Hiroshima Station and began to live under bridges or in the corners of ruined buildings.

Many of those children were swept away by the Makurazaki Typhoon. Of course, many adults, who lost their houses, were also washed away while sleeping under bridges. Tokie and I moved to Hiroshima Station soon after the Makurazaki Typhoon. After the typhoon, the people from the outlying farming villages served meals two or three times a week, and the orphans could have the meals for nothing. These meals were not prepared every day, and they were for only 500 or 600 people. Children, who could not eat, dipped their towel into remaining soup in a pan bottom and sucked it to the last drop. Regrettably, the soup kitchen ended in October or November.

After Tokie left for work in the morning, I had nothing to do. I was bored and wanted someone to play with. I yielded my turn for the soup to other children or scavenged iron scraps with them. Gradually, I was accepted by the orphans. Orphans were easily recognized just by looking at their clothes. They had no spare clothes to wear, and their clothes were obviously different from those of children who lived with their families or in the facilities.

At night, orphans had no place to return to. They slept under bridges, in the corners of the ruined buildings, or in air-raid shelters. They usually slept in a group of 5 or 6 children. They slept in a group, but they were not friends or peers. They didn’t know each other well, but they wanted to be together at least when sleeping. When they woke up in the morning, they went out on their own to find something to eat.

The orphans attacked street vendors to get food. Especially, they aimed at women or elderly vendors. First, an orphan would steal rice cakes at the shop and run away. When the owner ran after him, distracted from the food, other children one after another stole rice cakes. Children who stole something were also desperate. If they kept what they stole in their hand for even a short time, it would be snatched at the next moment by another child. Therefore, they stole a rice cake and put it in their mouth at the same time. Small children were robbed of what they had got by big children. Before they swallowed, their mouths were forced open to take out the food. They were like little starving devils. Hiroshima was burned to ashes by the A-bombing without even weeds on the land. All they could collect to eat by themselves were newspapers thrown away around Hiroshima Station. It was the only thing soft enough for children to chew. Orphans even fought for newspapers. They balled up the newspaper they managed to find, put it into their mouths and washed it down with water.

Yakuza and orphans

Japanese gangsters, known as yakuza, took care of those orphans who lived on the streets. As the Makurazaki Typhoon devastated Hiroshima branches of yakuza groups completely, many gangsters in Osaka or Fukuoka came to Hiroshima soon after the typhoon to take over their territories. They built houses along the river banks in the city. In particular, in Nakajima-cho, the present Peace Memorial Park, they built five or six two-story houses. Yakuza lived upstairs and many orphans slept downstairs together, all huddled on straw mats. The first yakuza who came to Hiroshima felt sorry for the children and tried to help them with the mind of humanity and justice. However, regardless of top gangsters’ minds, punk gangsters were not chivalrous. They just gave the children a sleeping place and food in return for making them work, and they took away most of their earnings. Only the orphans older than middle school students made groups which had a leader like in the Barefoot Gen cartoon.

Because the elementary school-aged orphans couldn’t do anything but steal things, they couldn’t live by themselves. Yakuza gave them small jobs, like lending a group of five or six orphans a shoe-shining tool box. One cleaned customer’s shoes and another one polished them and others touted customers. At night, they handed money to the yakuza after work. A group that couldn’t get much money lost the job, and another group took it over. Losers sometimes weren’t given anything to eat. They were often beaten, kicked, thrown into the river and treated like animals. So, orphans worked frantically and often fought with each other.

Orphans also were forced to make porridge in a big pot with vegetables that the yakuza had collected from stalls and sell a cup of it for five yen. I don’t know how the yakuza collected those vegetables. I wonder if the yakuza bought them properly or threatened the stall owners. I often saw children sharing the leftover porridge at the end of the day.

There were other various little jobs that the children did. Thinning methyl alcohol with ten times water, they sold it for ten yen a cup. Yakuza also made the children sell hilopon, methamphetamines, and reconstructed cigarettes, which were made from butts that occupied military soldiers had thrown away. The children collected the butts, loosened the tobacco and rolled them with a paper. The children who were forced to sell hilopon sometimes became junkies themselves. Drug addiction was horrible. Junkies screamed and ran wild suddenly. Yakuza taught them such kind of work; however, their earnings were all extorted by the yakuza. Because there was no other place the children could eat and sleep, they didn’t run away, in spite of those abuses. Somehow, they could survive in this way.

