I met Susumu Noda by chance in Tokyo in 2018 at the Apple Store in Shibuya. He was there learning how to use the Apple watch he’d been given to monitor his walking and we got to talking. At some point, he realized my interest in history and he began telling me his story. He said he grew up in Manchuria during the war, and when I remarked that it must have been difficult, he said the worst part was seeing someone lynched on the ship that repatriated him to Japan.
He was born in the Manchurian capital of Dalien, the oldest son of an engineer who built locomotives for the South Manchurian Railroad. He lived in company housing in Dalien with his parents and twin younger brothers.
Dalien had been leased to Japan by Manchu China under the terms that ended the Sino Japanese war, but a tripartite alliance had forced China to instead lease the port city to Russia, which renamed it Port Arthur. The port became Japan’s focus in the Russo-Japanese War, and as a result of that war, Japan’s lease to the city was restored.
Originally, Japan dispatched the Kwangtung Army to protect the Manchurian railroad. But the interests of both the railroad and the Kwangtung Army grew until Manchuria became a defacto Japanese colony. Places like Manchuria and Korea were called outer lands ‘gaichi,’ while Japan itself was the inner land, ‘naichi.’
Mr. Noda had lunch with my wife and I soon after and what follows is his story.
I remember when Japan formed the country it called “Manchukuo,” (the Kingdom of Manchuria) when I was in elementary school. They had a kingdom so they needed a king and chose the deposed Manchu emperor of China, Pu Yi. But it was really the same as Japan.
In my elementary school there was one Korean boy. His name was Park-san, who in Japanese we called ‘Boku Teiki.’ But after the war started, he had to change his name. His name changed to “Taku” because it was similar. His family name became Kinoshita because the character for Park looks a little like the characters for Kinoshita. It doesn’t really but it is kind of close to it.
There was an actor I liked at that time named Kotaro Bando, so I called my friend Kotaro, Kotaro Kinoshita. It was really terrible for them to have their names taken away from them. They were told, ‘Change your name.’ They had no choice. They lost their names they had been given in their native land and in their native tongue and had to speak Japanese. So to this day, whenever I hear of someone saying they hate the Japanese language, I completely understand.
So many Japanese people don’t know about this, because it’s something the nation doesn’t want to publicize.
I remember how Japan’s territory was marked in red on maps. Korea was part of Japan, as was Taiwan. Japan’s military government in Taiwan was lenient compared to the treatment Korea got. For that reason, there were more people in Taiwan sympathetic to Japan’s war aims.
War is trouble but I think you have to fight and you have to win. Koreans were the spoils of war (Japan’s war with China). If you lose a war, you have no rights. The victors can kill you if they like, and there’s nothing you can do about it. War is a terrible thing, but losing one, that is the worst.
If you lose a war, you can’t do anything. The winners can kill you if they like and you are powerless.
By the end of the war, there were no more lessons. The children were all laboring for the war effort. The 3rd- and 4th-year middle school students were in factories, building tanks and airplanes. These were children, middle school students in Dalien.
But for first-year students, factory work was too difficult, so we were put to work on civil defense projects, building reservoirs in case we were bombed. That meant digging holes and hardening them with clay. We were put to work digging clay and carrying it. We did that every day.
During the war, school became militarized. I entered middle school on April 1, the last year of the war, but it was still going on then. The first two days were spent on saluting practice and standing in ranks. We saluted the headteacher at morning assembly and were drilled. There were no class groups. You were in one “tai” (military company) or another. I was in the “chutai”– the middle company.
We were taught to salute army style (with the elbow extended). One time we had a naval officer who was on leave recuperating and he showed us how the navy salutes with the elbow at your side – because naval vessels are cramped. But our school saluted army style.
They kept these magnificent rifles at school, but I never fired one. Only the third- and fourth-year students practiced shooting. I guess the upperclassmen did so, but in truth, I never saw any of them, because they were all sent to work at factories and weren’t there. Actually there were supposed to be fifth-year students as well, but at some point during the war, fifth-year was abolished so the boys could go into the military.
As first-year students, we were put to work. Sometimes we’d arrive at school and the second-year students were put in charge of the first-year kids, and they’d hit us, for any reason they could think of. “You forgot to salute.” “You’re too big.” “You’re too small.” They didn’t need a reason to hit us.
When we lined up, and they’d hit about one boy out of every five. Even if we didn’t make contact with them, they’d say you did and strike you. Of, course, they had been hit by the third-years, so we got it every day.
This went on every day, so of course, we wanted to be able to hit someone, too. But unfortunately for us, the war ended and we didn’t get our turn to hit other boys.
We did have classes in elementary school, but in the fifth and sixth grades, we had to use navy semaphore flags to send signals in Morse code. That’s what we had to learn. I was the best at that, and the teacher would say, ‘Noda you go up on the hill and signal the others.’
So while all the other six graders still on the playing field, I would go to the hilltop and signal with my flags, while they had to write down the messages I sent in Morse code.
If they weren’t able to write the message, they would get hit. Because I was sending the message, I wouldn’t get hit. Of course, because it was elementary school, we weren’t hit very hard. But the teachers would hit the Korean students pretty hard whenever they liked.