The Little Diplomat

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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.

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.

 
 
 

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.

Getting to Kyōto was no casual undertaking. It meant an overnight trip aboard the private railway car, over tracks that were being rebuilt around the clock.

We went other places in the railway car. My mother especially remembers the time we rode it aboard a ferry from the main island of Honshū to the northern island of Hokkaido, and how what she now terms a “swarm” of Japanese laborers, perhaps more than fifty, with no power machinery whatsoever, struggled to maneuver the car from the land-bound tracks to the pitching ferryboat. They got the lead pair of trucks aboard the ferry, but then the lurching boat kept causing the tracks to misalign, leaving the car to skew back and forth while the Japanese struggled to inch it forward and simultaneously tried to control the heaving ferry.

I have a vague recollection of this occasion. I better remember being bored once on Hokkaidō, waiting with my mother in some chilly hotel, sleet falling outside, while my father did his business, and how that evening we returned aboard the private car for the trip home; altogether a three-day journey for a six-hour business meeting.

While the railway car was for official long-distance business, and my father had an Army auto and driver for his frequent trips up to 8th Army headquarters in Tokyo, we were on our own for private jaunts. Because most rural Japanese roads had yet to be rebuilt—some still had bomb craters—long-distance auto travel was precluded.

It was just as well, then, that our favorite destination was a relatively close-by resort hotel, the Fujiya. This was (and still is) a great sprawling luxury retreat, with magnificently varied meandering gardens and a host of recreational outlets, especially for my parents a golf course and fishing and boating for me.

While use of this and other resorts had been appropriated by the occupation, they were not exclusive. Japanese of means frequented them. My first memory of the Japanese ritual of the public bath is of the one at the Fujiya, where I remember my father and me paddling about in the steaming water amid a crowd of Japanese men and boys.

But what I best remember about the Fujiya is our accommodations there. It was the policy that rooms be allotted to Americans with preference to the senior officer present. Since my father was in charge of housing throughout Japan, this meant that he booked us into the Fujiya when he knew he would be that officer.

He did well. Each time there we stayed in the Lily of the Valley Suite, at the farthest end of a remote wing, with its own garden and swimming pool. My parents had their room, and I had mine, separated from theirs by a common room. My room was inordinately huge, larger than at home, and magnificently appointed. The room came with its own servant, each time the same, a quietly deferential teenage girl who would appear at odd moments to inquire, in halting English, whether there was anything I needed. As with our house servants, my duty was always to reply in the negative.

While we usually had dinner with other Americans and their families in the public dining room, we always had breakfast in our suite, announced by a maid tapping lightly on my door. Like so much else in this land of rituals, breakfast was no casual affair but an exquisitely sumptuous, artfully arranged version of a typical American eye-opener. This may seem an odd thing to remember so vividly, but then you tend to savor mornings that begin in a room opened to dewy, perfumed air, a glass of apricot nectar and a freshly cut chrysanthemum on fine china beside your fresh eggs (a rarity; the eggs we ate at home came in powdered form from the commissary).

I also remember the cocktail hour in our room in the late afternoon: for the tea sandwiches, my first experience with same, and also for the ubiquitous Ritz crackers. My presence was required whenever my parents entertained Japanese guests (but not necessarily American ones). I could otherwise scarf down Ritz crackers and also peanuts just about anywhere else; bowls of them dotted the public rooms.

And the cost for all this sumptuous extravagance, in a remote and exquisite resort with fawning attendants everywhere? While I’m sure meals and refreshments were extra, the charge for the suite itself is forever sealed in my memory: fifty cents a night. The Fujiya today lists double rooms at well over a thousand.

In addition to personal trips, there were numerous formal ones requiring our presence in an official capacity. Some were U.S. Army affairs, but the most memorable were those when we were among the official guests of Emperor Hirohito. For these we were usually driven to Tokyo in my father’s official car.

 
 
 

One was the annual cherry blossom festival in March, on the Imperial Palace grounds. At one of these I got to ride a horse in the parade past the emperor who was seated in his horse-drawn carriage no more than fifty feet distant.

