Japan: 1956

HOKUSAI (1760-1849)

Japan’s mountains receive abundant snow, but Tokyo is a coastal city. Winter brought cold rain, grey sky, damp air. It looked cold, and it felt cold. People on the streets walked huddled inside their coats, cheeks and hands red and chapped. Shops were open and unheated. The only source of heat in traditional homes was charcoal placed in a hibachi, a large, squat ceramic pot. The charcoal gave off carbon monoxide, which worked ok in a traditional Japanese house because doors were kept open. In a closed Western-style house they were deadly. The military repeatedly warned us not to use them.  

~ ~ ~

It was winter when Ben and I moved from the little Japanese house in the old section of Fussa. Our new home was an almost-new Western-style duplex next to a tailor’s shop about a quarter of a mile from the main gate of Yakota Air Force Base. The space between our place and the tailor shop was narrow, about ten to twelve feet. Even though it was winter I could look inside the open sliding doors into the work area where young women were sitting at their sewing machines. Just how cold they must have been hit me when one of them came over to our place to measure the windows for the curtains I asked to have made. When she stepped into our living room, she exclaimed, “So warm, so warm!” A small kerosene stove was the only source of heat in our place. The room was far from warm by American standards. It hit me that she was probably cold all winter long, her only warmth coats and blankets and bowls of glowing charcoal where they could occasionally warm their hands. Even though my family had lived on the edge of poverty, I had always been able to retreat to a warm house in winter. Every public building in my world had been warm.

The duplex that was our home for the rest of time in Japan lacked the charm of the little house in the old part of Fussa, but it had more space and much more light. It had two bedrooms with big windows and a spacious living room wide, sliding windows on both outside walls. The new place had western-style doors, windows and wood floors, but that was it in terms of being ‘Western’. There was no insulation behind the ¼ inch mahogany paneling in the walls; there was no running hot water, and there was no built-in heating. However, we were happy with the duplex. The wood floors meant that we could put our base-loaned furniture directly on the bare floors and get rid of the impossible-to-keep-clean royal blue rug that had protected the tatami mats in our little Japanese house.

Another thing that didn’t go with us to the new place was the big, ugly oil-burner stove. It went back to Base Housing along with the rug. Oil stoves gave a lot of heat, but we hated the look of them and decided that we would heat the house with one of the kerosene space heaters widely available in Japanese stores. These were about thirty inches tall, a foot wide and eight inches deep. A jar for kerosene sat on the side that fed the coiled wick inside the metal enclosure. Base Housing warned military personnel that these heaters were dangerous, but that didn’t stop people from using them. We knew we would have to be careful with the stove, and we were. We set it well back from walls and furniture, placed it where it was out of the house traffic, extinguished it whenever we left the house, never left it burning at night. The heater kept the living room and little alcove kitchen reasonably comfortable during our waking hours, but the bedrooms remained cold. We bought an electric blanket for the bed, and kept the door closed on the second bedroom. That bedroom became our ‘ice box’. The base checked out refrigerators only to families with children, but that bedroom was so cold a bowl of Jell-O would set up when placed in there.

We moved from one heated space to another that winter. Yakota with its base-wide steam heat was an oasis of warmth. That was where we headed now on weekends—shopping for groceries at the Commissary; looking at household items available at the PX that we would like to buy before we left Japan; stopping at the base library to check out a cookbook for me and books on high fidelity sound systems for Ben. And it wasn’t just Yakota. Nearby were Tachikawa and Johnson Air Force bases, and a bit further away a large naval base at Yokohama, which had the best shopping opportunities of any of the military installations in the area. Military buses made regular trips to all these places and were free for service people and their dependents and we took advantage of them to get away and explore a bit.

Ben was only an Airman 2nd Class. His paycheck and my monthly stipend did not add up to much, but both of us had grown up in homes where money was tight. We knew how to stretch whatever money we had as far as it would go. Neither of us smoked or drank so none of our income was wasted on cigarettes and alcohol—and we both definitely saw those items as a total waste, saw smoking and drinking as stupid. There were things we wanted to buy while we were in Japan, and by careful management we were able to buy most of them. We operated on a strictly cash basis. We had no bank account, and there were no credit cards back then. Whenever Ben got a paycheck or I got my monthly allotment, we would go the Commissary and load up with groceries, pay the rent or utility bill, then if we’d accumulated enough money, set out on a shopping excursion the following Saturday to buy the next item on our list of desired purchases—a Sunbeam toaster, a Sunbeam stand mixer, an electric oven, a Brother sewing machine, and a high fidelity sound system.

