The origins and plight of senso koji (war orphans) in postwar Japan


Senso koji in Kita-ku, Osaka, using an empty can to cook.
Many [war orphans] lived in railroad stations, under trestles and railway overpasses, in abandoned ruins. They survived by their wits—shining shoes, selling newspapers, stealing, recycling cigarette butts, illegally selling food coupons, begging (Dower 1991: 63).

Abstract: In Japan, senso koji (war orphans) are often identified as fur?ji (juvenile vagrants). The dominant image of senso koji is therefore a street child engaging in a variety of adult survival activities in such cities as Tokyo after the war’s end. This essay aims to problematize this myth. In the first part, I reconsider the meaning of koji, senso koji and furoji as socially “constructed” terms after the onset of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). In the second part, I focus on the voices and experiences of the majority of senso koji, who were taken into their relatives’ homes immediately after the loss of their parents. The war took the lives of many children. Senso koji survived. However, it was only since the 1970s that they began to speak about their wartime and postwar experiences to fulfill their obligation. Did the wartime state truly “protect” the nation’s children? Their ultimate goal seems to be to answer this question. 

Senso (war) koji (orphan) is the Japanese term for “war orphan.”1 In contemporary Japan and in the Anglophone world, people associate sens? koji with the images that John Dower provided in the context of the postwar era, that is, after Japan’s defeat by the Allied Powers on August 15, 1945. Hence, the documentary film on senso koji made in 2015, for example, bears the title of Senso koji tachi no yuigon: Jigoku o ikita 70 nen [The Testament of War Orphans: Having Lived in Hell for 70 Years], that is, 70 years since Japan’s defeat. Yet, many of these children became orphans, days, months, or even years before Japan’s capitulation. If so, why did they suddenly appear, as if someone placed them on the stage of postwar Japan, that is, a product of the defeat? Did they all experience the lives of street children as described by Dower? Who are senso koji after all? Have they ever achieved liberation from that name? This essay presents my pursuit of answers to these questions.

War Orphans Who Were Not Named Sens? Koji

The word koji (??) originates in ko (?), one of the six categories of mukoku no tami (????), meaning “those people (tami) who are alone in the world and have no one to turn to (mukoku).2 Ko was defined as “a child younger than age 16 without a father.” Koji, however, seems to have been used as a standard word for “orphan” since the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when the state began to incorporate all school-age children into the system of national education.3 A dictionary definition of koji is a “a child who is deprived by death of parent(s).” Yet, the meaning of koji also includes cases involving the disappearance of the parents, as well as of the child having become lost or otherwise separated from parents, who have not come forward to claim it. In this case, war, natural disaster, such as earthquake, famine or epidemics, or the poverty of the parents is often seen as the root cause of the child’s status as koji. Regardless of its cause, the image of koji is always negative: alone, unhappy and poor.

The Asia-Pacific Journal – Japan Focusfor more

Comments are closed.