Evacuations of civilians in Japan during World War II

About 8.5 million Japanese civilians were displaced from their homes between 1943 and 1945 as a result of air raids on Japan by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) during World War II. These evacuations started in December 1943 as a voluntary government program to prepare the country's main cities for bombing raids by evacuating children, women and the elderly to rural towns. After American bombers started to devastate entire cities in 1945[1] millions more civilians fled to the countryside.

Evacuation of Schoolchildren in Japan
Schoolchildren being evacuated in August 1944


Before the Pacific War and during the first years of this conflict the Japanese government placed little emphasis on preparing civil defense measures in the event of air raids on the country. The guidance which was prepared for civilians called on them to remain in cities which were attacked to fight fires from incendiary raids as part of neighborhood associations.[2]

The series of defeats suffered by the Japanese military during the second half of 1942 and 1943 led to the introduction of policies to protect civilians from air attack. These measures anticipated the commencement of attacks on the Japanese home islands if the Mariana Islands were captured by the United States.[3] In late 1943 the government of Japan developed plans to evacuate non-essential personnel from Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka and the cities in northern Kyushu. Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō initially opposed implementing these plans due to the damage they were likely to cause to morale and family cohesion but eventually agreed to them to minimize civilian casualties so that Japan's population could be regenerated for future wars.[1] The Japanese Cabinet formally decided to begin evacuations on 15 October 1943.[4]


The government launched a voluntary evacuation program in December 1943 which encouraged old people, children and their mothers to move from the main cities and stay in the homes of friends and relatives in rural areas. The government provided civilians with little assistance to evacuate, however.[1][5] Few people evacuated until the first raid by American heavy bombers on Japan, an attack on Yawata, in June 1944 after which the government urged families to evacuate their children.[5] As a result, 459,000 children and their parents moved to stay with friends and relatives. For families without contacts in the countryside, entire school classes evacuated as groups accompanied by their teachers; by August 1944, 333,000 children had been relocated to rural areas where they continued their education in inns, temples and other public buildings. A further 343,000 urban residents were forced to leave their homes when they were destroyed to create firebreaks; these people either moved to the country or lived in temporary accommodation near their workplace.[1]

The number of evacuees increased greatly in 1945; historian Thomas R.H. Havens has written that the movement of Japanese civilians from cities in the last months of the war was "one of history's great migrations".[6] Following the firebombing of Tokyo on 9–10 March 1945, all schoolchildren in the third to sixth grades were required to leave the main cities, and 87 percent of them had been moved to the countryside by early April. As the American firebombing campaign continued millions more Japanese civilians fled from their homes into rural areas, overwhelming the government's evacuation plans.[1] By June 1945 millions of Japanese civilians had been rendered homeless by air raids and the evacuation of survivors meant that many of the remaining factories were unable to find sufficient workers.[7] Between June and August 1945 American bombers dropped propaganda leaflets over several Japanese cities warning that they would be bombed and urging civilians to evacuate; these persuaded many residents of the cities to leave and reduced public confidence in the Japanese Army while also convincing civilians that the Americans were attempting to minimize casualties.[8][9] Overall, 8.5 million Japanese civilians were displaced as a result of the American raids, including 120,000 of Hiroshima's population of 365,000 who evacuated the city before the atomic bomb attack on it in August 1945.[10]

Challenges to evacuated students

Once the students were evacuated to the countryside, or at least to towns outside of the larger and more industrialized cities, many students went to work in factories where unskilled labor was needed under the official “Labor Mobilization Policy” and “Student Mobilization Policy”.[11] In most cases students were genuine volunteers who petitioned their teachers and school principals as a group to allow them to work in factory complexes that could accept them. Students then entered dorms near the factory complex; strict daily schedules ensured that the children woke, cleaned their quarters, ate meals, went to and from their work shifts, and had time for evening hygiene in cohorts.[12] Parents were reluctant to protest because it was believed that the military-funded factories could provide the children with more nourishing meals and because such protests would draw the attention of the secret police and suspicions of disloyalty or subversion.[13]

From the summer of 1944 until February 1945, high school girls worked in or near Kokura constructing balloons to carry bombs across the Pacific where they would detonate in the U.S.[14][15] The girls worked in two 12-hour shifts and, contrary to their expectations, there was little food available. Some eventually suffered from malnutrition. Within a short time after graduation in the spring of 1945, one participant estimates that one-tenth of her classmates died, while others suffered from tuberculosis, neuralgia, rickets, and symptoms of over-exhaustion as a result of exposure to chemicals used in making the balloons.[15]