Life was indoor life in the winter. On weekends we took our shopping excursions. In the evenings we listened to music on Armed Forces Radio while I read aloud Ben’s hi-fi books. Ben was smart. He could read. Whereas I learned best by reading something by myself, Ben learned best by hearing something read aloud. It wasn’t that I was reading and explaining; I was simply saying the words so he could listen to them. He was the one who did the work of comprehending the technical material. The effect, though, was that we were both engaged in Ben’s project, the project of building a really good hi-fi system.

Ben wanted to build his own system. He was an aircraft mechanic, but had been interested in radios and electricity since he was a young boy, one of those children fascinated by how things work, taking apart toys and anything else he could get his hands, including old radios. This was before stereo sound systems. Monaural high fidelity records and sound equipment was the exciting new thing. And the cutting edge for serious enthusiasts were systems built up of individual components—amplifier, record player, preamp, FM radio receiver, multiple speakers and a large sound box to put them in. Ben not only wanted to choose the individual components, he wanted to build some of them himself using Heath Kits. Those kits were the first hi-fi components we bought. Ben did the work; I read the instructions, sorted parts and handed them to Ben. The next decision was about the record player, no small decision that. After reading myriad hi-fi magazines we knew we needed a hysteresis turntable, a long arm and a diamond needle cartridge, all purchased separately, not all the same brand. Then came the all-important speakers: 18” woofer, horn mid-range, two tweeters. All of this took many train trips into Tokyo to check out availability and best price. We may have bought some components on base, but most of them were bought in Japanese stores.

The final step was the sound box for the speakers. We decided on a bass reflex box, and Ben decided to build it himself out of plywood and speaker cloth. Using a formula in one of the books we’d checked out of the Base library, he figured out the size needed for an 18” woofer—4’ tall and wide and about 20” deep. This was not thin plywood. It was at least a ½ inch thick, but more likely ¾ inch. It was sturdy. It was big. And it looked like what it was, a big plywood box with a whole bunch of high fi components sitting on top. It dominated our living room, as ugly as the old oil burner stove had been. Yes, I loved music and appreciated good quality sound, but secretly I would have been willing to give up a bit of sound quality for something that was not so visually offensive.



HIROSHIGE  Cherry trees in flower on the bank of a river.

Japan is famous for its cherry blossoms, but I saw none the spring that we spent in Japan. In fact, I don’t remember seeing any flowers at all. There was no vegetation around our apartment, just gravel and a bit of concrete leading up to our front door. The base had lawns surrounding dependent housing and some shrubs and trees, but it. What I remember is grey sky and rain. And when the weather warmed and women took off their swing coats, what emerged were maternity clothes. Yakota was having a bumper crop of babies—and I was one of the pregnant women, my baby due August 2. Getting ready for the baby was now our next major project.

We would be able to check out a refrigerator when I got close to my due date, and I think we were able to check out a crib as well, though we might have bought a used one from someone on base. What we needed desperately, and the base did not provide, was a washing machine. I had been hand washing everything except our sheets and Ben’s fatigues, which we took to a laundry close by. But a baby meant diapers and baby bedding and clothing. I had been almost twelve when my baby sister Jacque was born. I had changed diapers and helped my mom with the laundry. There was no way I could wash all those diapers by hand, but washing machines were expensive and hard to find. We decided to ask my father if he could find a used wringer washer and send it to us through the military parcel service, which he did.

Our duplex was not set up for a washing machine of any kind, but we had figured out a way to use the washer. The second bedroom was right next to the bathroom. We would run a hose from the bathroom sink to fill the washer. There was no thread on the faucet so we would just have to jam the threadless hose onto the sink spigot. We would need a tub for rinsing the clothes, and we could fill it the same way we filled the washing machine. We would siphon used water into the bathtub to empty the washer and big instrument can that Ben hauled home from the Base for me to use as a rinse tub.

