Letter trove details Occupation life

Firsthand impressions of WWII's aftermath discovered in U.S. woman's correspondence


More than 1,000 pages of handwritten letters from 1947 to 1948 by an American woman who witnessed and described in detail the Allied Occupation of Japan have been discovered in Nebraska and recently obtained by The Japan Times.

The letters include details of how U.S. service members spent their daily lives in Kobe, the devastation of the port city and Tokyo, and even a glimpse of the late Emperor Hirohito, who visited Kobe on his first trip across Japan after the war.

The letters, written mostly to her family back in the United States and accompanied by about 250 black-and-white photos taken in Japan, were discovered and transcribed by Ken Alley, who runs a secondhand bookstore in Nebraska.

Alley recently provided the transcribed texts to The Japan Times.

“There are few historical materials like this written by young (American) women at that time. I was surprised by the volume (of her letters),” said Akiko Okuda, a lecturer at Otsuma Women’s University in Tokyo who is familiar with the 1945-1952 Occupation.

“This is very precious historical material,” said Okuda, who coauthored a book on the Occupation years and gender issues.

The letters were written by Elizabeth Ryan from Milwaukee. At age 31, she began working for the Inspector General of the Occupation in Kobe as a reporter for a provost court.

The inspector general was in charge of the military court, as well as responsible for maintaining the discipline of U.S. service members in the city.

Thus, Ryan wrote a lot about “juvenile delinquents” among young army troops at the Kobe base, including the transmission of venereal disease between young American soldiers and Japanese women and the more than 120 babies born to U.S. servicemen and local women that were left at an orphanage in Yokohama.

“The social problem of VD — one that is hush-hush at home and in polite civilized circles, is common talk here. A unit is given a commendation when it goes for several weeks without any new cases of VD,” wrote Ryan.

“Can you imagine the Army requiring dance hall hostesses be examined at the dispensary twice a week — to be sure they are not infecting the boys?”

Most of the letters, however, are about what happened in her enjoyable daily life in Kobe.

While Ryan was in Japan she visited Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, Osaka and Nara, and shopped at the Daimaru and Sogo department stores in Kobe — still landmark stores of the city more than 60 years after she arrived in Kobe for the first time.

“She was treated so well while she was in Japan. Japan just lost the war, and she was treated just like royalty over there by all the Japanese people,” Alley said in a telephone interview.

“She never talked about any rudeness or hate. She hated to leave, but her contract ran out” and she left Japan in July 1948, he said.

In October 2006, Alley, who places ads in newspapers seeking to buy books, came across Ryan’s letters among the belongings of the late Lt. Col. Judson Smith.

Smith and his late wife, Mary Sears, were both good friends of Ryan while they were in Kobe.

When Ryan passed away in 1975, she left her letters to Sears in her will.

On June 11, 1947, Ryan saw Emperor Hirohito, who visited Kobe on his tour across Japan after declaring to the public that he was just an ordinary citizen, rather than a living god. Before and during the war, he had been worshipped as a divine figure.

“Did I ever tell you about Hirohito coming to town? . . . In fact it was the first time these people ever saw their Emperor since formally they had to bow their heads and not look up. This time he was just citizen Hirohito, although he was very heavily guarded,” she wrote.

“You should have seen the expressions on the faces of these people. Even when they didn’t see him and were just part of the mob, they looked so happy and contented. They fairly beamed to think he had condescended to come among them.”

In the letters, Ryan repeatedly shows sympathy for Japanese people, lamenting their difficult life after the war.

“(The Emperor) should have so much material wealth and (common people) not even enough to get along on. It is really a very common sight to see ragged children digging in the garbage pails for something to eat,” she wrote.

“The devastation (of Tokyo) is terrific. We did a good job of destroying this country,” Ryan said in another letter dated Feb. 18, 1947, after visiting Tokyo and Yokohama.

“You’re smack-jam in another community that looks just the same as the one just passed, piles of bricks, steel twisted like old wires, a few stacks still standing and Japanese people crawling in and out having found some space to make a home in all that mess,” she wrote.

Ryan also described the aftereffects of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Noticing a number of people milling around Osaka Station, she was told that many of them had come from Hiroshima.

“The effect of the bombing left many people senseless, or distorted their facial structure. It is a sad sight, but I keep bringing myself back with the thought that we have heard many times before — ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ “

Fumio Fukunaga, professor at Dokkyo University and a leading historian on the Occupation, praised the letters.

“The letters are interesting because they tell a lot about how an ordinary American woman at that time felt about Occupied Japan, being exposed to a totally different culture,” Fukunaga said.

He said the letters would be particularly interesting for residents of Kobe, as Ryan described many places in the city soon after the end of the war.

Ryan stayed at the Oriental Hotel in central Kobe, a well-known luxurious Western-style hotel.

She said the food and service provided by the hotel were perfect, and repeatedly wrote how she hated to check out.

One of the striking aspects of the letters is the contrast they draw between the comfortable lives some of the Occupation personnel led and the lives of Japanese at the time, who were struggling simply to survive their daily poverty and hunger.

A hankering for such a well-off American lifestyle is said to have been a psychological driving force behind Japan’s Westernization and rapid economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s.

“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,” Ryan wrote, referring to the famously luxurious New York hotel.

“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 the good food, good service, and nothing to worry about,” she wrote.

“These people probably think we are the richest in the world with all our clothes,” read another letter dated March 7, 1947.

Her letters finally ended in July 1948, as Ryan, or Betts as she called herself in the letters, was preparing for her return home. Back in the U.S., she never married or had children and died in 1975.

Fascinated by Ryan’s vivid description of her experiences during the Occupation, Alley transcribed and compiled all the letters, hoping to publish them as a book. He is currently searching for a publisher.

“I thought long and hard about producing these letters in book form and have spent the last six months doing that,” he wrote in the introduction to the compilation, which he titled, “Love, Betts — Letters Home from Occupied Japan.”

“Transcribing the 1,000 pages of handwritten letters, proofreading, editing etc. has been a wonderful experience,” Alley said.

The Japan Times will run a series of articles on Ryan’s letters with excerpts, as Tuesday marked the 63rd anniversary of Japan’s formal surrender in World War II. On Sept. 2, 1945, Japan signed the document of surrender on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, formally starting the Allied Occupation that continued until April 28, 1952, when the San Francisco Treaty took effect.