IV. SOME EARLY LETTERS HOME
We begin with some letters and commentaries sent to my wife, Kathryn, and to various colleagues (I have not changed anything other than obvious errors of spelling and grammar).
A. First Impressions: A Letter to Kathryn Bennett Composed at Intervals During 1949
Literally my first impression was that of wood construction, perhaps induced by the fact that after my pick-up at the port of Yokohama we stopped at the PX garage in Yokohama and I saw that the entire building is constructed of interlaced wooden beams, ingeniously and intricately braced, etc. But more than this the streets were lined with what struck me immediately as exquisite and meticulous little wooden houses with delicate walls and bracings, everything most carefully carpentered ...these houses were the first indication of a general feeling of unfamiliarity or inability to "place" an item of construction socially and economically. One had the feeling that these were "shacks," probably lower-class dwellings and shops, yet their exquisiteness prevented one from making secure judgements.
Following this came an impression of random newness against a shabby backdrop, as if construction had grown up out of the soil overnite, in an old architectural forest of shabby and worn buildings. This impression continues to enlarge as time goes on, and particularly for Tokyo, where destruction was so great. Yet one lacks the conviction of destruction--not only because of the tremendous underbrush of new growth, but also because of a vitality and industry one sees all around. This extends beyond architecture of course--take street cars for example: the damn things are incredibly shabby and worn, yet they purr along apparently without difficulty and one feels that if something is really in bad shape, the necessary parts are repaired, or if someone really needs a house, he gets it built somehow, or if a neighborhood really needs a certain type of shop, it gets it. Government buildings, office buildings, all show this down at the heelness, this crumminess and shabbiness, and god knows after how many years of war and disruption it is understandable. But the point is that one doesn't require this understanding of physical causation to excuse the shabbiness, because somehow the shabbiness doesn't really matter. One is attracted instead by the constant eager flow of people, the economic underbrush of shops and sellers of anything and everything, the energy and determination, and finally the genuine disregard of the crumminess by the people themselves. One feels instead that there is such a competence here that physical conditions don't really matter--the stuff is there for construction and reconstruction and given half a chance things will really blossom. In Mexico City one sees much of the same sort of physical shabbiness but the reaction is different. One feels corruption and carelessness, and while the same probably exists by the carload here, I have a difficulty feeling it.
One also receives a feeling of intense participation. The hundreds of shops, the crowds in the bookstores, the hundreds of peculiar little odd jobs going on around you all day long, the custom of having nearly all advertising signs, posters, etc., hand painted instead of printed--all this makes you feel that here is an incredible hive of industry and cooperation, that behind the scenes there are thousands of people participating in the life of the metropolis and you fail to get the tired subwayite tradition of American big cities. It is almost as if one were to take Chicago's Maxwell Street and enlarge it a hundred times, set it around the outside of about forty large office buildings, add Grant Park, and call it a city. This is a vicious oversimplification actually--purely an impression because Tokyo is a real metropolis and no doubt it has vast circuits of the typically downtrodden urban genre, however one doesn't upon first impression feel them.
On the outskirts an entirely new feelings appears--a feeling of neatness and orderliness which is quite as different from the bustling eagerness of the city as Winnetka is from Maxwell Street in Chicago (please note that the contrasts in Japan are on the full Western scale--disabuse yourself of the notion that Japan is physically homogenous, although it is homogenous in other senses--but homogeneity is a difficult problem and more of it later). In these areas one finds a mosaic of middleclass residences and tiny farms, all wedged in together and every goddamn inch and half inch of space used to the minute. The soil is powdered and petted, carefully hedged in and banked up so that not one grain will escape and not one space will be wasted. I should like an aerial view--it must be intriguing. Farmhouses are residences that are meticulous and carefully built--we return once more to the original Yokohama impressions only now the feeling is much stronger and it begins to mature. Discriminations can be made between what is really a neat but slapped-up house, and what is also neat but beautifully made and solid building. Here is a contrast with the US: the cheaper and quicker one constructs and plans, the cheaper it looks, but in Japan even the cheapest (changes are coming of course) is incredibly neat. How such standards can be maintained is hard to understand, but it is both a consequence no doubt of the maintenance of compulsive standards plus small, local construction firms, plus a distinctive carpentry style which looks careful even in its cheaper versions.