The machine arrived in a box, a square box that did not look big enough to hold a washing machine. Dad had had to take it apart in order for it to fit the maximum size limit allowed for parcels. When we opened the box, what we saw was the tub filled with all the rest of the parts. Dad had completely dismantled the washing machine. What we found was a tub filled with nuts and bolts and pieces of metal and the individual rubber rollers. No directions; no instructions. We laughed when we looked at that jumble of parts. What we had on our hands was a giant puzzle. Fortunately, Ben was good at figuring out anything mechanical. We shoved the box into the second bedroom, and Ben set to work. I soon had my very own washing machine.

I had always enjoyed doing laundry. I started helping Mom when I was about eight years old, and by junior high often did the washing by myself. We’d had a wringer washer, and I enjoyed the elaborate process of sorting bedding and clothes and towels, washing each pile in turn starting with the whites in scalding hot water then moving down to the darks, ending with rags and any greasy work clothes. I knew how to use the wringer, folding buttons inside the fabric so they would not catch and be ripped off, knew to keep my hair pinned close to my head to avoid getting it caught in the wringer, knew to hit the release of the top of the wringer if a problem came up. I had learned to rinse each load twice, wringing the clothes between each rinse. I loved hanging the clothes carefully on the clothes line; enjoyed taking them off the line again smelling fresh and clean when dry. But all those good associations went out the window when I began to do laundry in the wringer washer set up in the second bedroom. There was nothing enjoyable about it. It was exhausting.

Early on wash day, as soon as Ben had breakfast, he would light the kerosene burner on the twenty-gallon water heater outside the house. It had no thermostat and had to be carefully watched, the flame turned off before the water in the heater boiled. When that happened, and it did at times, the hot water was full of rust that would stain the laundry. I would then have to run out the rusty hot water into the bathtub and relight the heater and start over, which was a problem because I had to get all the wet laundry out on the clothes line before noon for it to have even a chance to dry. Even when I caught the water heater before it boiled, meeting that noon deadline was a rush. I always had multiple loads to do, and I changed the rinse water between each one, siphoning the used water into the bathtub before jamming the hose onto the cold water tap on the bathroom sink. While waiting for the tub to empty or the rinse tub to refill, I would rush outside to hang wet clothes on the line. More than once I came back in to find water all over the floor because a hose had slipped out of the tub, which meant, of course, having to mop up all the water before I could get back to the laundry. By the time I got to Ben’s fatigues in the last load, I was exhausted. The wringer did not like them and would pop up the top roller. I would have to screw the roller down again, try again and again until I finally managed to get the heavy clothes all the way through the wringer into the rinse tub then go through the whole thing again before I could take the fatigues outside to pin them on the clothesline.  

And then I had to fix lunch. Ben bicycled home at noon, and he wanted a real meal, not just soup and sandwiches. I did finally get him to agree to soup and sandwiches on laundry days, but lunch only. I still had to make a full meal for supper. And there was still folding and ironing and tending the things that did not get dry by sunset, which was a challenge in that damp climate. What with laundry, cooking three meals a day and no dependable hot running water, housekeeping in Japan even without a baby was a full-time job.


Summer in Tokyo is hot, hot and humid. The average high temperature in July is 85°, the low 73°; the average high in August is 88°, the low 75°. Those temperatures do not look bad to people who have lived in Phoenix during the summer, but what those temperatures do not reflect is the effect of the humidity, which is on average 79% in July and 88% in August. That heat with that humidity is about the same as Bangkok, Thailand. That is tropical weather, oppressive and heavy, so very different from summer weather in California and Arizona. The only escape was to flee to the mountains or go to ocean. Ben and I had spent our honeymoon at a military Rest and Recuperation hotel on a lake in the mountains and a few weeks later, went on a day trip up into the forests northeast of Tokyo, but that was it for the mountains. We did, however, make one trip to the ocean the summer of 1956 curtesy of our friends Jean and Don Agnew who had a car. Most of the time we just sweated and dragged ourselves through the days. 

Me, with Jean Askew and her baby boy, unknown bystanders. Summer 1956

This picture must have been taken sometime in July. I only gained nine pounds in my pregnancy. A week before my due-date, which was August 2, a woman standing behind me in the checkout line at the Commissary asked when my baby was due. When I told her, she answered, “Oh you’re not going to have that baby for at least another month.” A bit dismayed, I thought, “What if she’s right!” I was so tired of being pregnant.

Nina Renee

                Renee was a small baby: 18 inches long, 6 pounds 4 ounces at birth. In this photo she is wearing the smallest size of latex rubber pants, and they go way down over her knees.

