The "Moral Adoption" of Hiroshima’s A-bomb Orphans, Part II [Conclusion]

Conscience and goodwill connect "parents" with "children"

by Akira Tashiro and Masami Nishimoto, Special Reporters

This series of articles continues the story of the "moral adoption" of children in Hiroshima by American citizens. It was originally published in July 1988. The exact spelling of some names could not be confirmed.

The moral adoption campaign enabled American citizens to "adopt" children in Hiroshima who lost their families due to the atomic bombing and promoted communication between the moral parents and the children. Guided by the letters they exchanged, which were found in the Hiroshima Municipal Archives, we have attempted to shed light on the "moral adoption campaign."

A few of the "adopted children" told us that they "don't really remember the campaign because it was a long time ago." However, most have children of their own now, who are about 20 years old, and being parents themselves has stirred thoughts of their American "parents." The goodwill of these U.S. citizens, which reached across the sea to touch them during a difficult childhood, will surely continue to glow in their hearts.

The sense of gratitude grows

"If my moral parents are still alive, I'd like to tell them how grateful I am. If only I could get information about them."

"Getting letters from my moral parent and writing replies gave me a lot of emotional support in those days."

Though expressed in different words, many of the former "adopted children" we interviewed have felt a growing sense of gratitude toward their moral parents and the staff members of the Hiroshima War Orphans Foster Home, who provided them with support despite the fact they were total strangers. They began to hold hopes of somehow repaying this kindness.

A-bomb orphans suffered from a lack of food and clothing, but above all, they suffered the trauma of losing their families. "It could have been anyone, as long as the person cared about me and supported me," said a housewife, 53, who has raised two children of her own. Her words underscore the fact that, when these children needed help most, the helping hands came from American citizens reaching out from across the sea.

"To be honest, when I was a child, I just thought of my moral parent as someone who would send me gloves and chocolate. But, looking back, I cannot help but bow low. I'm amazed that a total stranger did so much for me." It can be said that the feelings expressed by this 50-year-old man are more or less shared by the other former residents of the Hiroshima War Orphans Foster Home.

The moral parents wanted to somehow "save the orphans." The children thought of them as simply "the Americans who send us presents." A gap in perception clearly existed in these "adoptions" between the "parents" and their "children." But now, with the children grown and living peaceful lives, the gap is being bridged.

Needless to say, it would have been impossible to fulfill the moral adoption campaign without the people who dedicated themselves to fostering the children at the Hiroshima War Orphans Foster Home. Thanks to those who persevered in their selfless efforts, acting as go-betweens for the moral parents and children, barriers involving such things as language and custom were overcome and the campaign was able to succeed.

For instance, there was Teiko Yamashita, the director of the Hiroshima War Orphans Foster Home, who passed away in 1962. Teiko, who was called "Grandma" and was a popular figure for the children, wrote a thank-you letter each time a child was adopted.

In a letter written in March 1950, she said: "I pray that the children will forget their sorrows and grow up healthy under my wing."

Gishin Yamashita, 94, founder of the Hiroshima War Orphans Foster Home, was called "Grandpa" by the children. There were caregivers and staff members who lived with the children under the same roof and took care of them daily. A general practitioner nearby was willing to treat the children in poor health. A second-generation Japanese repatriate from the United States was involved in the translation work for the letters. Without the support of these people, the communication between the moral parents and the children could not have been maintained.

Even after the City of Hiroshima took over management of the Hiroshima War Orphans Foster Home and changed its name to the Hiroshima Municipal Children's Home, the late Kendo Yabuki, who served as director of the home and passed away in 1983, made every effort, along with others, so that former residents of the home could find employment or proceed to their next stage of education. On behalf of the adopted children who left the home and drifted apart from their moral parents, he wrote letters with news of these children and asked the moral parents to continue their financial support for the children's education.

When these former "adopted children" saw the letters kept in the Hiroshima Municipal Archives, they realized anew that they had "parents at the home" and "moral parents." One of them said, "I sometimes felt uncomfortable, because the orphanage was included in the tour route to learn about the atomic bombing. Still, the institution is my spiritual home."

Many of the former residents of the Hiroshima War Orphans Foster Home we contacted were unwilling to talk about their childhood and their youth. But when we mentioned "Grandpa," "Grandma," and the moral parents, in most cases they relaxed and told us, "I would like to thank them."

The past weighs heavy on the present

"I don't want to touch that subject." At interviews regarding the moral adoption campaign, most of the former A-bomb orphans were at first reluctant to look back on their past. To varying degrees, they shared the feelings expressed by one who said: "I don't want people to know about it." Others told us such things as "I don't want to be called an A-bomb orphan forever" and "I haven't even told my husband and my children about myself."