Out here one also is confused over the sense of life space--very different from the West in general, I suspect. Our American contrast between Nature and Manmade is blurred out here--in a dozen ways. The fields are more outdoor flowerpots than fields--the soil has been manured and fertilized and powdered so long that it is no longer soil, but a kind of vast compost pile, and it is treated as one treats the soil in a house pot plant, not like the team and plow tactics of ourselves (again these are judgements based on limited vision). The same blurring of Nature and Man is seen I think in the houses, where sliding panels, paper panels, and a general delicacy of partition create open vistas and channels, so that the entire house can be converted to a shelter outdoors in a matter of a few minutes. These are the more traditional houses of course. At the other end one gets western style houses--but even these retain the indoor-outdoor conception (a conception viewed as the very latest and most sophisticated architectural fantasy from California in US). In short, the entire feeling of shelter seems different from ours, and the character of the landscape has been so extensively altered that one no longer feels that this is nature outside, but merely the endless extension of the kitchen garden, of the hedged in back yard with its flower garden, shade tree, and vegetable patch. Man really has the outdoors under control; more than that, it is part of man here. Everything is worked over, everything is accessible to man, who can open himself up to it by sliding back a wall. (All this is not the same thing as saying that there is no feeling for private living--there must be. But the nature-man relationship seems certainly different from ours)
There is also in these outskirts a feeling of novelty and unexpectedness, in spite of the orderly working over of everything. What is residential and what is rural alternate when they don't blend, and this is often a sharp surprise; or a town street lined with shops, police stands, etc. suddenly gives way to a field and farm house; or at the end of a thoroughly civilized residential (upper middleclass) street appears a tiny factory devoted to the manufacture of some wooden article; or on the middle of the same or some street, hidden from all possible view by hedges, appears an inn or private hotel, and how in hell any guests ever find it is beyond understanding though Herb Passin suggested it has a standing clientele. While this kind of thing may be expected to provide a feeling of novelty, this first impression also is accompanied again by the feeling of order, that all these things have their place and the place is fitting and according to some formal or informal patterning.
The urban version of these particular impressions goes something like this: Initial reaction as shock and confusion at what appears to be vast heterogeneity and randomness: hundreds of shops scattered all over the place, dozens of small shops, factories, hospitals, lumber yards, contractors, and the like. Yet again the feeling of order intrudes, especially when one begins to see the ecological pattern: that for example a lumber yard and a contractor appear at fairly regular intervals, obviously serving the neighborhood or whatever social unit is meaningful. Decentralization. Similarly certain types of shops seem to flow along in rotation--e.g. about every four blocks a pottery and china shop in some districts; one in each block in others. (It must be understood that the system of tiny shopkeepers is basic in all sections of the city except the downtown, where the big dept. stores are--but these specialize in western style goods I think.) So the heterogeneity is not really that--or better said, all societies are both homogenous and heterogeneous, and what at first may seem like heterogeneous turns out later to be the reverse, or merely a symptom of order. This is confused - heterogeneity can be orderly, that is the point. Japan may be an orderly heterogeneous culture, with considerable consistency, i.e. homogeneity, in this orderly heterogeneity from place to place!
Then there is something that I shall call the "order of relationships," not knowing quite what is meant by that but since these are impressions I can get away with it. All I mean is that one finds unexpected combinations, plus the lack of other combinations one expects in the West. At the most obvious level one passes the farmhouse of a "peasant," who is out in the field in his rags sifting soil with some kind of primitive gadget, and one hears booming out of the open panel of a house a Beethoven symphony or the 6 pm news. On a different level one had difficulty finding the patent distinctions between "city" and "country"--not that they aren't there, but that obviously the way they are related and unrelated differs in Japan to some degree. Likewise one finds an existence close to subsistence, grubbing out ones life cheerfully in a miniature city shop or farmhouse, but at the same time possessing literacy, and an active literacy, as a matter of course. As already suggested, these different relationships (different from the West) are also visible in the actual way man has transformed the physical environment--they are not just "cultural" in the sense of "patterns of behavior", but are really behavioral-ecological--they cannot be understood purely by reference to the environment. And always included must be the understanding that the variations within them are fully of the order one expects to find in the Western world; e.g., one sees plenty of vacant lots and wasteland in the city, and urbanites don't seem to give a damn; on the outskirts every inch is husbanded; but perhaps urbanites take out their needs in the meticulous manufacture of tiny toys, or in the careful arrangement of a tiny shop--I don't know. The point is that the variation is here, taking place within a different scheme of relationships. One first must observe the different relationships, then the variation, and then one finds whole sectors of the system which will be similar to the West others which will be wholly different, other which overlap partially. If there are any generalized ethos factors a la Ruth Benedict underlying the whole I am sure that they would be difficult to find--there are no absolute differences between cultures, as whole cultures--if there were, there would be required a different intelligent species.