Renee was born in the maternity hospital at Johnson Air Force Base, which is where all the military wives in the Tokyo area gave birth. Mothers and their babies were in individual rooms. I was in the hospital three days, which was standard for the time, and I was the one who took care of my newborn day and night the full three days—feeding her, changing her diaper, picking her up when she cried. I had been excited about having a baby. I had fantasized about the life I would provide for the child if it happened to be a girl. There were so many things I wanted to give her—a room of her own in a beautiful two story house surrounded by big trees, piano lessons, pretty clothes. I had visualized what she might look like—beautiful of course. She would have my hair and hands, my sister’s long-lashed eyes and shapely legs. She would have her father’s nicely shaped feet. And she would have none of the things I didn’t like about myself—my invisible eyelashes, my ugly feet, my square face. She would, of course, like school and sports and playing outdoors. She would like music and books. In other words, she would be the girl I had been only better, me without my faults, a perfect ‘me.’ 

Renee eventually developed into a pretty baby and beautiful child. But what I saw when I looked at the tiny creature lying in the bassinet in my hospital room was definitely not me—nor did she give any evidence of being that perfectly beautiful self I had wanted to be. What I saw was a mashed nose, puffy lash-less eyes, skinny bowed legs. I knew newborns were not pretty, but I looked at that tiny baby and could see no hope. That night when the lights went off, I sobbed, sobbed for this little girl who would have to face life unbeautiful, maybe even homely. I looked at her, and she broke my heart. She was no longer a fantasy, a daydream. She was real, separate from me, a person in her own right, an infinitely valuable person, and she was completely, utterly dependent on me, this so fallible, so faulty me.  All I could do was cry, not for myself, but for her. Ben and I were no longer ‘playing house’. We had brought another life into the world. The responsibility for her survival and well-being was completely in our hands. The weight was almost crushing.

Me with Renee in front of our house. She is wearing a crocheted sweater with attached hood my mother made for her


Renee and me in front of our duplex

Our second autumn in Japan saw no long walks, no excursions on the train to places around Tokyo. We had a baby now who preferred being quietly held or lying in her crib to being lugged around while we walked to the Commissary or any place that required a lengthy jaunt. If we’d had the kind of baby equipment parents now have that allows one to strap a baby to one’s chest while walking, that time after Renee’s birth would likely have been very different. But the only baby equipment we had was the bassinet I made from a Japanese laundry basket and the used loaner crib.

Social isolation for young parents is deadly. Fortunately we had made friends with other couples who had cars and were willing to pick us up for evenings of shared meals, of cards and coffee, then drive us home again at the end of the evening. These couples, who also had children, were our life-line. Without them our final months in Japan would have been very lonely.

Even with these good friends I was an anxious mother, afraid that every mistake I made, my every personal failure would scar my baby for life. That kind of anxiety makes it hard to enjoy one’s baby, tends to create an anxious child, yet Renee was a calm baby, a happy baby who would lie in her crib batting at wooden rings and toys suspended above her on a ‘crib gym’ and laugh and laugh. Her laughter was so loud we could hear it outside the house. To see the delight on her face, hear all that laughter coming from a small baby who could not even turn over by herself, was wonderful, eased my anxious heart, brought joy to both Ben and me, made us laugh with delight with her. This child was not just a blank slate. Tiny as she was she was already a person, a center of experience actively selecting the good from that which we were able to provide her. My inadequacy was not fatal. This tiny child was redeeming my failures.

Even if we’d had the kind of baby equipment that would allow Renee to be comfortable while we walked, I doubt that Ben and I would have taken any excursions that autumn of 1956. We were scheduled to leave Japan in January. We were homesick, eager to get back to friends and family and the land of our birth, to familiar sights and sounds. We were eager to be civilians again, eager to begin building a life in a place of our own choosing. Our bodies were still in Japan, but our minds were back in the States.

Renee is six months old in this photo. The girl with the pigtails is my little sister Jacque. It was taken mid-February 1957 in Phoenix, Arizona. We stopped there on our way from Japan to Donaldson Air Base, Greenville, South Carolina, Ben’s final posting. He was discharged from the Air Force 1 October 1957.

Copyright Loretta Willems, 18 December 2020. Bellingham, Washington

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