Robert Havemeyer


Life in Post-War Japan

Memories of Robert Havemeyer

Although not a member of the Honor Guard, Robert G. Havemeyer served in Japan while many of the Honor Guards were there.  This account of his service and observations provide excellent reading.

Bob’s letter to me begins with a mention of my book [Maurice’s Letters Home].  Bob’s engaging writing style and his comments about “another side of Japan and the Japanese” offer an insight that Honor Guards had little chance to know & appreciate.  We thank him for allowing us to include his article on the Honor Guard website. [Maurice Howe]

Hello Maurice,

I finished your book and really enjoyed it.  It brought back a rush of memories from many years ago.  I can truly say that my life was changed by my army experience.  I don’t know where I’m going with this letter, but I have to avoid writing “a book”, which would be an easy thing to do if I get into details too much.

I graduated from high school at age 16 and went to Columbia Univ. in 1944.  The Navy had a program at the school, so I was in class with young men, a few years older, who had recently been inducted or volunteered.  There were also a few early dischargees from World War II who attended under the “GI bill.”  Although I was far from failing, I did not do well academically.  As I look back, I think I was too young.  Because of the Navy program, all engineering students attended three semesters a year, so by 1946, I already had about 2 to 2½ years of university.  I suddenly decided to volunteer in the army, which we could do for an 18 month enlistment.  I had an Regular Army (RA) military number, which I can still remember after all these years.  For a long time, I also remembered my rifle number, but that’s now become forgotten history.

After basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and home for a leave, I shipped out to Japan from Camp Stoneman, California.  The trip was about like yours.  I arrived in Japan in late 1946 and with many other GI’s, went to a replacement depot, which we called the “Repple Depple.”   We filled out some personal history.  I think that I made my college experience look like almost four years with an engineering background.  So, although my MOS was a basic rifleman, I was sent to I Corps headquarters, engineering section, in Kyoto, while most of my basic training and shipboard buddies went to an infantry unit and lived in a tent city at Otsu, near Lake Biwa.  From then on, aside from morning assembly and an occasional weekend CQ at the headquarters building in downtown Kyoto, I had a paid vacation.  The “gooks” did all of the menial and manual work around the barracks complex.

I was assigned to I Corps headquarters company, billeted in a steel and concrete ex-museum within easy walking distance of the beautiful Heian Shrine; was bussed to and from work (an 8-floor office building); and pulled very little extra duty during the 14-15 months I was there.  My job was interesting, and mainly concerned with reviewing engineering drawings and supporting documents for radar installations, barracks, dependent housing, related services and structures (e.g., steam power plants and laundries), etc.  A lot of Japanese engineering contractors were used, paid for out of the country’s reparation payments.  At that time, their engineering design work left something to be desired, which is why I had a fairly serious position.  I worked directly with several captains, a major, and occasionally with the colonel who was the Corps engineering chief.  I came in as a PFC and left as T4 (buck sergeant).  Had I re-upped, I would have been a T3 (one rocker) soon, and a candidate for OCS.  When I was about to be shipped back to stateside, the Army tried to induce me to re-up by offering OCS, but by then I realized how lucky I had been, and how unlucky I could be if I made the Army my career.  Over the years, I wondered if I had made the right choice.  I would have been an officer, probably in the signal corps; I probably would have been in Korea (one of my Kyoto buddies was killed there) but behind the front lines.  I think the signal corps would have been my destination because I got high marks on some kind of Morse Code test soon after induction.  I was, and am, musically inclined, which probably helped in that test.  Signal corps did not seem to be a fast route to advancement.  Anyway, at that time, I did not have a favorable impression of the military as a career.  Some of the captains with whom I worked were worried about being re-assigned someplace, but at their “permanent rank” (I never really understood what that meant), which seemed to be about full sergeant rank.  The career sergeants I met in the HQ company were not a “thinking man’s” kind of person.  I declined the OCS invitation, but often looked back at the missed opportunity of retirement at full pay.  My professional civilian career was, in a way, the opposite.  I continued working until age 75 and do not have a pension, but my job of management consultant was, in my opinion, the most interesting career I could have possibly had.  I consulted in about 130 different product industries and in almost all functions of for-profit organizations, plus for trade association and for some government agencies.

So, there I was in the former capital city, center of much cultural heritage and the arts, never bombed during the war, and completely free from duty after about 4 PM on weekdays and every weekend.  It seemed that nearly every GI in the HQ company got into a 3 or 4 day repetitive cycle in the evenings – the beer hall, cards, roller skating, and movies.  The principal Red Cross club was across the street from our barracks, so I went there, and quickly befriended an interpreter at the desk.  He could see that I was interested in the country and the people, so after I had been on all of the day tours that Red Cross had set up, he introduced me by telephone to the Sen family who lived in the outskirts.  I was sufficiently far away that I usually needed a rented bicycle to visit.  I was treated as the prodigal son from the moment I arrived.

