The Little Diplomat


On August 30, 1945, just days after Japan capitulated, ending World War II, Douglas MacArthur first set foot on the island nation, to set up temporary headquarters at the New Grand Hotel in Yokohama—and to set in motion a unique experiment that little more than three and a half years later would cause me also to spend my first night in Japan in the New Grand.

We surely passed our time there differently. While the general doubtless worked on implementing his plan to democratize Japan, mine was less defined, but I remember it included preparing to enroll in school and wandering about Yamashita Park, across the street from the New Grand. But then what else might be expected of a ten-year-old?

Quite a bit, as I was to learn and live. For it was MacArthur’s plan that the occupation of Japan be as much a model of democracy as a means of enabling it. For Americans assigned there, military and civilian and their dependents, this meant behaving not at all like carpetbaggers but like houseguests who, however uninvited, atone for their intrusion by bringing with them a cornucopia of democratic examples and ideals.

And more. This Tupperware Party image notwithstanding, certain of us came through the door in regal fashion, looking and living very much like conquerors if not behaving as such. We were among these. Because my father was a high-ranking American Army officer (a full colonel), our family was accorded privileges and a scale of living that were not only far out of proportion from what we had experienced back in the United States but also in many respects out of place and time from what America had become.

We were members of the occupation aristocracy, and much of our life smacked of America’s Gilded Age of a half-century earlier. Included were a magnificent Western-style house overlooking Yokohama, with four servants to run it; a private railroad car at my father’s disposal, with its own staff of servants, in which we traveled throughout Japan; extravagant weekends at imperial retreats and festivals that now are all but closed to Western eyes; luxurious vacations at exotic resorts that once catered exclusively to Japanese nobility but were now for our use and with our own private servant retinue bolstering each facility’s regular staff.


But what was going on here? Misplaced neocolonialism? American hegemony run amok? Political incorrectness on a grandiose scale? Add the fact that we carried on in such style in a country that was still war-ravaged, with many people living in hovels and destruction and poverty but a short walk from our house, and a sensitive individual might not help terming it an outlandish example of Occidental America exploiting a conquered Oriental people.

Yet this seemingly grotesque paradox of splendor amid squalor was also part of MacArthur’s scheme to permeate Japanese society with the ideals of democracy. Unlike most Americans then (or at least those in charge), he understood that the aspect of Japanese culture that in an eyewink caused them to convert from the most bellicose of nations to the most subservient also demanded that the conquering hierarchy at least look the part. Compounding this was the fact that while Japan had toyed with some aspects of democracy early in the century, it had no recent experience with it; its conduct of the war had in fact been a return to feudalism, a situation where shoguns overruled even the emperor.

This meant that in our role as conquerors we first had to set ourselves up as such and from that foundation imbue Japanese society with the ideals of democracy in general and American democracy in particular. Thus the curious dichotomy of assuming imperial trappings, then behaving unimperiously.

The presence of whole American families was important to making this work. Had dependents been left at home, the Japanese would not have had the opportunity to view democracy-in-microcosm, as practiced on a familial scale. They would have seen it only as filtered through a military establishment, which is to say they would not have seen it at all, however benign occupation policy might have been otherwise.

And so I found myself wandering about Yamashita Park in the cold, wet, and windy March of 1949 as a military dependent but also, I realized years later, as an example of Democracy, American Style—a red-white-and-blue laboratory rat for the Japanese to observe and learn from.

Just like American kids, once my Japanese playmates discovered my negligible athletic ability (“Jamie-san no good!”), they picked me last.

The lessons—theirs and mine—began early. The initial encounters remain clear to me today. There was the toothless old man leaning on a cane while seated on a park bench, who rose slightly and bowed smilingly at me as I passed. There was a group of young boys about my age dressed in tatters who hesitantly approached me, not begging but out of curiosity, shyly querying me in the few English words they knew: “American? Name?” I replied with my childhood moniker: “Jamie.” More smiles, then: “Ah, so! Jamie-san!” It stuck.

And everywhere were the Japanese army veterans, readily identified because they still wore their uniforms, now stripped of insignia and shabby for lack of resources to update wardrobes. If you looked their way and smiled however tentatively, they would grin and bow in return.