Many of the "adopted children" have built new lives away from Hiroshima. As one put it, echoing the sentiments of others: "I had no home to go back to. If I had to endure a hard life anyway, I preferred a place where I wasn't going to be constantly reminded of the bombing." As it is, every milestone in their lives--like seeking higher education, finding employment, and getting married--always makes them conscious of the fact they are "orphans."

Like it or not, those who have stayed in Hiroshima are unable to escape their past. One man who left the Hiroshima War Orphans Foster Home and took night classes to graduate from high school had this to say: "As an A-bomb orphan, I've been pitied enough. When I really needed help, who was there to take care of me?" His tone revealed the distress and dissatisfaction that has lingered in his life.

While seeking lives in the shadows, their efforts have finally yielded peaceful days. Former residents of the Hiroshima War Orphans Foster Home who still live in Hiroshima held a get-together last fall and talked with each other about their lives. The bonds among them, after being brought up like siblings, are still strong. At the same time, some decided not to attend the gathering, while the whereabouts of others are unknown. One person at the get-together expressed sympathy for their feelings, saying, "I understand their feelings well. Cutting off communication with people from the past is a reflection of the fact they want to forget the atomic bombing and move on with their lives."

A-bomb orphans kept their distance from the campaigns to support A-bomb survivors and peace activities, looking coolly at these movements. When they were young, survival was the only thing on their minds. For the children who were evacuated from the city of Hiroshima, no public assistance has been provided to them. Though they were the most adversely affected by the bombing, having lost their families and homes, they have been left out of the relief measures for A-bomb survivors. Time has simply passed and the problems of the A-bomb orphans, including the social aspects, remain unresolved.

"I know the cruelty of the atomic bombing better than anyone." Despite such fierce pride, they have deep-rooted resistance to talking about their experiences. A father of two children said, "What's the point of announcing myself as an A-bomb orphan after so much time has passed?" But he added, "I have to talk about my experience so that there won't be any more victims like us."

Will these so-called "A-bomb orphans" keep silent on the subject of Hiroshima? Or will they dare to speak out? Conflicted feelings continue to haunt them.

Traditional spirit of benevolence in the United States

Without a doubt, the American citizens who provided support for A-bomb orphans as moral parents felt regret over the atomic bombings and the desire to atone in some way. At the same time, underneath these feelings was that nation's traditional spirit of benevolence.

Since before World War II, Americans have had the long-held custom of caring for underprivileged children in their homes and offering support to others beyond their borders. For the moral parents, reaching out to the children in Hiroshima was not really unusual. Even today, Americans routinely adopt children of foreign nationalities.

As for Japan, the nation has been an economic power for some time, but complaints were heard that the country was eager to sell its products but was stingy with providing assistance. As such criticism has grown, Japan's overseas aid, at the national level, has increased each year. But there are few aid programs at the grassroots level, such as the moral adoption campaign, for offering support to children in developing nations.

In the minds of Japanese people, the word "adoption" is still strongly associated with "an effort to carry on one's family name." Though mutual support among blood relatives exists in Japanese society, the people have little consciousness of providing support to an outsider on an individual basis, let alone providing support to underprivileged people living in foreign countries.

If these differences are depicted as "a gap in cultural thinking between Japan and the United States," that would be the end. But there are children in a range of places around the world who have lost their families due to war, and the divide between north and south is evident. "Will the day come when Japanese people themselves become involved in a moral adoption campaign?" This is one of our thoughts, as we conclude this series.

Children outside institutions also adopted

How many moral adoptions took place between U.S. citizens and A-bomb orphans, a practice that began with children at the Hiroshima War Orphans Foster Home? According to materials compiled by the Hiroshima City committee for the moral adoption campaign, the effort reached its peak in 1953 with 409 "adoptions." This figure included children adopted at seven institutions, like the Hiroshima War Orphans Foster Home and Ninoshima Gakuen, as well as children adopted outside these institutions thanks to the Hiroshima Peace Center. Then, as the children grew, their numbers in the campaign decreased. The Hiroshima City committee and the U.S. Hiroshima Peace Center Association maintained ties until 1959, but the last recorded number of adopted children was 89, made in November 1958.

However, the number of adoptions included cases where no records were kept for the date of adoption as well as cases in which the moral parents and their adopted children never corresponded with one another. The true number of adoptions, therefore, is unknown. The number of moral parents, calculated by the City of Hiroshima in 1954, was 270, except for those registered at the Hiroshima Peace Center in New York. Considering this figure and the interviews with those concerned, the number of moral parents can be estimated to have been about 300.

(Originally published on August 1, 1988)