According to official Japanese figures, some 2,800 Japanese children under the age of 13 were left in China at the end of World War II, lost, abandoned or orphaned. Most of them came from families that were in China as part of the "exploration team" conducting Japan's military and economic occupation of the country.
After the Japanese surrender, the children were taken in by Chinese foster parents, 90 percent of them in northeast China and Inner Mongolia.
In the 1980s, many of the orphans began returning to their homeland, where the economy was soaring and workers were needed. According to the Japanese Ministry of Labor, 2,476 orphans -- 90 percent of the total -- had returned to Japan by August 2004.
Although their expectations were high, few of the middle-aged orphans could speak Japanese and had difficulty finding steady jobs. Neither could they live on government assistance, and most were sorely disappointed when they arrived back home.
In most cases, the foster parents they left behind are living in conditions that are no better.
Many of the foster parents live in remote rural areas, and few of them have any steady source of income. "Their poverty is shocking to us," said Li Zhihong, former director of the Chinese Foster Parents Aid Center (CFPAC) in Jilin Province.
The CFPAC, established in 1990 with the help of a Japanese women's organization called the Takara Club, was operated by the Jilin Province Red Cross Society. Its main purpose was to assist the foster parents in return for the love and care they gave the orphans, and to assist the orphans in finding their Japanese relatives. The local government paid staff salaries and other operating costs were covered by charitable donations.
Although the Red Cross Society of China organizes get-togethers for the elderly foster parents and provides them limited health care, it can do little else for them. According to Li, following her appointment as CFPAC director in 1998, the RCSC made only a single allocation of 100,000 yuan (US$12,000) for health exams, back in 1999.
The Japanese Changchun Society, a private-sector organization in Japan, also once donated 100,000 yuan.
In the late 1980s, a Japanese businessman surnamed Kasanuki heard about the plight of the Chinese foster parents. Deeply touched by their stories, he invested 80 million yen (US$739,000) to establish the Sino-Japanese Friendship Building in Changchun, Jilin Province.
With the help of the local government, in September 1990 29 households of Chinese foster parents who had been living in substandard housing moved into new apartments in the three-story building. Each was given two bedrooms and a living room, all with central heat and provided free of charge.
Now, only seven of those households are left.
The nonprofit CFPAC lasted for more than ten years. Guan Xiulan, a foster mother living in the friendship building said that the CFPAC helped her a lot. "They did the health exam for me and chatted with me every Wednesday, which let me know that somebody outside the building was concerned about me." Staff visited those living in remote rural areas once a year.
But at the beginning of 2004, the CFPAC was taken over by the Changchun Municipal Health Bureau and shut down. According to the chief of operations at the Jilin Red Cross Society, the decision to shut it down was made because the number of Japanese orphans and their foster parents had dropped sharply during the preceding 10 years.
Li Zhihong believes that the assistance should continue until there are no orphans or foster parents left.
Additional help is not likely to come from Japan, where little is said of the Chinese foster parents. The Japanese media focus on the orphans' suffering of discrimination, poverty, lack of education and the impact of political movements in China. The foster parents' own hardships and the care they provided are rarely mentioned.
Cao Baoming, an expert on Northeast folklore, is a pioneer in research on this special group. In 1994, after seeing a plaque of the Japanese Orphans Search Committee, he interviewed 16 Chinese foster parents. Their stories were published in the 1999 book, Records of the Adoption of Japanese Orphans in WWII.
Only 2,000 copies were printed, and not one was sold on the open market. Li Zhihong bought 1,000 to give to Japanese guests as gifts, hoping to increase their awareness of the situation.
Cao and Li said they share two wishes: one is to erect a monument in Changchun to the love of mothers, the Chinese people and humanism. The other is to set up an endowment fund for the elderly foster parents.
(Southern City News translated by Li Shen, April 12, 2005)