This might go on forever, but let us list some preconceptions of the writer, which have since been scrapped. More than that, he was totally unaware that they existed, and he an anthropologist, too. But we know that anthropologists are on the whole na´ve and eager people, who rarely examine their own prejudices. I discovered after two days that I entered Japan with the unconscious assumption that all Japanese speak in high voices. This is false. 2. I entered Japan with the notion that all Japanese would be embarrassed when spoken to. This is false. 3. I had a half baked notion that Tokyo looked like a large park with museum-like buildings scattered through it (really kind of surrealist dream). This is false. 4. I believed that although most Japanese could read, only a few were literate. This is mostly false. 5. I believed that Japan was amazingly homogenous in physical appearance and behavior. This is completely false and true--see earlier confused remarks. 6. Finally, I had the firm belief that a careful reading of Benedict, Sansom, Embree, et.al. would provide one with the basic knowledge for research here. Maybe-- but today I discovered that my most pressing need for information concerns government bureaus and the patterns of population movement.
To conclude this session, let us ask the question: What is the "Oriental" here? Is this the Orient? The initial Yokohama impression was negative--the damn place looked like part of Seattle, and the docks were so packed with Americans that one could hardly feel strange and eastern. In to Tokyo the impressions were so confused that I can hardly say what I felt; after a while in Tokyo and outside the Orient came in a physical sense--the "Japanesy" look as my dear mother used to say when she saw some bamboo bric-abrac; that is, delicacy, intricacy, retiring-ness, vistas of people in hedged fields, etc., etc. Japanese gardens and prints. For a couple of days I drank this in--every glimpse I could get. Concrete highways and western buildings and railroads didn't figure--I simply didn't see them. I recall one trip into town with Herb Passin in the AM and the only thing that I remember seeing on that trip was an ancient house on a farm with old style thatched roof. Well, all this will return when we go to Kyoto and similar places which retain the traditional appearance, but by now the Japanese feeling and visions have about disappeared, and all I see are the familiar sights of the urban world - the streets look like streets again. "Oriental" becomes not of the bric-a-brac dish garden business but the urban and rural world of the Japanese nation. I regret that I didn't see Japan in my mystic and impressionable teens, when the garden view would have persisted. Not of course that I don't see the differences--this communication is full of them--but the special na´ve physical "oriental" look is about gone.
B. Excerpts from Letters Written in 1949 to Kathryn Bennett and to Professor Kurt H. Wolf, a Professional Colleague at Ohio State University during 1948-1949
1. Madam Butterfly in the Occupation
By the way, the butterfly motif saturates the Occupation--it is a living reality for hundreds of Japanese girls who fall for Americans because Americans give them the attention and respect and are free in confessing their feelings and interests. This acts like a narcotic to a girl who has grown up expecting much less from a man. The phenomenon takes place at several levels--the most conspicuous being the hordes of GIs and their teenage girl friends, most of the latter being from lowerclass families and who have taken a rather rough and garish aspect, at times being hardly distinguishable from the "pan pan," or amateur prostitutes--a postwar affair in Japan. On another level one finds the middleclass girls who have adjusted to civilians or GIs of a gentler breeding, and who have established virtual marital relations. It is this latter group which will suffer the greatest emotional shocks; the former group will simply drift back into prostitution. The former are only temporary attachments; the latter are real "butterfly" cases. I think there is no doubt that the widespread contact of Japanese girls and young Americans will introduce certain changes in Japanese folkways and mores--one already sees Japanese young couples with arms about each other--a thing unheard of in prewar Japan.