Many street children died from the youngest on up. If a younger one had something to eat, it was soon snatched by the older ones. I heard a story that one child was chewing something and an older one forced him down to the ground and opened his mouth. It was a c stone he was chewing. No one cared even if a street child was sick or almost dead. If one died, others stripped his clothes off immediately, so the dead children on the streets were always naked. Those who were taken in by the yakuza were at least able to live. Because it was hard for common people to make their own living at that time, they couldn’t afford to pay attention to those children. With the gradual coming of winter, cold, in addition to hunger, attacked the street children. When they died, they were never cremated and buried properly. They were burned with garbage like dumped waste, not as humans.

At first, there were 2000 orphans on the streets, but it is said the number decreased to some hundreds by the end of the year. After the new year started, however, the number began increasing. Many children who had been in relatives’ houses or orphanages and probably had felt uncomfortable started living on the streets.

After the typhoon, victims including orphans could get free meals at soup kitchens for a while. However, the soup kitchens started selling meals to people, except orphans. That was how a black market was formed gradually in front of the station. Many people came from outside the city, spreading straw mats with only wooden boxes and sold things. Because too many stalls disturbed the traffic, the city made them move to one place, employing yakuza. That was the beginning of the Aiyu market. Then orphans lost their little work. To get something to eat, they made groups of 5-6 and started attacking the stalls. They stormed them shouting, “Give us udon noodles!” or “Give us some bread!” When the owner refused, the children sometimes acted violently, destroying the stall and running away. When they were only two or three of them, the stall owners gave them some food, but if there were many children, they were made to go away.

There were about 300 girl orphans at first. They were well treated by female yakuza, though boy orphans were forced to work hard and were brutally abused, such as being beaten or kicked. The girls wore beautiful clothes and had enough food. However, those girls disappeared one by one and at last there were none. Now I guess that they were sold and became prostitutes.

People hardly know these facts. These true images of the orphans have rarely been told. People might think that orphans are children who lost their parents and were accommodated in orphanages. The number of children left on the streets was far larger than that of those in orphanages.

Restoration and yakuza

Because almost all the major cities in Japan had been destroyed by air raids, every city started to restore itself at the same time just after the end of the war. So, materials, equipment and laborers were scarce. In particular, Hiroshima’s infrastructure had been destroyed completely. It was chaos and people had no idea where to start restoring. Meanwhile, Hiroshima Electric Railway started running a streetcar in one section only three days after the A-bombing. That gave the citizens big courage who had lost their hope to live. Water pipes were burst everywhere in the city and streets were submerged in leaking water. It is said that it took nine months to repair all the pipes. Roads and bridges were cut off and there was neither reliable electricity nor gas supply.  

The biggest problem was that there were no houses for survivors to live in. All the houses within a radius 1.5km from the hypocenter were burned down, except a few concrete buildings. It was urgent work to build temporary houses for survivors.

There were many burned-out ruins where all the former residents were dead, so many people came to live in such ruins illegally. There were many cases that unknown people occupied the land when evacuated children or demobilized men returned home. That caused big troubles over the land ownership among people. When the city planned to build temporary houses limited for three years in present-Central Park, many people had already built shacks there, so the city had to force them to move out. The city hired the yakuza to settle those troubles and to recruit construction laborers. After starting construction, the yakuza became field overseers on the sites. They became too busy to squeeze a little money from the children who did shoe-shining or touting on the streets. So the children were used as recruiters, made to collect construction workers, recruiting homeless people and demobilized men. The city paid 100 yen per person and the yakuza skimmed off 20 yen from laborers and 40 yen from children.

There are few records left about the first ten years after the A-bombing. The city was too chaotic. It was like a yakuza city. I think most people couldn’t lead ordinary lives. Many people outside Hiroshima might have imagined Hiroshima was a yakuza city. Many yakuza movies featured those days in Hiroshima. However, the reality of yakuza was crueler than in the movies. In fact, yakuza always carried kitchen knives or guns, and some carried clubs. Your yakuza group never stopped beating till your enemy group became still. Otherwise, when your enemy got up again, you were beaten down. Once you became a member of the yakuza, you were trained that way.

The first yakuza who came to Hiroshima in the early times were educated to be chivalrous and never fought against common people. However, after the orphans joined as lower gangsters, they didn’t behave like that. They were so desperate to eat and survive. They knocked down others, not because they hated them, but because they just wanted to eat something that day. They wanted to survive at any risk.