Sositsu Sen was the 14th direct descendant of Sotan who started the green tea ceremony in Japan.  Mr. Sen was very wealthy and highly respected because of his cultural position.  Knowing him opened the doors for me to become acquainted with almost anyone, especially those interested in the tea ceremony, because every cultured Japanese had to know (understand) its philosophical basis.  All I had to say during my subsequent time in Japan was that I had studied the ceremony with him, and I would be asked to conduct it the next time.  I did attend many tea ceremonies at the Sen home, but my “study” time was about 30 minutes, vs the several year requirement for people seriously interested in it.

He had three sons, one slightly younger than me (Mickey), one roughly the same age (George), and one older (Mike).  They were lively and somewhat spoiled, and lived a pretty active social life.  The oldest one would, in time, inherit the tea master position, so he was more circumspect than the other two.  Every weekend was a lively time at their home because someone of importance usually visited and I was accepted as a pseudo-member of the family.  I also have to say that being a Columbia student was very helpful to my circulation among the intelligentsia because Columbia was, at that time, probably the most highly respected American university for the Japanese.  When Mr. Sen died, Mike took over as the tea master and married Miss Japan.  Mike, himself, was/is movie star handsome.  He has since retired and his first son is now the tea master.  Mike built up the Ura Senke School of tea ceremony into a bustling and lucrative endeavor, but some of my friends resent its commercialism.

Occasionally, the boys would disguise me in a student’s uniform and we’d go somewhere, such as a dance hall.  These were Off-Limits places in the Gion District (nightlife, geishas, etc.), which were so designated, I think, to (a) keep us away from the temptations of such places, and (b) MacArthur also wanted to preserve a sense of normalcy for the local populace.  During one of those sojourns a Japanese family in the hall introduced themselves to me and invited me to visit their home.  I visited for the remainder of my tour, and one of their daughters became my girl friend.

Incidentally, like you, I had tremendous respect for Gen. MacArthur.  If there ever was the “right person for the right job at the right time”, he was it.  He had the regal, and somewhat aloof, bearing of their emperor.  People had expected the worst, but were greatly surprised at his effort to introduce democratic ideas and to treat them much more gently than had been expected.  I had an equally distasteful feeling for Pres. Truman when Mac was fired, but after becoming more adult, I realized that the latter really had to take that step. After all, our country is based on certain principles, one of which is that the military is secondary to civilian rule.  Nevertheless, MacArthur has always been a “hero” person to me.  For years, I had his “old soldiers never die” speech under glass on my desk

I vividly remember my first visit to Tokyo, staying at the Finance Building.  I especially remember looking a mile or so to the Diet and seeing nothing but flat desolation between the two buildings.  I also remember how the populace would gather just to see Mac leave the Dai-Ichi building for lunch.  You guys were certainly a spit-and-polish outfit.

I met a fascinating woman at the Sen family’s home about 5 months before I left.  After returning home, I read a book by someone who knew Japan very well and who said that Mrs. Takaori epitomized the highest form of Japanese beauty.  She was a beautiful lady, highly talented culturally, and spoke conversational English very well.  Her father had been a famous artist whose home across the street from hers was considered a national treasure, and which was guarded by police.  Her husband was a physician who had his own hospital of about a dozen beds. That practice of individually owned small hospitals seemed to have been a long-time practice in Japan.  He was rarely home because he worked such long hours, but I visited their home often, which was within a five minute walk of the Silver Pavilion.  In those days, very few people visited the place, but during one of my return trips the Silver Pavilion was mobbed on a weekend day.

The Takaori’s had two daughters of about 11 and 14 years old.  The younger one was a prodigy at the piano, but during the war had been forbidden to play classical music composed by the European and American masters. As a result, she never was able to exploit her musical talent to its potential.  As adults, the two girls became estranged over their father’s will and, I think, do not contact each other at all.  The older daughter had a nice coffee shop along the picturesque “Philosopher’s Walk,” which I visited a few times during my return trips, but never mentioned those visits to the Takaori’s.  She has since moved to Hakone to be near her own daughter, and I have lost touch with her.

The Takaori’s have remained close friends during these 60+ years, although Mrs. Takaori died about 15 years ago.  Her younger daughter married an entrepreneur.  He imports and exports medical equipment and/or pharmaceuticals and is well-to-do.  When I visit and stay in Kyoto, I have use of a room in an up-scale retirement home that he owns on the outskirts of the city, at the base of Mt. Hiei.  Fortunately, it’s only a ten minute walk from that home to a Toonerville Trolley (remember that cartoon of long ago?) type of small railroad that makes a 30 minute trip back and forth between downtown Kyoto and this outskirt location.  How lucky I am to know them and to have use of that retirement home.  They are wonderful people.

One son is a doctor in Nara.  Their daughter is married to a cancer research doctor at Kyoto University.  He comes to the U.S. at least once a year to a major cancer conference on Long Island.  One of his visits coincided with my second wedding, so he came to Stamford to celebrate with us.  I also know their children.  So I have known four generations of the Takaori family – i.e., the elder Mrs. Takaori, her daughter and spouse, their son and daughter and spouses, and now the latter’s children.

My sister was a research pharmacologist for a second-tier pharmaceutical company in this country, and eventually was the technical liaison with its technical research partners in Europe and Japan.  I introduced her to the Takaori clan, who welcomed her with open arms.  She has seen the second and third generations of the four I know, much more than I have, because of her semi-annual trips there. They did the same for my folks when they traveled to the Orient after my father retired.

