“Hoki Province, Ono, Distant View of Mount Daisen,” by the San Diego Museum of Art Collection

On April 15th, 1945, a heavily pregnant Nakahara Toshiko arrived home to Kurayoshi, Tottori Prefecture, western Japan with a small child on her back. It had been a long and arduous journey. By rail from northern China, through Manchuria, and down the Korean peninsula by ship from Busan to Hakata in Kyushu and then again by train to Kurayoshi. Some 2,500 kilometers. Surprisingly, her husband Toshio, a staff officer in the Imperial Japanese Army based in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, had been given special permission to accompany her.

Toshio had inherited a large tract of land, which he hoped would provide amply for his family after he returned shortly to his posting in Hebei.

But it was not to be. Disaster had struck. Unbeknown to him, an elderly aunt, who had been taking care of the land in his absence, had sold it. The cash value was wiped out amid hyper-inflation. The Nakaharas were suddenly transformed into homeless, poverty-stricken refugees.

Nakahara Toshiko was born in 1922, the fourth of nine children in a farming family. They owned their own land, and hence were not considered poor, but they were most certainly not rich either. One of her fondest childhood memories is of a trip with her sister to Mount Daisen, often called “Western Fuji” for its distinctive volcanic peak, so similar to the sacred mountain. It was only a journey of thirty kilometers by bus, but to the young Toshiko was a transition to a wondrous different world.

Shortly before finishing primary school at the age of 12, Toshiko was sent to work in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital, as a maid in a steel merchant’s household. Although she was a servant, her legal rights were respected and she finished primary school there. For the rural girl, the more refined Kyoto education was a shock, but Toshiko learned new skills such as how to operate an abacus.

As the senior of three maids, she attended the lady of the house, a former geiko (the name given to geisha in Kyoto) and teacher of ikebana flower arrangement, on high-society visits and in her flower classes. Her job was to carry the mistress’s handbag and other apparel. The young Toshiko was in a kind of heaven of beauty and sophistication, and was even allowed to taste the delicate Kyoto sweets left after the tea parties to which she accompanied the ikebana teacher.

The master of the house was a former colonel in the Imperial Army, a gruff but kindly and unpretentious man who always dressed in simple kimono and worked tirelessly in the family business. His family were originally samurai from Aizu, a tough northern domain annihilated during the civil wars of the 1860s, and he followed his ancestor’s austere and unostentatious ways. The colonel encouraged Toshiko to read by giving her access to his books.

There were four sons; the eldest two attended the University of Tokyo, the third Doshisha University in Kyoto, and the fourth, who had a fondness for animals, studied agriculture at Hokkaido University. This was an extremely prestigious family educational record. Indeed it would still be today.

One day, out of the blue, when she was twenty, a message arrived telling Toshiko to return home immediately to Kurayoshi. On arrival, to her great surprise, she was informed that she was to be married the next day to Nakahara Toshio, a staff officer based in Shijiazhuang, China. The day after the ceremony, they left for his posting.

Even by the standards of the day, this was unusual. Daughters were normally at least consulted before being married off. But that was not her father’s way and she obeyed.

Having been a maid herself only a matter of days before, she was now the mistress of a Chinese house, with a servant of her own. Her new husband worked in the Japanese military world, prosecuting the Second Sino-Japanese War, and left his young wife to manage the household alone. The elderly serving woman who helped her did not speak a word of Japanese, so Toshiko had to learn Chinese fast – at least, just enough to keep the home going.

Shijiazhuang was a strategically important city and, since its capture in 1937, a key headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army. Strong fortifications were erected. The city was surrounded by trenches and barbed wire, and 5,000 concrete pillboxes were built in its defense. Not only was it a Chinese city, built in a radically different way to Japanese cities – of brick rather than wood – but it felt like a city at war. Extremely daunting to a girl brought up in rural Tottori and serene Kyoto.

By the time Toshiko arrived, the Japanese civilian community, many of whom, reflecting the multiethnic empire, were in fact Korean, numbered well over 10,000. There were even, surprisingly, other people from Tottori Prefecture (the least populated prefecture in Japan). Military families were well provided for, enjoying standards of healthcare – including the best possible maternity provision for the birth of the Nakahara’s first daughter Chie – and food no different (and later in the war perhaps far better) than in the home islands.

However, by 1945 Japan was on the verge of defeat. Although news was strictly controlled, it was clear that the Americans were approaching the home islands. Nobody talked about it out loud, not to the young wife of an officer, but all knew the end was nigh. A second pregnancy gave Toshiko a chance to return to Japan, and luckily her husband was granted leave from his duties to accompany her.

Had they not left China then, they would have likely been victims of the massive upheavals that accompanied the collapse and disintegration of the Japanese Empire only a few months later. In the chaos, thousands died. From starvation, in the surprise invasion by the Soviet Red Army, and in reprisal attacks by the liberated locals, although in China proper these were relatively restrained. Thousands of children were separated from their families and adopted into Chinese households. The identification and repatriation of these castaways lasted until the 21st century.

The Nakaharas had arrived back in Kurayoshi to a warm welcome from Toshiko’s mother, and on July 17th, 1945, their second daughter Masae was born. Toshiko begged her husband not to return to China. His emotions must have been in turmoil, Toshio was a man who did his duty come what may. But which duty should he prioritize ? His country or his family?

