Ask any Japanese who experienced the war and the Allied Occupation about their recollections of those years and their first memory will probably concern hunger.
“The rations for Japanese and Foreign Nationals add up to the absolute minimum number of calories to keep alive. It seems to me that it is around 1,800 calories a day, which doesn’t permit any flourishes and certainly no sweets,” wrote Elizabeth Ryan during her stay in Occupied Japan.
Ryan, who worked from 1947 to 1948 as a provost court reporter for the Inspector General of the Occupation force at the U.S. base in Kobe, described the situation many Japanese faced right after the war in a letter sent to her family back in Milwaukee.
Anyone who remembers the difficult life of the postwar years, however, would probably be astounded to learn the daily menu Ryan and other Occupation personnel had available at the renowned and luxurious Hotel Oriental in central Kobe, one of hundreds of buildings confiscated by U.S. forces in Hyogo Prefecture after the war.
In another letter, she wrote that she ate fresh eggs, butter and steaks.
Ryan also describes how she enjoyed various activities in her time off. She went to dance parties almost daily, took rides in jeeps, often watched movies and live boxing matches, played tennis and swam in a pool at the Shioya district in Kobe, according to some of the dozens of letters she sent from Kobe to her family in the United States.
As one of the few American women working at the Kobe base, Betts — as she calls herself in the letters — appeared to be quite popular among the young officers and soldiers.
“The past week was full. Tuesday night bingo at Shioya — Wednesday dance at Sumiyoshi; Thursday — Jud came home so we had a welcome home party in a small way; Friday some of the officers from Headquarters stopped by in the late evening — 9:30 — so we had a session at the bar until closing hours — 11 P.M. Saturday — I had to catch up on my sleep in the afternoon — too much social life,” she wrote in a letter dated July 15, 1947.
The sharp contrast between the poverty-stricken Japanese and the well-funded American personnel, however, did not necessarily cause great friction, because many Japanese regarded the Occupation as a liberation from the dark years of the country’s militarism.
Following are excerpts from Ryan’s letters describing her life in Kobe. Some expressions may be viewed as offensive.
Feb. 25, 1947
I should tell you more about the living here. Hang on to your hat — our room is $10.00 a month each — and that includes service (and no tips) that the Waldorf Astoria can’t match.
Always plenty of clean linens — rooms picked up everyday — Jap boys make the beds and even come in while we’re at dinner in the evening, and turn down our beds, lay our pj’s and robes, turn on a soft light — and there we are.
The living is perfect and so is the job. I have no complaints and I know we could be worse off — in Yokohama and Tokyo.
May 28, 1947
Our food is very good. Much better than I ever expected to find here. But that is due to the wonderful system they have of transporting food from the States aboard reefer ships.
The only thing we don’t get is fresh milk. What milk they do bring in here is frozen for use in hospitals. We get plenty of fresh eggs and butter, frozen vegetables, and good meat.
The meals are well-balanced. We have fruit juice, stewed fruit, bacon or sausage and eggs, toast, jelly and coffee for breakfast, and cereal, too — but I don’t go for condensed milk so I pass up the cereal.
For lunch — there is hot soup, and either a hot plate of some meat, potatoes, vegetables and salad, or a cold plate of potato salad with cold cuts and cheese, dessert, and beverage.
Dinner — steak several times a week, chicken once a week, roast beef, veal cutlets, meat loaf, etc. potatoes, vegetables, salad, beverage and pie or cake and ice cream always goes with the dessert.
Do you wonder why I am putting on some weight. With good food, good service, and nothing to worry about — it adds up to avoirdupois (heaviness.)
July 15, 1947
Saturday evening — dance at Shioya, sandwiches afterwards then over to Jackson’s — where we (6 of us) harmonized on all the good old songs until 3:45 A.M. Got to bed at 4:45 — up at 7:45 — hungry and couldn’t sleep.
Mary and I said people might get the wrong notion seeing us come in at 4:15 A.M. but it certainly was the most wholesome and innocent evening and early A.M.
After going to mass at 10:30 — lunch at 12 — the boys John Macnik and Johnny Delorey picked us up and went out to Shioya — I went in swimming and Mary played tennis.
The water in the pool is salt water and real warm. What a beautiful lay-out!
The dressing rooms are in a stone bath-house right next to the pool.
A Japanese attendant helps you dress and undress — rinses out the swimming suits & wraps them in your towel and puts it where you won’t forget it.
After swimming in salt water, you have to take a fresh water shower — and what lovely showers!
Much privacy. Each one has an adjoining dressing room.
I’ve never been in a place that was so beautifully arranged and managed. Just like in the movies!
We enjoyed a few beers in a rathskeller arrangement they have there — sat on the beautiful lawn — and finally dinner was announced. Buffet supper served on the veranda overlooking the bay.
Charcoal steaks — fried over the hot coals on small charcoal burners — looked like clay pots — and those Jap boys were really turning them out.
The buffet table had cold turkey & dressing — cranberry sauce — baked ham — potato salad — cold slaw — olives — radishes — biscuits — cake — coffee — simply everything.
The Officer’s Club has so much money it has to get rid of some of it — so these suppers will be held for a while on Sundays.
The Japan Times is running the Letters from Kobe series featuring letters Elizabeth Ryan wrote in Occupied Japan from 1947 to 1948 that were recently discovered by Ken Alley, who runs a secondhand bookstore in Nebraska. The next part will appear in Tuesday’s edition.