2. The Japanese Cars--Rebuilt--like Cuba
For that matter the Japanese cars are strange enough too. With no new cars for about fifteen years (the first small passenger cars are now beginning to be available) you can imagine what the rolling stock looks like. Half of them have been rebuilt so often that it takes a sharp eye to tell what make they were originally. Some have even been kept up to date--I saw what was a 1937 Plymouth the other day which had had its body rebuilt to look like a 1938 Plymouth! Then about half the cars on the road still run by charcoal fumes, and this means they have an enormous and unsightly mass of boilers and tubing hanging over the rear end, where the trunk used to be, with conduits leading over the roof to the engine. Some of these things are literally moving piles of junk, with pieces flapping, rust flaking off, and queer noises. You can hear the average Japanese car a block away. A lot of the buses also run by charcoal burners, and when they fire up in the morning the column of smoke looks like a bomb or shell explosion [see picture 23]. Most of the trucks run by gasoline, and since truck production has been going on the past three years, you see a lot of new ones. Tires are very rare, and hundreds of little tire shops make a good living rebuilding tires you couldn't even sell for scrap in the States. They take moth eaten old carcasses, with the rubber gone down to the cords, blowout holes in the sidewalls, and somehow patch and retread until it can go another thousand miles or so. The new passenger cars now just coming out are cute little things, big enough for four people if they squeeze, and almost light enough for a man to lift alone. A lot of them are not assembled in the factory, but are sold as parts to small garages, where they are assembled one or two at a time by hand and then sold by the garage as well as the agency. They are still terribly expensive and only the wealthier people can buy them. Japanese in the employ of foreign trade firms can buy American and British cars. And of course a small black market exists in these foreign cars for what is left of the royalty and the wealthy industrialists. The Japanese government cars are as shabby as the rest, but are usually larger and better makes, so hold up better.
3. Street Naming and Numbering
This afternoon on the way out here Herb and I tried to find where a friend of his lived who had moved recently. The reason I bring this up is to tell you about one of the most amazing things about Japanese cities, and especially Tokyo. They have no meaningful system of street naming and numbering. Here is a city of several million people, in which most of the streets have no names, in which there are no consecutive house numbers, and in which there is no simple and direct way of finding where someone lives. Houses have a number of some kind which none of us really understand--apparently the numbers have something to do with when the house was built, or when the owner moved in--what is certain is that they are not consecutive. If you have to find someone, you go to the nearest police box--there are a lot of boxes scattered all over--one for each neighborhood. Each box has a more or less up-to-date list of everyone in the area and where they live. But even this is not foolproof. Another method is to have little maps printed showing how to get to your house--a lot of people do that. But more often you just give the ward and neighborhood name, and then expect your visitors to inquire. Funny thing is that people really have considerable difficulty finding other people, yet the city has never adopted a system of naming and numbering. The city is divided into ku, or wards, and these are divided into cho, or neighborhoods, but they are very haphazard. Then on the outskirts you find districts, which are formerly small towns (machi), like Nishi Ogikubo, where the Passins live. These machi have become suburban train stops, very similar to the outlying suburbs of Chicago, with business districts, residential areas, farms, etc.
4. Beginnings of Americanization12 April 1949
...let me begin a discussion of the urbanization and Americanization of Japan. This is really a more fascinating subject than one might think, and while it may bore you, let me get it in writing. In the first place, there is Tokyo, the metropolis, one of the great cities of the world, and certainly the great center of Western influence and prestige. Now what do we see when we take a drive thru Tokyo streets? The first thing one notices is the very frequent English signs on stores. In the downtown areas and shopping districts in outlying areas these provide a curious, familiar feeling that this isn't Japan after all, but some distorted, dreamlike version of an ordinary American city. "Birds and Animals;" "Veterinary Hospital;" "Art Materials;" "Department Store;" "Tailor;" "Fine China," and the like are frequent enough, and one gets an impression of bustle and ordinary business as usual. In an outlying section that one passes thru on the way into town from Herb's, and in which English signs are rare, there suddenly appears a small, new, Western style building with a sign, "Morris Bakery." What this means I don't know, but it gives one the feeling that something is creeping in here, that in a few years Tokyo will be recast in the American commercial model. Certainly this is apparent in the styles of advertising posters and signs which litter Tokyo--they are almost direct copies of Ameican styles--all done by hand, of course. One thing that is missing is the big billboard. Thank God. But on the road out to Hachioji, while one drives thru an exceedingly ancient and traditional farming town, with hoary old thatched houses, one passes a brand new modern store building with the sign, "Ohio Art Store." Two blocks or so further on is an old Shell gas station, now deserted. And in Tokyo several American gasoline companies have been allowed to open new stations for the traders, and they are absolute duplicates of standard brand new service stations in the States. There is an irreverance about all of this that is disturbing somehow, and makes me feel as if things are really changing very fast. Because if the Japanese could get more dollars, if they were freed of the restrictions SCAP puts upon their contacts with the outside, the place would blossom like Los Angeles with drive-ins, shopping center, and billboards. I think that it is only a matter of time until this all does happen. Small scale enterprise is big stuff here, because it can be run by squads of relatives and kept in shape by hundreds of cheap laborers.