He stayed in Kurayoshi.

Less than a month after Masae’s birth, Japan surrendered.

Prior to the surrender, while the war raged far away, resources in this quiet and peaceful corner of Japan had already been strained. Food was directed to the cities further south and east. Fertilizer production was curbed in favor of munitions. The military commandeered anything they could. Everything went into the war effort.

Post-war, conditions deteriorated further. Those in the cities and surrendered combatants on distant battlefields were starving. In fact more Japanese soldiers died from hunger than in battle over the course of the war.

The Japanese were not alone. All over Asia, in China, India, and elsewhere, the war caused tens of millions of deaths from hunger, both through shortages arising from conflict, and through governments’ administrative incompetence.

The Nakaharas were in penury, their land was lost, and only a small and dilapidated rental property remained to provide a tiny income. The family had no fixed abode of their own and flitted between the houses of relatives, trying not to outstay their welcome. They did not even have their own futons, so an aunt donated her old kimonos to be filled with straw and made into bedding. Toshiko’s husband made do with his old army uniform.

At least as members of a farming family, they had just enough food to survive. They certainly could not have afforded the black market prices that were being charged for the most basic necessities.

Post-war Japan was in ruins. Industrial capacity was at 10% of pre-war levels. Most cities were reduced to shouldering embers. Infrastructure of every sort was in tatters, and the massive psychological blow of defeat and national destruction hovered over everything. For the first time ever, Japan was the object of foreign occupation. The Allied occupation was in fact relatively benign, and huge imports of food from North America ensured that very few people actually died from starvation. But it initially seemed like one more nail in the coffin.

The return of seven million new mouths to feed from former imperial territories did not help the situation. The hikiagesha, returnees, were often stigmatized, made scapegoats for the defeat and disaster. Many felt they had become unwanted aliens in their own country.

There was little work to be had for a former soldier, and Toshiko’s husband struggled. One day, she happened to see a police recruiting poster. Toshio was not keen on the idea, but he had little choice in the matter, there was no other way to provide for his family. On October 1st 1945, he applied, took the tests and was successful. He was transferred in succession to the two biggest cities in Tottori Prefecture, Yonago and then Tottori City itself. The family stayed in Kurayoshi.

At last a modicum of stability had been established, but junior police salaries were low, prices were sky-high, shop shelves were bare and times were still hard. Two more daughters arrived, Tokie and Miyako. Toshiko’s husband could not help feeling disappointed at not having a son, and complained bitterly to her.

The family still helped them out with food, sending wind-fall fruit to feed the growing girls. Sometimes Toshiko’s elder brother took the girls on trips to the nearby seaside and camping in the mountains.

Japan recovered, then flourished, and so did the Nakaharas. Chie the eldest daughter married and moved to Hiroshima, the other three daughters went to university and became teachers and medical professionals, then started families of their own. In the 1980s, Toshio was decorated by the emperor for his police service, and Toshiko accompanied him to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo for the award ceremony.

Life became easier, but Toshiko never forgot the hard times. She spent her life working hard to bring up her children, support her husband, and grow vegetables for the table. She would visit multiple shops daily to find the cheapest prices and always kept an eagle eye on interest rates so as to get the best return for the family’s savings. She was still working her small field and garden vegetable patch well into her eighties. It was a life with few luxuries, exemplified by the time a few years before her death that her granddaughter, Junko, tried to knead her grandmother’s tired shoulders. After a few minutes she said, “That is the first time anyone has given me a massage.”

Perhaps her one luxury was sweets. She always retained the sweet tooth developed as a maid to the fine lady in Kyoto all those years ago. The last thing she ever ate was yokan, a sweet jelly from the famous Tokyo confectioner Toraya, which Masae fed her on her last day of consciousness.

Nakahara Toshiko’s story is that of a normal life lived in troubled times. It is representative of the lives of millions of Japanese women of the age whose stories are rarely told, especially not in languages other than Japanese.

The wars that the Japanese military and state engaged in during the 1930s and ’40s are well known, indeed infamous. The civilians caught up in the machinations of the powerful had little choice but to do their duty as they saw it, and ultimately to survive.

Women like Nakahara Toshiko worked hard, overcame adversity and nurtured the children, and grandchildren who would change a militaristic empire into a strong and prosperous, peaceful nation. Their praises are rarely sung, but they deserve to be.

 This is one small attempt.

Nakahara Toshiko died in 2012 at the age of 90, seven years after her husband passed away.

Before he died, Toshio told his wife, “お前。女の子だけで良かった。”

“Sweet one. I am glad you only had daughters.”

This article is based upon several interviews with Nakahara Toshiko in 2011, a year before her death. The memories of Kinoshita Masae, the daughter who she bore within her on the long journey back from China, and her granddaughter Junko Lockley, as well as various other family stories, contributed to this article.


Thomas Lockley is an Associate Professor at Nihon University College of Law in Tokyo. He teaches and researches the stories of people who normally fall through the cracks of history, ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. His co-authored narrative history book, African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan was published by Harper Collins in April 2019.

Thomas Lockley is an Associate Professor at Nihon University College of Law in Tokyo. He teaches and researches the stories of people who normally fall through the cracks of history, ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. His co-authored narrative history book, African Samurai: The True Story of Yasuke, a Legendary Black Warrior in Feudal Japan was published by Harper Collins in April 2019.

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