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 millions more civilians fled to the countryside.
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.
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. 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. The Japanese Cabinet formally decided to begin evacuations on 15 October 1943.
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. 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. 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.
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". 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. 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. 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. 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.
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”. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. Orphans, like displaced veterans, became an issue of social welfare and a visible symbol of defeat in the post-war period.