Stories of Occupied Japan

By Reta Jones Nicholson

From October 1948 until September 1950, we were stationed at Camp Haugen, a former Japanese training post on the northeastern coast of Honshu. Yhe three of us—my father, mother, and I—lived in a tiny two-bedroom bungalow where we were joined every day but Sunday by the servents we’d been encouraged to hire to help the local economy—the Army paid half, we paid half; if we hired two people, the Army paid all for a third. We paid a total of $21 a month for ‘Henry’, who advanced from houseboy to cook; Mitsui, who became our housekeeper, and Yoshiko, who was the maid.

I don’t remember knowing “Henry’s” Japanese name; I believe he had chosen that Anglo name for himself. He and his wife lived in one small room of an old Japanese barracks on the far side of post where I was allowed to visit them on occasion. These were long, low concrete buildings, very utilitarian, with a central corridor that was open to the elements in several places. The “quarters” were ranked down each side of the corridor and were elevated about three feet above the corridor floor. Their room was square, about ten feet on a side, and all surfaces were covered in soft rush matting, except for the small window and the door, which were sliding “shoji” screens. In the center of the floor was a sunken, square charcoal brazier they used for cooking and for warmth. I remember only three pieces of “furniture”  in that room: a cabinet for their clothing and rolled up sleeping pads; a small family shrine; and a tiny table that sat next to the brazier. There were two square “futon” cushions, as well. When I visited, I was invited to sit on the one I considered prettiest: a bright cerise silk one with small tassels on the corners, obviously a prized possession.

I don’t remember where Mitsui and Yoshiko lived; I had the impression they lived nearby but I was never in their homes. When any of the three went on holiday I was always brought a present. I remember particularly liking the crisp, round, thin rice crackers with poppy seeds; these had been pressed in a mold that left a design on the face of each, and were brought to me stacked and wrapped in Japanese newspaper. I wanted to make them last and last, but they’d begin to get soft rather quickly and I’d have to finish the rest in one sitting.

Henry had a little sister who was crippled and mostly bedfast. When he would travel to see her, he would take a gift from me and bring back a gift from her—simple things, like origami cranes and boxes made of beautiful patterned paper. Once she sent a set of nested wooden boxes, each with a different design. I still have one of them; it’s too fragile to use anymore, but I still have it on display in my home as one of my treasures.

My father remembers that I spoke Japanese fluently…a gilded memory, I’m sure. I think I understood more than I spoke—my comfort and daily needs depending as they did upon the moods of these three who spoke little English when they came to work for us, but who had much to say to each other—often, it seemed, about me. We learned a lot from each other.

I remember sitting on a hilltop with them in the spring sunshine while I showed them how to make a kite—out of sticks, newspaper, paste and string, completed with a tied rag tail. They were fascinated, and as excited as I when it flew high and long! (Many years later, I realized that they were probably more amazed than excited; these folks from a culture that had flown kites for thousands of years…)

We talked that day—or perhaps another day—about luck and four-leaf clovers (I had been astounded that their clover had as many as SIX leaves, wondering if that meant more luck than usual) as I showed them how to make clover flower garlands for our head and necks. We must have been quite a sight coming home that evening.

We went on a trip together to Hokkaido in the deep winter of 1949—my parents, Henry, Mitsui, Yoshiko and I—traveling on an old steam locomotive to the northern port where we would catch the ferry.  When we boarded the train, the Japanese officials insisted on clearing an entire car for us, jamming its passengers and their baggage into the other cars amid much bowing and shuffling and giggling. My parents and I were embarrassed, but our staff assumed dignified (and slightly superior) attitudes. They said they were very proud to be traveling with “their” Americans; it showed they ere favored and obviously worthy.

The ride was long, and I soon got bored. It was difficult to see out the frost covered windows; I would wipe a place with my hand and watch as the place filled with a new film of frost.  I began writing my name, the name of my friends, the alphabet—I asked Henry how to write my name in Japanese and he showed me. Then I asked how to write the Japanese alphabet; this brought great conferring among the three. They dispersed, each to one of the three remaining corners of the car and, apparently, in some kind of race, began to rapidly scribing the complex characters of their language.

Each would fill a window with figures and move onto the next, until the last one was filled, then return to the first window to begin again. Huge fits of giggles would overcome one for a moment, and then another would fall on a seat laughing. Henry had claimed the side where I’d been writing. Mitsui and Yoshiko “shared” the other side; they would meet in the middle of the car—just short of where my amazed parents sat—and run back to their respective starting points. Something was said by one to the others—I didn’t catch it—but suddenly they all began laughing so hard they could write no more, only hold their sides and double over.  Of course, this got my parents and me caught up in it too, and when the whistle blew for our stop we had only moments to smooth clothing, grab our belongings and prepare to disembark. Henry, Mitsui and Yoshiko pulled themselves into their regal postures more quickly than “their” Americans did, but it was a struggle for all of us to make it through the crowds between the station platform and the ferryboat without another fit of undignified, uncontrollable laughter.

Later that evening, I asked Henry what they had been writing that took so long. “Oh you see,” he said, “We have a very much letters and they all different.” What had been so funny about that, I asked. “Oh you see, “ he said, starting to giggle again, “We wonder how many more Japanese we must kick out (of the other cars) to have enough windows!”

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