An especially popular outing was cormorant fishing, still a tourist attraction, albeit not, as we enjoyed it, at an imperial retreat. It takes place at night and involves a gawky-looking black bird that has bulging eyes and a long, scrawny, crooked neck. A handler fits a ring to the cormorant’s neck just tight enough to prevent it from swallowing a fish, then sends it out, held on a long tether, to scoop up fish one by one from the water and return them to the boat. I don’t know about now, but back then the fish were left with the Japanese for their use, while we Americans dined aboard the small boats on charcoal-grilled sukiyaki washed down with sake (in ritually small amounts, for me as well).

At the annual cherry blossom festival, in March, I got to ride a horse in the parade past the emperor, no more than fifty feet distant, in his horse-drawn carriage.

But by far the most oddly exotic formal event we attended was the annual duck netting at the emperor’s private hunting lodge. This took place at a large pond with a high berm on one side. We spectators were concealed behind the berm, at such an angle as to allow us a view of the pond.

What my mother says was termed a Judas duck would be released on the pond, there to quack away until over-flying ducks joined it. Once a suitable flock had gathered, the Judas duck would paddle toward the berm, the others following. When the ducks got the proper distance inshore, a team of beaters would rise from concealed trenches on the opposite side of the pond, shouting and flailing the water with long poles. The terrified birds would take off in the opposite direction—over the berm, but from so close a point that they could clear it by only a few feet.

Waiting on the other side was a team of netters—including, if they so desired, the guests—who would scamper up the berm with large nets held aloft on long handles, snaring the fleeing ducks. Needless to say, the day ended with a sumptuous duck dinner, prepared Japanese style, marinated in soy sauce. It’s still a favorite dish of mine.

Today I get amused, open-mouthed stares when I describe duck netting, even from executive friends and acquaintances who have lately lived in Japan with some access to the higher reaches of Japanese society. Perhaps it is still an imperial ritual but long closed to Western eyes; I don’t know.

Beyond immersing ourselves in Japanese society, we were expected to help rebuild it by freely spending in it. My home, the home of my sister (who got married rather than go to Japan), and especially that of my mother bear witness to this, with artifacts from that time that far surpass in quality and uniqueness what is usually available to today’s visitor. Some were official gifts to my father, but most were bought openly.

One problem for Americans shopping there at that time was the custom of “presentos,” in which the wives of high-ranking officers would enter a store and, in the manner of policemen at a doughnut shop, request a free gift just for dropping by, or at least not refuse one if offered. As sometimes happens in such cases, the practice was a Japanese custom that got out of hand. The point was that you never accepted a presento unless it was first volunteered, but some Americans carried the practice beyond its intent.

 
 
 

My mother, a no-nonsense Midwestern farm girl, stiffly contends that while she accepted presentos, she never once hinted at receiving them (“In our position it just wasn’t right”), and she still rankles at fellow officers’ wives who did. This went for me as well. I was instructed never to accept a presento even if offered. The sole exception to this rule I clearly remember because my parents told me to accept it: a cultured pearl nearly a half-inch in diameter from the hand of Mikimoto himself, now set in a dinner ring for my wife.

Other than antiques and cultural artifacts, Japanese shopping then was pretty lean because capital industry and most large-scale commercial enterprises were still rebuilding. As a result, conventional household products like appliances usually failed quickly, and the words Made in Occupied Japan , emblazoned on all such stock, became a humorous catch phrase for shoddiness.

This may explain why much, if not most, Japanese marketing was then aimed at those most undiscriminating of American consumers, kids. Toys and other childhood trinkets were easier to make, a natural for back-yard cottage industries, which was about all the Japanese had. But at this they excelled. And they did so in the two ways in which they have become a feared and respected cliché: meticulous attention to detail and a genius for exact replication.

I was a ready customer for these wares. Barely a five-minute walk down the ridge from our house was a shopping district, the Motomachi. Today the Motomachi is an upscale outdoor urban mall with pricey shops creeping up the ridge sides and is so marked on tourist maps of Yokohama. Back then it was little more than a single rutted macadam street overlaid with a wealth of exotic scents, good and bad, lined with shacks with corrugated iron roofs, few of which had electricity but all containing never-before-seen wonders for my young senses.

