The Allied Powers’s post-war occupation of Japan draws my attention, so I was thrilled to discover Popcorn on the Ginza by Lucy Herndon Crockett. She served as a Red Cross worker in the Pacific during World War II and in Japan in the first years of its Allied Occupation. She authored nine books, including the 1954 book The Magnificent Bastards, which became the 1956 motion picture The Proud and Profane.
Crockett traveled in many areas of Japan and recounts in the book her stories of meeting Allied Forces personnel and native Japanese of all classes. She was a prolific socializer.
1946 – 1947 was an extraordinary time when MacArthur’s Military Command limited travel for reasons of security and military good order. Travelers’ accommodations were scarce because of the devastation from the American bombing of Japan. Crockett keeps her focus on the people she meets rather than the discomforts she must have experienced.
Our perspective is based on the times we live in, and Crockett is no exception. She writes that her story is that of the conqueror observing the conquered. Her self-described goals are to explain the Japanese people and the Occupation to an American public that wants to know why pay for food and security for a former despised enemy? Her perspective contracts with that of Peter Hessler in his Oracle Bones.
Hessler like Crockett was a volunteer in service to a former adversary. He served as an English teacher working for the Peace Corps in China before becoming a freelance journalist for the Wall Street Journal and other Western publications.
But Hessler is as much a student of China as he is a teacher, while Crockett describes the ways that the Japanese venerated the changes forced on them, ranging from the principles of women’s rights to American canned foods. Crockett narrates her travels through Japanese cities destroyed by American B-29s, while Hessler investigates neglected buildings and neighborhoods to find China’s past. Crockett’s story moves with the rhythms of the Occupation Army, while Hessler’s curiosity finds him alternatively avoiding and bumping into the PRC’s security forces.
Crockett uses disparaging phases and words to describe the Japanese that are not used today and which I will not reprint here. Though her written purpose is to explode those prejudices, we know from experience that repeating ignorance tends to reinforce the ignorant. She structures her book around stating the prejudiced idea and then exposing it to the realities of what she observed.
Hessler uses an observer point to view telling a series of interweaving extended stories to allow the reader to decide what is true and what is fabrication. Hessler admits even his objective writing style makes him a censor, because as he writes what is not written about is as important as what is.
Two chapters in Crockett’s book are moving: “The Morning After” and “You Can’t Help Liking Them.” Post-war Japan was not a pleasant place for the Japanese. The lumpen (hopeless ones) were so common to be so labeled, over 2,000 each night taking shelter in Ueno Station in Tokyo. Orphan children crowded into Japan’s cities. These children lost parents in American bombing raids, were turned out by their destitute parents, and were nonpersons repatriated from China and Manchuria with the expulsion of the Japanese Army. Child crime and loitering became so pervasive that the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Forces created a Youth Crime Section. Children were shuttled to new locations, because conditions on the street were better than those in the Japanese prisons. Japan lost its pre-war food imports from the countries her military had occupied, including the rice bowl provided by Vietnam.
The Japanese suffered during the Occupation for reasons of their creation and the Occupation Forces’s. Crockett’s book was my introduction to that whispered story avoided by the Americans and the Japanese.