Other challenges met those children who were too young to work in factories or were evacuated to areas where there were no factories that could accept student laborers. The demands by the military and a strict rationing system meant that even in the countryside food was scarce.[16] Transitioning from inner cities to quiet, bucolic towns meant that the children were struck with a sense of alienation as they faced an unfamiliar environment, the growing resentment of their host families, and ridicule from local children when it came to the difference in accents or ignorance concerning agricultural tasks. One teacher who was evacuated with his students in 1945 kept a diary and noted the gradual shift in daily activities from education to agriculture to gathering activities. By the summer, students were even preparing for the eventual Allied invasion of Japan by training to fight with bamboo spears and throwing rocks at targets. The students spent part of each day cultivating gardens and some days they were sent out to forage for things such as wisteria bark and bamboo shoots or bark; on other days they made charcoal and carried it from a distant mountain; classroom assignments included writing letters to soldiers at the front.[17]


Once the war ended, every effort was made to inform the children how many of their family members had been lost in the air raids. Parents began to make their way to the country towns and retrieve the children. Those families that had lost one parent or the family home took longer, sometimes weeks, before they could locate the waiting child. For children who had lost both parents and all siblings, it could take months before a cousin or an uncle could be found who was willing to take in the child.[18] Orphans, like displaced veterans, became an issue of social welfare and a visible symbol of defeat in the post-war period.[19]

Cultural references

In 1967, a semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka was published called A Grave of Fireflies (火垂るの墓 Hotaru no Haka). The story was based on his experiences during the Kobe air raid in 1945 and afterward as an evacuee. The award-winning book was made into the critically acclaimed anime film Grave of the Fireflies, directed by Isao Takahata and released in Japan in 1988.[20] In the film, a boy and his younger sister must go to live with relatives in the countryside. Their aunt turns increasingly hostile until the children feel compelled to leave. They have a difficult time finding food and begin to suffer from malnutrition. The film is fairly graphic, and the struggles of the children tend to provoke a powerful emotional response from viewers. Grave of the Fireflies is distributed internationally on DVD. The story was later adapted to two live-action movies televised in Japan in 2005 and in 2008. The 2005 film portrayed the story from the perspective of the children's cousin, a minor character in the anime film.[21][22]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Dear & Foot (2005), p. 484.
  2. ^ Havens (1978), pp. 155–156.
  3. ^ Havens (1978), p. 155.
  4. ^ Havens (1978), p. 161.
  5. ^ a b Daniels (1981).
  6. ^ Havens (1978), p. 167.
  7. ^ Craven & Cate (1953), p. 643.
  8. ^ Szasz (2009), p. 537.
  9. ^ Craven & Cate (1953), pp. 656–657.
  10. ^ Craven & Cate (1953), pp. 715, 755.
  11. ^ Hashimoto (1995).
  12. ^ Kondo (1977).
  13. ^ Ohnuki-Tierney (2002), p. 15.
  14. ^ Tanaka (1993).
  15. ^ a b Takamizawa (1995).
  16. ^ Cook & Cook (1993), p. 177.
  17. ^ Shimizu (1995).
  18. ^ Dower (1999), pp. 110–111.
  19. ^ Dower (1999), pp. 61–64.
  20. ^ Ebert, Roger (19 March 2000). "Grave of the Fireflies (1988)".
  21. ^ Hotaru no haka (TV Movie 2005) on IMDb
  22. ^ Tombstone of the Fireflies (2008) on IMDb


