Books

Bradford Smith's years in Japan influenced his writing career

by Patrick Parr

Contributing writer

Near the end of his life, author and educator Bradford Smith (1909-64) wrote the following passage for an unpublished booklet titled “Dear Gift of Life”:

“Once we accept the fact that we shall disappear, we also discover the larger self which relates us to our family and friends, to our neighborhood and community, to nation and humanity, and, indeed, to the whole creation out of which we have sprung. We are a part of all this, too, and death cannot entirely withdraw us from it. To the extent that we have poured ourselves into all these related groups and persons, we live on in them.”

Stricken with stomach cancer at 54, Smith braved his death by keeping a pen in his hand. Smith had studied variations of Buddhism while living in Japan from 1931 to 1936, and even though he never directly identified himself with the religion, the passage from “Dear Gift of Life” reflects his Buddhism-inspired belief in achieving a harmonic relationship with nature and making peace with our place in the world.

Although his time in Japan was relatively brief, the years he spent here made such an impression that he published several books about the country and its people. In 1931, Smith was offered a position at St. Paul’s University (now Rikkyo University) in Tokyo. Up in the mountains of Karuizawa, Smith and his wife, Marion, welcomed their first son. Smith also taught for several years at Tokyo Imperial University (now Tokyo University) before his family returned to the United States.

Nowadays, Smith’s books about Japan stand on the rim of history’s oblivion and can be difficult to track down. Still, they are testaments to Smith’s skill as a storyteller, as well as valuable sources for insight into Japan-U.S. relations.

A trip to remember: The five years Bradford Smith (right) spent teaching and living in Japan with his family had a huge influence on his writing.  | COURTESY OF BRADFORD ALAN SMITH
A trip to remember: The five years Bradford Smith (right) spent teaching and living in Japan with his family had a huge influence on his writing. | COURTESY OF BRADFORD ALAN SMITH

Smith’s first novel, “To the Mountain” (1936), had reviewers comparing his surreal, evocative prose to writers such as Lafcadio Hearn with passages such as, “The quietness of the country, intensified by the murmurs of the village and the city beyond, was like music to her. She had scarcely known before how musical a silence could be.” As tensions grew between Japan and the U.S. in the mid-1930s, Smith’s novel offered American readers a small window into the daily life of a Japanese family struggling to make ends meet.

A year later, Smith followed up with “This Solid Flesh” (1937), an interracial love story about a Japanese man, Masao, who returns to Japan with his white American wife, Margaret. While Margaret tries her best to “become Japanese,” Masao clings to the memories of their time in America.

Exploring such a topic was a bold move for Smith, as while he was writing, there were still laws against interracial marriage in over 30 states in America, and according to a 1958 Gallup poll, only 4 percent of Americans approved of “marriages between white and colored people.”

During the war, Smith was tapped by the American military for his knowledge of Japan, but according to his grandson, Bradford Alan Smith, “he didn’t want to fight,” sticking to his Quaker faith. However, he served as a chief for the Office of War Information, stationed in Hawaii for several years. Smith published “The Arms are Fair” (1943), a sensitive novel released when the Pacific War was reaching a fever pitch, as Japanese internment camps peppered the West Coast and newspapers caricatured Japanese people as “paranoiacs.” The novel stays away from Japan’s conflict with the U.S., focusing instead on the conflicting philosophies between the Chinese and Japanese in their respective countries.

In 1948, Smith published what is perhaps his magnum opus, “Americans from Japan.” The book attempts to explain the origin of Japanese people moving first to Hawaii, and then settling along the West Coast. Still incensed by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which had called for the internment of people of Japanese descent, Smith let out the anger he felt toward racial discrimination in a chapter titled, “For Americans Only”:

“Modern man, certainly no more civilized than Athenian man, has located his scapegoat by color marking rather than deformity and has made the Japanese (or the Negro or the Jew) the whipping boy for his own frustrations, shortcomings, sins and repressions. It is the sin he feels in himself — laziness or uncleanliness or sexual aberration from the communal mores — that he is punishing by transference to the person of the outcast. Societies which persecute minorities only reveal their own sickness.”

Even in his later years, Japan remained close to his heart. Near his writing desk that looked out upon a lush backyard in Shaftsbury, Vermont, was a statue of the Japanese goddess of mercy, Kannon, a memento from the years he spent living and teaching here. In his free time, Smith often went for walks and talked with Marion about their days as newlyweds living in Tokyo.

“I think he always stayed and remained a Japanophile,” says his grandson. “He always loved and appreciated the people, and he was very positive about the culture.” As for Smith’s writing in general, his grandson says he had an ability to “take a critical eye and write about things without seeming mean and judgmental.” In this day and age where there seems to be so much polarization, Smith’s sensitivity toward and appreciation for a country that was not his own is as meaningful as ever.

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