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Sunday, April 27, 2008

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Taking readers back to the Occupation


FROM JAPAN WITH LOVE, text and photos by Mary Ruggieri, foreword by Richard Ruggieri. San Rafael, CA: Portsmouth Publishing, 2008, 264 pp., 400 monochrome photos, $24.95 (paper)

From the autumn of 1946 to the spring of 1948 Mary Ruggieri was stationed in the Women's Army Corps as a member of the Allied Occupation of Japan. During this time she kept a journal, wrote many letters home, and took 4,000 photos. This activity was not demanded by her position. She had no particular position and was temporarily stuck in a clerical slot in Yokohama. But she had a real interest in where she was and what was happening around her.

She thus created a valuable record. Though much has been written about the general aims and occasional accomplishments of the Allied Occupation, there has not been much reporting and almost no remembering of the texture of Occupation life, on both sides. In her letters, diaries, and her photos, Ruggieri does remember, preserving what she experienced back then.

For example, what it was like to take the train: "Being a member of the Allied forces, you need no ticket other than your non-slanting eyes and your gigantic stature. You make your way to the safe little fenced in area labeled 'Allied Forces Only.' When the train pulls in, you board the one white-streaked car and sit down in comfort and peace while you watch the Japanese grunt and push, trying to get at least a toehold in one of their very crowded cars."

Or, "Japan looks like a pitifully impoverished nation, living out of scraps and leftovers. . . . I shall probably never know Japan as I might have before the war. Then the people were free to be Japanese; now they may only be the servants and friends of the Allies." She also remembers the attitude of other Occupiers. During this period the Japanese were known as " 'gooks,' a term borrowed from the Philippines, bearing a most uncomplimentary connotation. It is a term I have come to hate."

She also preserves some other particulars otherwise lost. When she goes to Nara she notes that "the deer are very tame but emaciated looking. Only one fourth of the original herd remains, apparently the local people thought it more important to eat them than to respect them as sacred deer." And she writes about things as they really were. "We Americans have long been fed ugly propaganda as to what the 'typical Japanese' would be — they have been drawn as demons and monsters. All part of a war propaganda to make us hate the Japanese, be willing to fight them. But here, today, they did not look like like monsters, just men like any other."

One of the reasons she could so empathize with the Japanese was that she, as a member of the WAC, was experiencing something similar. "We were received in an improvised lean-to, issued clothes on the rummage-sale principal, and treated like barely-tolerated children. Randomly handed from one officer to the next, we were alternately neglected and pampered so that we did not know what to expect."

And in addition, "the girls are all so crude and there is much drinking and cussing going on. Although I've been exposed to this for a long time in the Army, I am not able to accept it . . . it may be an opportunity for me to learn a lot about people, but I'm not sure it is worth it."

But it was, and it leaves us a record of what it was like. "It is hard to look into the eyes of these people, yet one cannot pretend that they do not exist. I have seen women nursing their children in the filth and cold of a railroad station, women who had not enough flesh on their tortured bodies to clothe themselves, let along to give life to another. Little boys and girls whose eyes are clouded and dimmed with fear and want, looking wondrously at the American — the wealthy and healthy American who is there as a reminder of their defeat and surrender. It is unbelievably sad, yet it is here — it is Japan in 1947."

Ruggieri thought of herself as a tourist, here for a short time, but she felt as a compassionate observer, one with a mission to show her time and her place. Not only does she write about things otherwise forgotten, but also her faithful Kodak is always at hand to preserve them for us.

There are first-rate general histories of the period (I am thinking of John Dower's "Embracing Defeat") that give a full panorama, but it is books like this one that provides the telling details.



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