Blogs There's No There There TokyoJul 17, 2018
tags: Japan; Shinuku; Commodore Perry; WWII
Tokyo: A Few Remembered Moments
By Murray Polner
Set down suddenly in Japan in the early 1950s my first reaction was that I was an exile. I was to live in an American occupied compound in Tokyo as a drafted soldier--but happily, not far from a British compound where I was welcomed and could read all the British, Canadian and Australian publications I wished while enjoying an occasional scotch with a Commonwealth soldier and ordering custom-made- jackets (the first time in my life!) from the talented Japanese tailor they had hired.
Even then the city resembled every mammoth, sprawling city I'd ever lived in, with its strangulating traffic, jammed subway cars that required "pushers" who shoved late arriving travelers into an already jammed subway car. The Japanese language when spelled in kanji high on signs seemed like Hebrew. The people also seemed to be , isolated from one another, redeemed and saved only by their extended families, Japan's complex code of mutual obligations, and their neighborhoods, each a separate entity of its own. The devastating war and the extensive US firebombing of the city seemed far away, at least for younger men and women.
But far from the city center's chaos, evenings brought out a different world. There were fire wardens with their clacking of two wooden sticks when they found all was well, and the plaintive, melancholy horn of the soba (noodle) peddler and the clacking of clogs or Gaeta, beating underfoot against the cobblestones and paved sidewalks. In the more modest neighborhoods there was the absence of nighttime traffic, the silence broken only by distant elevated trains and the shopkeepers and home owners shutting up as they closed their wooden sliding doors and windows.
The children, though, were the absolute joy and delight of the Japanese. I often wondered why their obedient parents gave them up so easily to mad warrior-rulers. From the time they were carried on their parents' backs until they were ready for school and the intense competition that awaited them for entry into much-prized higher education. They were deliciously rosy-cheeked, uninhibited though always shy before a foreigner and exceptionally pampered until considered ready to assume some responsibility --generally depending on the family's economic condition.
Out for a walk one evening, I watched an elderly man banging two wooden sticks together. He was the peripatetic story teller and from every corner kids suddenly appeared to listen to their beloved narrator with his portable stage perched on his bicycle, his dramatic personae painted on brightly colored placards, his own personality lending voice to his expressions of comedy and melodrama. The fare on that night was as involved as the highly decorous kabuki, sometimes as severe as a Noh play. And all for one yen or so, then the U.S. equivalent of 1/360th of a dollar. The kids bought their tickets in the form of candied sweets and jellied lollipops, their pleasures distracted only for a moment when I stopped to snap their pictures in another part of this teeming city, in an infamously conformist society.
Elsewhere, nighttime in Shinjuku, an area dedicated to entertainment, was lusty and diverse. I walked past its tiny alleyways and beneath its brightly colored neon lights offering in the English language massage parlors, strip clubs, coffee shops, and hotels for overnight guests with Japanese women. As I moved about two teenage girls approached offering themselves.
I met young males who spoke English, which, since 1945, had become virtually the second language for high school and university students. 0ne young man, about 22, was the son of a prosperous manufacturer and a graduate of a liberal arts college and talked to me about investing in a magazine for the literary avant garde. Another one I met in a coffee shop was the second son of a prefecture official. The failed war meant little to him, as did the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or so he told me. He was conservative and loyal to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which he said would always reassure the Japanese people that because Americans were so afraid of the communists taking over, would always be ready to fight and die for pacifist Japan if and when necessary. Along the way I was introduced into a circle of Jewish businessmen who had made their money in Dutch-owned Indonesia, Southeast Asia and Japan. They had been interned by the Japanese Kempetai (secret police) during the war but otherwise were physically unharmed --probably paid them off-- though several told me they had been "humiliated."
I met a Jewish US Air Force guy whose Japanese wife had experienced Hiroshima and after which her parents sent her to grandma and grandpa in Nagasaki which had gone though the second atomic attack. When I asked her what she remembered she said she still had regular nightmares. I repeated what she told me to my landlady who told me she would never have rented to me if I had been in the US Air Force.
0ther than the endless search for profits why did the U.S in 1853-54 send the US Navy under Commodore Matthew Perry to "open" Japan, as if it were 'closed.'? Perry was a veteran of two US wars of aggression: 1812 against Canada and 1846 against Mexico. Decades earlier Catholic priests had arrived to teach Japanese the virtues of Catholicism and were executed by Japanese who thought they knew enough about religion..
All the same, with no navy the Japanese acceded to US demands that it open several ports to US traders and agreed to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854. But the Japanese, beginning with the Meiji Restoration, had learned much from western military technology and its industrialized military. Able students of war the Japanese armed themselves, and then fought and defeated China in 1895 and Russia in 1905-- the first time an Asian nation had beaten a European power (though Tsarist Russia was by then a rotten shell and would be gone in twelve years).
Before and after WWI, Japan began eyeing portions of Siberia and more of China as well as Korea, which they occupied and brutalized as early as 1910, an omen of things to come in the thirties and after. When Britain and France tried to destroy Bolshevism in its cradle in 1918-21 and with Woodrow Wilson's US joining in and sending troops to Archangel and Murmansk in the north and also dispatching Gen. William Graves, a smart general with 7,000 US troops to Siberia where the Whites were battling the Reds. Graves never figured out why he and his troops were there, but mainly it seemed to watch over the Japanese who were greedily eying portions of Siberia. He certainly had little or no interest in fighting the anti-Bolshevik Whites .
After their defeat in WW II Japan became a puppet state of the USA. The relationship brought them many benefits but also made them a virtual US colony.
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