5. Feudalism and Democracy
Now let us turn to that old word feudalism, and the work that has become its converse, democracy. Everywhere one goes from intellectuals to gangsters, everything that is bad is Japan is feudal, everything good democratic. The exceptions are obvious--people like old Yanagida and of course most of the reactionary politicians and the purgees. But the new intellectuals and the professors and a majority of the young people have now embarked on a crusade to eliminate feudalism and substitute democracy. This is very mysterious, because it is difficult to define either. At the crudest level, jive is democratic and the Kabuki feudal, hence away with Kabuki. At the highest level, one may hear a really crack sociologist discourse on the necessity of doing away with feudal family customs, like primogeniture, and substitute something else. The "something else," however, can never be defined, because the land situation is so tight that the only way any agriculturaal production can be maintained is to keep land plots intact by passing them down to one son only, the oldest. What, then is the status of the "feudal" custom of primogeniture? Is it feudal because it is traditional, because it fits economic realities, because those who practice it feel it is a gesture of filial piety, ancestor worship, etc.? Some do it for all these reasons, some for one of the other. "Feudalism" dissolved upon examination into economic, personal, structural, and attitudinal facets, and one is hard pressed to say what the converse may be. Others feel that feudalism is the prevailing tendency in Japan to make all social relationships ones of personal loyalty and obligation. This is certainly true. The whole country is a network of oyabun-kobun (patron-client--with a kinship modelling) relationships--very similar to the "patron-child" relationship system of Latin America--only in Japan it permeates even the most rationalized and secularized areas of life--gangsters, industry, politics. The Universities are run on the system, with the oyabun--in this case the oldest and most dignified professor--choosing his coprofessors and apprenticing his students. There really is no graduate work as such in Japan--only a kind of master-apprentice system. Well, what does this all mean? Isn't all of this somewhat familiar in America? Aren't most major decisions on American universities carried out via personal relationships instead of some open, democratic process? How do people get jobs? The differences seem to be apparent with Japan, but they tend to boil down to frequency of occurrence differences, plus some differences in content--that is, the values which are used to justify the systems. But one thing is certain--one cannot say that the differences between Japan and the US are due to the fact that one is "feudalistic" and the other "democratic." I suspect that what might be the thing behind the peculiar tendency to dichotomize here is that America conquered Japan. So, if Japan has its family (or whatever) system which was conquered by the American family (or whatever) system, then the American, etc., must be superior, and ought to be imitated. Since America is out here selling democracy, then the American, etc., is democratic and the Japanese the converse, or feudalistic. The worst instances of this kind of thinking are found among the Christian Japanese. Today I spent part of the morning with--a really brilliant guy. But he continued to harp on Japan's feudalism and how it must be rooted out--such remarks contrasted violently with his otherwise brilliant and sophisticated grasp of things. When pressed by us to define "feudal," he found difficulty. Granted some reforms are desirable--but many of Japan's institutional patterns are so perfectly adapted to the kind of existence the Japanese must lead that any change would be unthinkable. Japan simply cannot be a United States. She lacks resources, space, and everything else. There must be control, centralization, and personal relations. The context of all these can be changed perhaps for the better, to allow more individualistic spirits to thrive. But to root them all out is unthinkable.