‘Life keeps right on moving’


Ashes and rubble covered the devastated land as far as the eye could see.

That was the starting point of postwar Japan.

Into this ruined landscape Elizabeth Ryan stepped in 1947, arriving in Yokohama in February of that year.

In letters recently discovered by Ken Alley, a Nebraskan, Ryan describes the destruction in Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe, and her sympathy for the Japanese people struggling to rebuild their country.

The target of more than 100 U.S. air raids from April 1942 to August 1945, Kobe lost about 64 percent of its residential area. In all, 7,491 people died and 17,014 were wounded.

In a letter dated Aug. 30, 1947, Ryan wrote: “(Kobe) was one of the most beautiful cities in the world before the war, having been built up by the foreign business interests from all over the world. Now 50% of the people are without their homes — they live in shacks built up with scrap material.

“There is no heavy industry or business whatsoever. Naturally we had to put a stop to that. Not only did we stop it, we just plain finished any possibility that they would ever crawl up from under in the next 50 years.”

Ryan was proved wrong.

In the six decades since the war, Kobe revived as one of the most beautiful and modern cities in Japan, even overcoming the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which destroyed much of central Kobe again in 1995.

A letter dated June 9, 1947, suggests Ryan tried to believe the Hiroshima atomic bombing was an inevitable choice for the U.S., pointed out Akiko Okuda, a lecturer at Otsuma Women’s University in Tokyo.

“I think she shared the opinion American people have in general” regarding the atomic bombing now, Okuda said.

According to a 2005 survey conducted by Kyodo News and AP, about 68 percent of 1,000 American adult respondents said the atomic bombings were necessary to bring World War II to a swift end.

In contrast, over 75 percent of the Japanese respondents said the bombings were unnecessary, the poll showed.

Following are excerpts from Ryan’s letters describing Tokyo and Kobe shortly after the war.

Feb. 18, 1947 (Letter apparently written from Kobe about visit to Tokyo and Yokohama)

Last Sunday we decided to run up to Tokyo to get at least a glimpse of that place before journeying south & west. (We are 12 hours from Yokohama — about 12 1/2 hours from Tokyo.) The devastation is terrific.

We did a good job at destroying this country. The way things are laid out is like this.

Everything along the coast must have been built close together, because now it is endless rubble. There is no open country when you leave town.

You are 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 smoke stacks still standing and Japanese people crawling in & out having found some space to make a home in all that mess.

We didn’t spend more than 2 hrs in Tokyo (went up on 1:30 bus — one hr ride — & returned on 5:15 train — 1 1/2 hr ride.)

I didn’t see very much in ruins in Tokyo. I think it is a beautiful city — lovely buildings and beautiful landscaping.

The immense railroad station is a mess though, and you can tell our bombs were well aimed at vital points, such as railroads and bridges.

Golly — if I had to look at all this destruction and say, “This is my home,” I’d die. To see homes destroyed right under your eyes certainly must be demoralizing.

April 1, 1947

Nothing stops on Sunday among the Japanese. Life keeps right on moving.

They are always busy among the rubble, pulling and dragging & finally up comes a funny little building.

They make the frame with thin wood — sticks — and plaster what looks like mud but may be cement over this fragile framework.

After that dries they paint it, vivid blues, greens, or what have you. I can’t understand why a good wind doesn’t blow them down.

Last week the Chinese section was pretty burned out, and in the A.M. as we were going to work — here they were — ruins still smoldering, but they started right in rebuilding.

Amazing people! Always struggling — but slowly — but they do get there some day.

June 2, 1947

The extreme poverty is absolutely appalling. . . . Down around the railroad station here, there is sort of an elevated track where all the trains leave Kobe via the overhead.

The highway goes underneath — sort of like driving underneath the Wis. Ave. viaduct — and people actually seem to be living on the sidewalk crouched up close to the wall on each side.

They have mats — build little fires to warm their hands — feed their babies and beg at the same time.

One day a lady was stretched out along the curb looking as if she was dead and the crowd just kept shuffling back and forth — stepping over her.

No doubt that was nothing after what they’ve been through. Life is cheap — and most of these people seem to be in a stupor.

June 9, 1947

I thought you’d enjoy the picture of the spraying the kids with DDT for lice.

And do they need it. It is really a crawly feeling to see these kids picking the lice off each other. I’ll bet they itch plenty.

The items on the Osaka station are priceless and give only a part of the picture. Going thru that station is an experience in itself.

Thousands of people milling around quite aimlessly.

The allied forces have a certain path that is fenced off but in order to get out of the station to the street we have to go thru the crowd, and they look at us as if we are in a cage.

They have not strength enough to do any more than shuffle along — and I can see where they are carriers of many things.

In fact the expressions on their faces is most stupid, and I have been told that many of them have wandered in from Hiroshima where the big atom bomb explosion took place. The effect of the bombing left many of them senseless, or distorted their facial structure.

It is a sad sight too, 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.”

And by golly, we had better see to it that the next time the shoe is not on the other foot, the aftermath of war is horrible.

I would hate to see it happen to my home — or see any of my family groveling around the way these people are.