I spent hours there at a time. One shop I remember in particular sold model trains. Like most boys, I was enchanted by trains and had left my own American Flyer set “stateside,” as we Americans wistfully said about our distant homeland. But this shop sold such as I had not seen before: intricate HO-gauge rolling stock, in difficult wooden kits and ready-made—exact copies of American freight and passenger cars, right down to the car-side graphics! The wheel assemblies, or trucks, were especially detailed, flexing on tiny coiled springs. I would stand there and manipulate them, the proprietors smiling indulgently in the background. Years would pass before I saw their like again.

There were many other toys, some Japanese but lots mimicking American prototypes, especially automobiles, stores, houses, and dollhouses and their furnishings. There were mechanical toys too, but like the household goods of the time, they worked neither well nor long. And in addition to toy stores, there were myriad fireworks shops, whose offerings were gaily wrapped =but often fizzled.

But for me the most enchanting offering next to the trains was marbles. I had marbles back in the States, largely dull and featureless affairs that chipped easily, certainly none like these: hefty clear-glass orbs with dazzling, colorful insets in floral and geometric patterns.

They became my barter ammunition. For whatever reason, I was as adept at shooting marbles as I was inept at baseball. In such contests it was winner take all—and take them I usually did and then used these glass wonders as wampum to swap for post-exchange treats. By the time we left Japan, I had hundreds of these marbles, the best of which I kept in a purple velvet drawstring bag that had once held a fifth of Seagram’s V.O. I never again saw any as good.

 
 
 

This Japanese penchant for toys certainly explains the principal, if unofficial, Japanese holiday of the time: Christmas. The Japanese commercial acumen so evident today in the car you may drive and the television you surely watch had its postwar nascence in what was then a blatantly gaudy year-end extravaganza ostensibly celebrating the advent of Christendom, this in a country that was and is less than one percent Christian.

My one Christmas in Japan was magical. The Japanese no longer celebrate Christmas, at least not publicly. They don’t have to.

December transformed the Motomachi. Normally bleak and forbidding at night, especially in late winter, it dazzled with color and light at Christmastide. The decorations were eerily reminiscent of what I had known in America. There were visages of Santa Claus, but he had distinctly Asian features and was mostly featured on rice-paper lantern globes. The omnipresent fireworks bore special red-and-green Christmas wraps, and there were even Nativity scenes, although as with the Santas the participants looked more Japanese than Judean. And everywhere were candles and torches and any other form of illumination the merchants could improvise.

I spent just one Christmas in Japan, and it was magical in a way none other has been. Its sole reminder is a Japanese Santa tree bulb, which I continue to hang prominently. The Japanese no longer celebrate Christmas there, at least not publicly. But of course they don’t have to: Toys have given way to Toyotas, marbles to Matsushita Electric. I know. I shopped in the Motomachi on a trip my wife and I took there in September 1994, my first time back in forty-four years.

Most things have of course changed. The Yokohama I knew so well now more resembles Chicago. This includes its people: traditional Japanese dress, predominant when I lived there, is today relegated to ceremonies and private homes. Our house is gone, replaced by a modern white successor of the same size. The ravine I walked down to the Motomachi is now paved and tightly flanked with housing. The field where I played baseball so badly is overgrown with untended trees and brush. Only the outdoor pool where I learned to swim and the New Grand Hotel remain as I remember them: the former sadly worn, the latter being refurbished. Waterfront Yamashita Park is better than what I knew and larger, thanks to its inclusion in a gigantic harborfront landfill project.

And of course the thousands of shrines remain, some of which I remembered, especially the ones in Kyōto. On a tour bus there my wife idly commented that her aching feet made it difficult to keep removing her shoes to enter shrines. Our young Japanese woman guide mis-overheard her and gently but firmly chided us that it is the custom to take one’s shoes off before entering a Japanese home or shrine.

Been there, done that, I quietly assured her.