Japan’s humanitarian efforts recalled 100 years on

Courtesy of Museum Meiji Mura
Polish orphans pose at a hospital dormitory in Osaka.

In the early 1920s, Japanese volunteers rescued hundreds of Polish orphans from the Russian region of Siberia, a moment in history that is not widely known in Japan but has never been forgotten in Poland.

A century after the rescue, efforts have emerged to spread awareness about the humanitarian campaign in Japan.

Before Poland gained independence, it was under the rule of Imperial Russia, which exiled many Poles involved in the independence movement to Siberia.

A civil war broke out in Russia after the 1917 revolution and amid the chaos, 150,000-200,000 exiled Poles fled from Siberia to the Far Eastern region where the city of Vladivostok is located. Many refugees died from hunger and cold during the period, and children lost their parents.

Poles in the region sought international assistance to help repatriate orphans to Poland and Japan responded to the call, launching a rescue campaign with the Japanese Red Cross Society.

Courtesy of Museum Meiji Mura
Polish orphans board a ship at Kobe Port.

From 1920-1922, 763 Polish orphans arrived from Vladivostok in two groups at Tsuruga Port in Fukui Prefecture.

The first group of 375 stayed in Tokyo, and the second group of 388 stayed in Osaka, where they received medical treatment before returning to Poland via the United States and Britain.

For Poles, the orphans were children of heroes who fought for the independence of their country so the treatment they received in Japan has never been forgotten.

An Osaka municipal hospital hosted the orphans of the second group, who stayed in a dormitory for nurses and went on trips to Osaka Castle and Tennoji Zoo, where they rode on an elephant.

Companies, schools and organizations gave hundreds of donations, including money, clothes, biscuits and picture books.

According to records, the orphans sang Japanese and Polish songs at Kobe Port before their departure.

Polish Ambassador to Japan Pawel Milewski said the friendship between the two countries can be traced back to the rescue.

After the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, children from quake-hit areas were invited to Poland as a sign of appreciation for Japan’s humanitarian efforts in the 1920s.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the second group of orphans. A special exhibition to mark the centenary was held from July to September at the Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum in Fukui Prefecture.

About 4,400 people visited the exhibition, which included information about the orphans, including the fact one referred to the “miniature version of the Eiffel Tower” that was visible from their dormitory, referring to Osaka’s iconic Tsutenkaku tower.

Last month, Tsuruga and Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture hosted a ballet performed by Japanese and Polish children, with scenes depicting the orphans’ arrival at Tsuruga Port. And in Kobe, where the second group of orphans departed from Japan, the Kansai Japan-Poland Association held a lecture in August on the history of orphan relief and international goodwill.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Senshu University Emeritus Prof. Eiko Uto, left, and Aoi Murakami of social welfare organization Fukuden-kai

“It was Japan’s first international refugee relief effort and public interest in the issue led to the support,” said Kazuo Fujii of the association. “Now is the time for many people to learn about it.”

Tokyo-based social welfare organization Fukuden-kai looked after the first group of orphans who arrived in Japan. Eiko Uto, a professor emeritus of Senshu University, and Aoi Murakami of Fukuden-kai, among others, have researched the rescue project, and they compiled an archive of events in December last year.

“We must not allow children’s lives to be destroyed by war,” said Uto, who specializes in the history of Japanese social welfare. “People should learn about the events of a century ago and think of social support efforts to ensure that children do not become orphans,”