Food Insecurity in Japan

In "A Boy's Lonely Death on a Broiling Street," Ozawa Namiyo describes seeing a starved teenager die on the streets in Japan during World War II. This narrative is published in Senso: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War which is a collections of letters sent to the "Asahi Newspaper" between 1986 and 1987 that describe the homefront experiences of Japanese civilians.
[Click the image to enlarge; click the image again to browse all pages]
(Courtesy of M.E. Sharpe)

During World War II, starvation was common on the home front in Japan. The Japanese government created the food rationing system in 1940, but it was not until 1941 when certain foods like rice, meat, fish, soy, salt, and oil became strictly rationed.[1] By the end of the war, the U.S. Strategic bombing survey reported that one-hundred percent of urban residents experienced weight loss with the average caloric consumption being 1,405 calories in Tokyo in 1945 and 1,354 calories in Nagoya in 1944.[2]

Response to Hunger

"Pupils' War Experience Noted in My Diary" is a personal account by Shimizu Mitsuo that records events of World War II on the Japanese homefront in the Spring and Summer of 1945. This account is published in Senso: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War which is a collections of letters sent to the Asahi Newspaper between 1986 and 1987 that describe the homefront experiences of Japanese civilians.
[click the image to enlarge; click the image again to browse all pages]
(Courtesy of M.E. Sharpe)

Japanese youth responded to hunger in various ways. Some Japanese youth combatted starvation by foraging. During World War II, at the suggestion of the government, over one million children evacuated to the countryside. Most lived with relatives, but some parents sent their children to schools where teachers would take care of them, but food was very scarce at these schools. As a result, children began to gather a variety of foods to eat ranging from vegetables such as rhubarb, mug wort, and bamboo shoots to foods like freshwater shrimp, frogs, grasshoppers, ground beetles, pigeons, and snails.[3]

In order to avoid starvation, some Japanese youth turned to thievery. Stolen goods were generally food, straw, money, and clothing. Thievery in Japan became more common as the war continued and food became scarcer. Although some adults stole, Samuel Yamashita argues that children and teenagers committed the bulk of the thefts.[4] Japanese children and adolescents were more likely than adults to take extreme measures to get what they wanted or needed. Some children stole because they knew they could get away with it. Aihara Yu recalled helping a fourth-grade boy who had rode the train to the countryside where he heard there were sweet potatoes. The boy, it appears, had stolen five or six kilograms of sweet potatoes and explained “mother said that if I was caught, they [the police] would let me go because I’m a kid.” Aihara then gave the child a ball of rice and millet and sent him on his way.[5]

Volunteering as Subjects for Unit 731

Starvation was so severe that some youth were desperate enough to volunteer as experimentation subjects in Unit 731 in exchange for food and a healthier diet. Unit 731 was the Japanese army’s biological warfare research unit which experimented on several enemy civilians and soldiers, injecting subjects with certain diseases and then studying them under a variety of cruel conditions. Japanese boys who volunteered as subjects did not experience the same level of cruelty as enemy subjects, but the experiments were still harsh. In one case, the experimenters asked boys to put their hands in freezing cold water to see how much cold they could bear until the pain was too intense. Other boys consumed a manju (Japanese sweet made with a bean jam) that was injected with typhoid fever which the experimenters used to try to create a vaccination for the illness.[6] It is unclear how much foreknowledge on the nature of these experiments the Japanese boys had, or if they even regretted their decision. They only did so because there was the promise of good food and sugary treats. 

The Effects of Firebombing on Food Insecurity

This image is a part of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey in Japan. This study sought to evaluate the effects and importance of air power. The children in this image are playing in the street. This picture was likely taken after the war by the US Strategic Bombing Survey. The caption reads "This street was the widest in Zone 1 and served to divide the small blocks made by alleys into larger sections. Observe the fire tower on the left side."
[click the image to enlarge]
(Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library, Special Collections & Archives, Walter H. Gardener Collection, MSS 57, Box 4, Book 44, pg. 81)

U.S. incendiary bombing had a direct effect on Japanese food securities, further exacerbating the situation. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese lost their homes to incendiary bombs and would relocate to other cities or the countryside were other family members resided. Aoki Kii recalls how evacuees in her village were treated. Some villagers would call the evacuated children “hanger[s]-on.” One family refused to share their food with the evacuees they were housing. Some evacuees, both children and adults, were housed in storage sheds, wood sheds, and even a night soil shed were human excrement was stored.[7] Not all of the villagers treated the evacuees with disdain. Some, like Aoki’s mother, prepared good meals for the evacuees rather than simply giving them vegetable scraps as other villagers did.[8] At times, farmers employed children and evacuees to help on their farms in exchange for food.[9] For evacuated children and for those displaced by fire bombings, the food situation was not much better in the countryside than it was in the city. 

[1] Yamashita, Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 1940- 1945, 39.
[2] Junko Baba, “Discourse on Food in World War II Japan,” Japanese Studies Review 21 (2017), 142.
[3] Yamashita, Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 120.
[4] Yamashita, Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 162-164.
[5] Aihara Yu, “’Show Me a Road Without a Police Box,” in Senso, 192-193.
[6] Junko Baba, 139-140.
[7] Aoki Kii, “Evacuees and Mean-Spirited Villagers,” in Sensō, 172.
[8] Aoki Kii, “Evacuees,” in Sensō, 172. Yamashita, Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 119.
[9] Yamashita, Daily Life in Wartime Japan, 119.