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  • The Recollections of Tetsu:A Translation of Her Testimonial Narrative with Commentary
  • Tanya S. Maus (bio)


In 1906, at the height of the Tōhoku famine in Japan, four-year-old Tetsu1 was abruptly swept off the street by volunteer relief workers from the Okayama Orphanage with nothing but the clothes on her back. As she later recalled, “One day two men came by just as the streetcar pulled up and said ‘We’re taking you with us,’ and they grabbed me up.”2 Although Tetsu had a mother, stepfather, and seven siblings, because of her malnourished condition and impoverished status the Okayama Orphanage targeted her, with the approval of local authorities, as a child who needed saving. With the exception of her older brother Kichiya, who was also collected by orphanage volunteers and sent to Okayama, Tetsu was instantly severed from her family and would not reunite with any living relatives until adulthood. As is evident in her testimony translated below, this first encounter with the institutional power of the Okayama Orphanage, though perhaps the most dramatic, was only the first of many times the orphanage made crucial decisions that determined Tetsu’s economic and social fate as a woman.

Tetsu was born in Fukushima City, Fukushima prefecture, in the Tōhoku region in 1901. Her family lived at the economic and social margins. Tetsu’s father and mother [End Page 101] had entered into a common law marriage and lived with their eight children in the slums, struggling to make ends meet with clock repair and other odd jobs. Although Tetsu characterized her father as a “lumpen,” a Japanese loanword taken from German and used at the time in Japan to refer to migrants, day laborers, and the indigent poor, this was not out of a political recognition of class warfare, for she would later attribute their poverty to her father’s laziness rather than any structural economic forces. Yet, historically, Tetsu’s family was clearly part of the underclasses, or kasō shakai, that journalists such as Yokoyama Gennosuke had begun to document in the 1890s as an indication of the failings of Japan’s modern industrial capitalist transformation.3 Although the Meiji state initially sought to deny that poverty was an outcome of its own economic policies, by the early 1900s there was some recognition by government officials that economic inequality was leading to destabilizing political tensions. As a result, the government actively encouraged private philanthropy as well as prefectural initiatives to relieve poverty and thus potential social unrest.4

The orphanage’s intervention into Tetsu’s life during the Tōhoku famine was part of an extensive child-relief effort initiated in February 1906 by the founder of the Okayama Orphanage, Ishii Jūji (1865–1914), in response to the ongoing food crisis in the Tōhoku region that had left roughly 680,000 individuals destitute and starving.5 In 1905, low temperatures caused the crop yield to fall to between 10 and 30 percent of the average annual harvest, leaving tens of thousands of families relying on tree nuts and wild grasses for food.6 In Fukushima prefecture, where Tetsu was born, authorities noted that between 1904 and 1906, 25 percent of the population lacked basic necessities such as clothes, bedding, cooking utensils and tools, and food staples of rice or grain. Following on the heels of several decades of increasingly thin harvests in northern Honshū, it also appears that approximately 20 percent of cultivators and small farmers lost their livelihoods and appealed to the villages and cities for direct assistance and help with locating work.7

By 1905, as William T. Steele notes, the Tōhoku region had become the focus of international attention because of foreign missionaries in the area who sought to spread word of the famine in order to facilitate relief. The image of starving children became particularly salient in international media reports of the crisis.8 Groups such as the American National Red Cross and the Salvation Army began to organize relief efforts, and money and other donations were sent from countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Siam, and China.9 By January 1906, Japanese newspapers began...


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pp. 101-126
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