The Little Diplomat


This was the fabric, and its weave would deepen. As a child in Yokohama I often traveled alone among the Japanese, afoot and by bicycle but also for some distance on buses and trains. I went to movies on my own at night, then walked home through neighborhoods that remained bombed flat; I shopped in Japanese markets by myself; I shared candy, popcorn, and other distinctly American treats with Japanese I encountered, exchanging smiles and nods and bows with children and adults alike.

I had Japanese playmates my age. They played baseball on a field across a ravine from our house, so when none of my American friends were available, I would join them—and just like American kids, once they discovered my negligible athletic ability (“Jamie-san no good!”), they picked me last. The only difference was that my mother often sent me out with clothes I had outgrown for me to distribute.

The awesome destruction our bombers had wreaked on Yokohama in the waning days of the war also could be seen from our front gate. Our house faced west from atop the ridge of an ancient volcano now called Yamate-Cho that fronted on the harbor. Any clear morning, on leaving for school or whatever, I was greeted by two sights: sunshine glinting off Mount Fuji, which rose majestically on the far horizon, and the plain before it, still blackened from (I was to learn years later) a horrific firestorm that Curtis LeMay’s B-29s had visited upon Yokohama on May 29, 1945.

A rail line cut through the ridge not a half-mile downslope from our house, and never would the term other side of the tracks have more meaning. To the east of the tracks, Yamate-Cho and the south harbor area were much as they had been before the war. The ridge itself was totally untouched by bombs expressly because it was dotted with luxurious houses such as ours, European consulate housing built in the 1920s, the tactical intent having been to spare the area so it could serve as postwar housing for the victors.

But immediately west of the tracks the ruin began, and even as late as the time we lived there, it was only haphazardly punctuated with hopeful exclamation points of new construction.

Curiously, for all the evidence of war, the subject itself was never broached. I recently asked my ninety-two-year-old mother about this, and she confirmed my memory: It was understood, a policy of tactfulness; the war was not to be flaunted, certainly not to the Japanese. Military-assignment rotation policy at the time helped ensure that no ill will would surface. So with the exception of MacArthur’s personally anointed wartime staff and cronies whom he chose to retain, Pacific Theater veterans were sent home for reassignment to Europe or elsewhere—and vice versa. My own father was a case in point; his wartime service was in North Africa and Italy.

The American school I attended, Nasugu Beach Elementary, was an even starker example of this taciturn policy. Only four years earlier the building had held Allied prisoners of war. This I knew then; only years later did I learn that it also likely was the scene of Japanese atrocities.

Looking back, I question whether this total avoidance of what was then a very recent past did not contribute to Japan’s current attitude of denying wartime guilt. Yet even if it did, on balance I think the policy was for the best; certainly it made this child’s life easier.

Nor were there overt displays of racism. In our family’s circles at least, it did not occur—except as exercised by me. I would bring the terms home from school, but as soon as I mentioned them, I was severely reprimanded; the words Jap and Nip were never to be used. And I can still recall how our cook and household staff head, a proud woman named Horiko who had lived in Hawaii before the war, stiffened and scolded me when I asked her in all innocence what gook meant.

Yet for all this I came to feel very much at home. We left Japan in the fall of 1950. The war had ended a scant five years before; I was not quite twelve. And when I lately asked my mother if she ever feared for my safety or encountered hostility or resentment, she replied, “Not once. If there was any, they held it in; they never let it show. In all your childhood I never felt you were unsafe.”

Nor did I ever feel apprehension. One reason has to be a child’s natural innocence, but another and more profound one must be the egalitarian doctrine that governed our presence there.

This was driven home to me from before we went to Japan. One of my earliest childhood memories is of my father announcing at dinner one evening in our modest house in suburban Silver Spring, Maryland, that we were going to Japan, outlining what our life would be like, and then sternly admonishing me that under no circumstances was I ever to order a servant about. Yessir!

The lesson stuck. One of our house servants was a young man in his early twenties named Yoshi; he was our gardener and also what in an earlier era I might have called my “boy.” As such he sort of looked out for me: accompanied me on some excursions, met me at the school bus stop with an umbrella when it was raining, taught me rudiments of gardening, tried (without success) to improve my baseball playing, instructed me in his forte (sketching), even helped me with some of my school studies, although his own English was sparse.