What can be said: growing up in a world at war

On 2 May 1938, in Anhui Province, China, a young schoolgirl encountered an old woman crying at the side of the road. She asked the woman why she was upset, and was told that the woman’s son had been conscripted by the Chinese Nationalist army. Later, the girl wrote in her diary: ‘I told her: conscription is for sending men to defend our country. They have to be sent to Jiangxi for training so that they can resist Japan for the long term and wipe out the Japanese devils.’

MOORE osaka jpg

Drawing by evacuated Japanese schoolgirl, age unknown. Osaka Internation Peace Museum, Tokyo, Japan.

MOORE evacuation diary jpg

Diary by Japanese evacuee Sakaguchi Masako, aged 10. Edo-Tokyo Museum, Tokyo, Japan.

MOORE russian drawing jpg

Drawing by Russian schoolgirl, age unknown. Blockade Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

In England in 1939, Veronica Goddard described the defeated British soldiers returning from Dunkirk: ‘… a pitiful sight. They were so tired, footsore, and weary that they could hardly walk. We shall never forget them.’

Ten-year-old Japanese schoolboy, Hirano Atsumu, began his 1940 war diary with the following pledge: ‘We will endeavour to grow our bodies and hearts, bravely, correctly. We shall all become one and, come what may, endure it and achieve our victory.’

On 25 April 1943, thousands of miles away in Leningrad, schoolgirl Natasha Zolotuxina wrote to her aunt: ‘Today after a [victory] parade I stood at the Field of Mars during the salute. It was beautiful, and probably it won’t be long before we’re having more of them!’ Natasha worked with the Komsomol, organised gifts for veterans, and listened eagerly to the stories of partisans in the war against Germany.

Stitched together chronologically, these personal documents of children and adolescents seem to reveal how the young proactively supported their government’s efforts during the time of ‘total war’. But what should we make of them? To what extent should juveniles be held to the same level of accountability for their words and actions as adults?

Combining manuscript, samizdat, and published materials from the start of total war in East Asia in 1937 to the conclusion of the Second World War in 1945, my work examines self-expression in the personal documents of children and adolescents in the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and Great Britain. By comparing the diaries, letters, and drawings of young people in such different contexts, I am attempting to show when cultural differences matter, and when they appear to be irrelevant to the expression of youth.

The beginning of the twentieth century was a time when ‘youth culture’ and sundry reforms in education brought new focus to the proper ‘training’ of young people. But, as this project is revealing, these ambitions were limited by the ability of the individual child or adolescent to understand, and a willingness to accept, these messages from adults. By examining documents composed by young people, I am moving away from the focus on how adults have historically constructed notions of childhood and youth, and seeing to what extent young people used language, which was given to them by adults and educators, to define their experiences on their own terms.

Dr Aaron William Moore
University of Manchester