  • Arnold, Bruce Makoto (2013). "Materiel Matters: The Japanese State's Evacuation of Elementary Schoolchildren During The Second World War". Anistoriton Journal. 13.
  • Cook, Haruko Taya; Cook, Theodore F., eds. (1993). Japan At War: An Oral History. New Press.
  • Craven, Wesley; Cate, James, eds. (1953). The Pacific: Matterhorn to Nagasaki (PDF). The Army Air Forces in World War II. Volume Five. Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History.
  • Daniels, Gordon (31 December 1981). "Before Hiroshima: The Bombing of Japan 1944–45". History Today. 32 (1). Retrieved 7 February 2011.
  • Dear, I.C.B; Foot, M.R.D., eds. (2005). The Oxford Companion to World War II. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280670-3.
  • Dower, John W. (1999). Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. NYC: W.W. Norton and Co. ISBN 0-393-32027-8.
  • Hashimoto, Yukio (1995). "Fighter Planes and Dustpans". In Gibney, Frank. Senso: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War: Letters to the Editor of Asahi Shimbun. Beth Cary (trans.). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. p. 181.
  • Havens, Thomas R.H. (1978). Valley of Darkness : The Japanese People and World War Two. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-05656-2.
  • Kerr, E. Bartlett (1991). Flames Over Tokyo: The U.S. Army Air Forces' Incendiary Campaign Against Japan 1944–1945. New York City: Donald I. Fine Inc. ISBN 1-55611-301-3.
  • Kondo, Tsuneji (1977). 学徒動員と豊川海軍工廠 [Student Mobilization and the Toyokawa Naval Arsenal] (in Japanese). Toyokawa, Japan: Toyokawa Cultural Assets Association.
  • Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko (2002). Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 15.
  • Shimizu, Mitsuo (1995). "Pupils' War Experience Noted in My Diary". In Gibney, Frank. Senso: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War: Letters to the Editor of Asahi Shimbun. Translated by Cary, Beth. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 186–188. ISBN 978-1-317-45997-2.
  • Szasz, Ferenc Morton (2009). ""Pamphlets Away": The Allied Propaganda Campaign Over Japan During the Last Months of World War II". The Journal of Popular Culture. 42 (3): 530–540. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5931.2009.00694.x.
  • Takamizawa, Sachiko (1995). "When I Made Balloon Bombs". In Gibney, Frank. Senso: The Japanese Remember the Pacific War: Letters to the Editor of Asahi Shimbun. Translated by Cary, Beth. M.E. Sharpe. pp. 181–182. ISBN 978-1-317-45997-2.
  • Tanaka, Tetsuko (1993). "Making Balloon Bombs". In Cook, Haruko Taya; Cook, Theodore F. Japan At War: An Oral History. New York: New Press. pp. 187–192. ISBN 1-56584-039-9.

External links

Evacuations of children in Germany during World War II

The evacuation of children in Germany during the World War II was designed to save children in Nazi Germany from the risks associated with the aerial bombing of cities, by moving them to areas thought to be less at risk. The German term used for this was Kinderlandverschickung (KLV), a short form of Verschickung der Kinder auf das Land ("relocation of children to the countryside").

Evacuations of civilians in Britain during World War II

The evacuation of civilians in Britain during the Second World War was designed to protect people, especially children, from the risks associated with aerial bombing of cities by moving them to areas thought to be less at risk. Operation Pied Piper, which began on 1 September 1939, officially relocated more than 3.5 million people. There were further waves of official evacuation and re-evacuation from the south and east coasts in June 1940, when a seaborne invasion was expected, and from affected cities after the Blitz began in September 1940. There were also official evacuations from the UK to other parts of the British Empire, and many non-official evacuations within and from the UK. Other mass movements of civilians included British citizens arriving from the Channel Islands, and displaced people arriving from continental Europe.

The Government Evacuation Scheme was developed during summer 1938 by the Anderson Committee and implemented by the Ministry of Health. The country was divided into zones, classified as either "evacuation", "neutral", or "reception", with priority evacuees being moved from the major urban centres and billeted on the available private housing in more rural areas. Each zone covered roughly a third of the population, although several urban areas later bombed had not been classified for evacuation. In early 1939, the reception areas compiled lists of available housing. Space was found for about 2000 people, and the government also constructed camps which provided a few thousand additional spaces.

In summer 1939, the government began to publicise its plan through the local authorities. They had overestimated demand: only half of all school-aged children were moved from the urban areas instead of the expected 80%. There was enormous regional variation: as few as 15% of the children were evacuated from some urban areas, while over 60% of children were evacuated from Manchester, Belfast and Liverpool. The refusal of the central government to spend large sums on preparation also reduced the effectiveness of the plan. In the event over 3,000,000 people were evacuated.

Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓, Hotaru no Haka) is a 1988 Japanese animated war film based on the 1967 semi-autobiographical short story of the same name by Akiyuki Nosaka. It was written and directed by Isao Takahata, and animated by Studio Ghibli for the story's publisher Shinchosha Publishing (making it the only Studio Ghibli film under Tokuma Shoten ownership that had no involvement from them). The film stars Tsutomu Tatsumi, Ayano Shiraishi, Yoshiko Shinohara and Akemi Yamaguchi. Set in the city of Kobe, Japan, the film tells the story of two siblings, Seita and Setsuko, and their desperate struggle to survive during the final months of the Second World War.

List of World War II evacuations

Several instances of evacuations (including both emergency evacuations and forced migrations) occurred during and after World War II.

List of mass evacuations

This list of mass evacuations includes emergency evacuations of a large number of people in a short period of time. An emergency evacuation is the movement of persons from a dangerous place due to the threat or occurrence of a disastrous event whether from natural or man made causes, or as the result of war.

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