- Historic Sites
The Little Diplomat
As a ten-year-old boy, the author had a role to play in bringing Douglas MacArthur’s vision of democracy to a shattered Japan
December 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 8
But not once do I recall directly telling Yoshi to do anything. I was taught that whatever I might need from him must first be put as a request not to my mother but to Horiko, who would determine whether Yoshi should assist me. In fact so much did he and I work together as companions and not at all in any master-servant context that the memory of the sole occasion of my becoming short with him—a bit of childhood truculence involving a drawing exercise that annoyed me—embarrasses me to this day.
Protocol at home helped prepare me for official duties of the occupation, in which I was often involved in an ex officio emissarial capacity because of my father’s unusual position and the way occupation business was done. MacArthur presided over the total task of rebuilding Japan in his position as Supreme Commander, Allied Powers (SCAP—as much the man as the office). Beneath him, or it, the U.S. 8th Army provided security and certain logistical support, while another army, of American and other foreign advisers and contractors working with the Japanese, reconstructed Japan physically, politically, and, to the extent it became Americanized, socially.
As chief procurement officer (later comptroller) of the 8th Army, my father, far more than most other Americans, had to cross boundaries. It was his job to negotiate with Japanese for provisions and facilities, and as with so much else, business matters were conducted according to Japanese tradition, which meant first getting to know one another on a familial scale.
So it followed that my mother and I often accompanied my father on his business trips, for which I was excused from school. Many of these were to Kyōto, some three hundred miles west, where my father had established a friendship and working relationship with a Japanese nobleman, Count Hirohashi.
Getting to Kyōto was no casual undertaking. It meant an overnight trip aboard the private railway car. Often the three of us were alone on this car, but sometimes another American quartermaster officer and his family, including a boy my age, accompanied us. The car featured a private room for everyone and a lavish living-dining area at its rear. My mother recalls that the car had three servants, including a cook, steward, and general maid. Most of the time it was hitched onto the rear of regularly scheduled passenger trains, but without access from our car to the others.
We would leave Yokohama in the early evening, in time for a leisurely dinner aboard. The night’s sleep was disturbed by the train lurching to a halt in the darkness, to slowly negotiate track work. Rebuilding went on around the clock; I remember waking up and raising the window shade to look out at hordes of Japanese workers illuminated by trackside floodlights. We would get to Kyōto sometime the next morning.
I well remember Count Hirohashi’s house in Kyōto, a large yet light and airy affair set amid dense evergreen trees, with an exquisite private garden outside my room. On this occasion and others when we visited Japanese families, we lived on their terms (albeit at an exalted level), including sleeping on tatami mats and trying to negotiate Japanese toilets.
My duties? Other than generally to behave myself, to show utmost respect for our hosts and their home. It helped that they had a son, although he was a teenager. I recall being entranced by the garden, but the other boy would get bored with me and soon enough leave me to my own devices.
Mealtime, here and on other occasions when we stayed in Japanese homes, involved a delicate exercise in face-saving. This is because local fruits and vegetables were not then generally safe for Americans to eat, for the reason that the Japanese still largely used human excrement to fertilize their farms and gardens. Anyone familiar with the term honey buckets knows what I mean; it referred to the large tubs of human waste Japanese farmers would bear on their shoulders. On warm spring days in this humid land, the fertilizer’s perfume could overwhelm that of the blossoms in our own yard (where, by the way, we raised many of our own vegetables).
In any event, meals in Japanese homes began with our sitting cross-legged on tatami mats around the family dining table. A maid would bring in a large tray of hors d’oeuvres, including raw fruits and vegetables—and a box of Ritz crackers. (Clearly Nabisco was an early postwar exporter to Japan.)
The hostess would decorate our plates with samples of the fresh produce (we assumed it would not do much harm in small amounts)—and a generous handful or two of the crackers. I ate a lot of Ritz crackers in those days. The main course itself was thoroughly cooked, which served to kill most bacteria, although I do recall some occasions of food poisoning.