Theater, stores cheered up locals

Trips to Takarazuka opera and Kobe's department stores bright spots of grim postwar years


Fifth in a series

The locals of Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, had waited a long time for April 22, 1946.

That was the day the famous girl-only musical troupe resumed performances at Takarazuka’s renowned theater, which was temporarily seized by the Occupation forces after Japan’s World War II surrender.

Elizabeth Ryan, who worked for the Occupation from 1947 to 1948 in Kobe, visited the theater at least twice and praised the performances in her letters home.

“I was 21 or 22 at that time (when Ryan wrote the letters). I clearly remember those days,” said Masao Hashimoto, who worked in the advertising department of Hankyu Corp., which still runs the theater to this day.

The skills of the Takarazuka dancers and composers were maintained even during the war since they were repeatedly dispatched to brighten the lives of workers at factories involved in the war effort and soldiers overseas, Hashimoto said.

Takarazuka’s theater, which had a capacity of more than 3,000 at that time, was one of the few forms of entertainment available to locals as they endured the hardships of early postwar life.

Even the bright lights on the theater’s stage were an attraction, as many regions were still hit by almost daily power blackouts and lamps at ordinary houses were quite dim at that time, Hashimoto recalled.

Hashimoto said the theater was also very popular with U.S. Occupation personnel, and their interactions with the Japanese audience were cordial.

“Some seats were set aside for Occupation personnel only, but (Americans) left the best front seats on the first floor for the Japanese audience,” Hashimoto said.

“Reading the letters, I’m very happy to learn (Ryan) enjoyed the show,” he said.

Ryan also visited the Sogo and Daimaru department stores in Kobe in 1947.

Even today, these stores are landmarks of central Kobe, although the structures have since been renovated or rebuilt.

The area, including the Motomachi street mentioned by Ryan in her letters, is now a clean, modern shopping complex, betraying no reminders of the shacks she witnessed in her day.

Following are excerpts from Ryan’s letters describing Takarazuka’s theater and her shopping in Kobe. Some of the language may be considered offensive:

April 21, 1947

The thing for which (Takarazuka) is known is it’s opera house. We had heard about it ever since hitting Japan and I’ll tell you it is quite an experience.

Naturally the building is very dirty and there are “Jappy” smells. Inside the corridors makes me think of a railroad station — people — all sizes and shapes — men, women, children and babies swarming all over the place — with their bundles, presumably full of lunch.

Needless to say the crowd fell back when we came along — being that we’re such oddities towering over all of them.

In these out-of-the-way places where people don’t see too many American officers and women, you feel like Mr. & Mrs. God — or the conqueror yourself. . . .

The stage is the hugest thing I have ever seen. I can’t guess how wide it was, but even Radio City Music Hall doesn’t seem to compare, as I remember it. . . .

All parts are taken by girls and I tell you, they are really beautiful. Maybe it was very good make-up but they certainly seemed to have the cream of Japanese looks and talent all in this one place. . . .

Some carried springs of cherry blossoms and others carried fans. The whole thing was set to Japanese music and every little flick of the fan, movement of the hand and head was precise.

There is no jerky movement in these dances — it is all most graceful and much depends on the grace of all participating.

Aug. 27, 1947

Last Sunday we went up to Takarazuka again — that theater we visited I think about in April. The performance was “Midsummer Night’s Dream” but they left Mendelssohn out completely. It is strange to see the Japanese interpretation of Shakespeare.

But at any rate the staging and costuming was beautiful — the biggest stage I have ever seen with parts of it that revolves, and parts that drop out of sight completely.

We went native and carried our fans — and you should see us and the mob of Japs fanning for all we were worth.

April 1, 1947

We have been a little shy about going to the Japanese Dept. stores — not knowing the score, and the smells that come out would knock you down — so we more than appreciated the invitation.

We went to one called The Sogo. They seem awfully junky. Nothing ultra-ultra about them.

They sell the necessities that these people’s small income can afford. Well — you should see us rubbing elbows with the Japs.

Smith was looking for things typically Japanese, that some friends of his had asked him to pick out and send to them at their new home.

They are having one room with an oriental motif. He bought one thing — 3 carved wooden figures of old men playing “Go” — a Japanese game something like checkers or chess.

The figures were very good and were set on a black thing. It costs ¥900 ($18.00).

You should have seen the crowds press in close while we examined the things — and the clerks were so hopeful they’d sell something — and the crowd for wanting something to do crowded in and took a good look at us.

That look on their faces as the Col. pulled out all that yen and started peeling off the bills — I know they thought he must be very wealthy — these poor souls with their ¥500 — or less — each month! . . .

From there we went to the Daimaru which is next to our PX & smells to high heaven.

They had something he was interested in, but finally took hold of himself and decided to think it over a few days.

His bad habit is buying things at outrageous prices where most people have other bad habits. Well — it’s his money & he has no one to spend it on.

From the stores we decided to take to the streets, so went down Motomachi.

It is a street where only pedestrians & bicycles & carts are allowed. No automobiles.

It has every kind of shop — and we went into many — just looking and pricing.

It was amusing to see some of the merchants set their prices as we asked “how much?”

They’re all set for the tourist trade — so I think we do much better in the PX — when they have things.

But it is fun to go poking around. When we got back home, we had to really scrub & gargle, after inhaling all those smells.

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 final part will appear Friday (Saturday in some areas).