The elder Mrs. Takaori invited me to a Christmas party of high society about 4 months before I left.  I was welcomed there also, largely because the highly respected and very proper Mrs. Takaori would never have invited an American GI who wasn’t “safe.”  I met a beautiful girl there and was invited to her home.  Her father, Mr. Hayashi, was a highly respected and wealthy art dealer who would sell only to those Americans who really appreciated Japanese art.  Toni (Toshiko) was very comfortable around Americans because so many high-ranking officers had visited her home to buy art.  In the early ‘50’s, in her young twenties, she was sent to the U.S. by the Japanese government to reconnoiter major American museums’ oriental collections, prior to lending oriental art to them in the 1950’s.  You may remember that most Japanese teenager girls were shy and giggly, but Toni was very poised, comfortable with Americans, and fluent in conversational English.  She became another girl friend, and subsequently, a friend of my wife and sister.  We remained friends through these 60+ years, but she died last year.  She had been to the U.S. often.

I visited the Hayashi home many times, which was located close to Maruyama Park, a popular place in Kyoto.  Toni and her father supported classical Japanese dancing, and she put on exhibitions.  I can remember visiting one Sat. afternoon, eating strawberries, watching she and others practice in the large dance salon in their home.  She married and moved to Tokyo where I would visit during my return trips.  Her husband was from Taiwan and was an ardent supporter of a free Taiwan when China was threatening to take it over.  She came here a couple of times to represent her husband at a similar movement in the U.S., because he was afraid of being murdered here.

My billet building in Kyoto was about a 15-20 minute walk to a section of homes of what we would call millionaires.  One of them was the Nomura family (you know, Nomura Securities).  During the school year, Mrs. Nomura and her three children lived between Tokyo and Yokohama so that they could attend a very good school there.  (Incidentally, during my return trip to stateside I went through the Repple Depple again, and took a train to her house for a delicious meal instead of the army chow).  I had the run of the Kyoto home and estate during the school year, and then visited the family when they returned for the summer. The estate had a large pond with white swans.  A tea boat would be taken out on the pond, a section of the boat’s roof would be taken away, and we would watch the summer or autumn moon while enjoying tea.  What a life.  Again, this was arranged by introduction by the Red Cross interpreter, Ted Fukuda, who also became a good friend.  He and his wife were killed during the Kobe earthquake of a decade ago. I taught the Nomura children some English conversation and was rather proud when the youngest (about 6 or 7 years) finally learned the rudiments of English (subject, verb and object).  That house was sold to the Coca-Cola king of Japan, and the family moved to Tokyo.  I visited them a few times up there.  They are so far out of my social bracket I feel like an intruder, but they are gracious.  Old Mrs. Nomura is now dead, but I keep in contact with the oldest son.

About 8 years ago, through Toni Hayashi, I met her hairdresser in Tokyo. The shop is located about two blocks from the Ginza.  It caters to the wives of Japanese actors, some of whom perform at the Kabuki Theater.  She and her mother arranged for me to have 4th row center seats at an afternoon Kabuki performance.  For some reason, they arranged for a young, pretty and very pregnant female cousin to accompany me.  You can imagine how heads turned when the cousin and this 70+ geezer walked down the center aisle to our seats.  Prior to the show, I was allowed backstage to watch the principal female impersonator (a man) get dressed for his role.  Other Japanese friends of mine were amazed that I was given this privilege.  The young hair dresser (probably about 30) would love to move to NY City, but our government is very wary about providing business visas for Japanese hairdressers who often get “lost” here in order to avoid going home to Japan.  However, she has been here 4 or 5 times, so I act as her tour guide in NY City.

I did not have access to auto transportation to go out of Kyoto, although I saw a lot of countryside on Red Cross tours. However, I got to know the city like “the back of my hand” – the alleyways, the principal temples, artisans’ sections, etc.  One night, a buddy and I were looking into the window of a coffee shop when a local man tapped us on the back and asked if we would visit.  Having no fear of being attacked in this dark street, we accepted.  He owned a small sewing shop in his house where he employed a few women to make clothing.   I could not converse in Japanese and he had the poorest English of any Japanese friend, but through liberal use of bi-lingual dictionaries, hand gestures, and the like, I learned more about how the Japanese common man thought than from anybody else.  I saw him briefly during my first return visit.  He and his grown children were doing well.

I met a number of other people who were good friends during my Kyoto days, but the above are those I really remember well and who influenced my life.  Upon graduating from Columbia, I thought of returning to Japan to sell heat pumps.  The country had a tremendous need for housing, and with fuel being in short supply and expensive, also a need for low-cost heating and cooling.  However, I thought that I had an inadequate knowledge of mechanical engineering, which I later learned was a foolish assumption.  Also my parents asked me not to go because they had just bought a house, their life long dream, and I was living with them.  So, like a good son of German descent, I never went.   I often wonder what my fate would have been had I taken up that dream. I had friends who could have made proper introductions for me.  However, I also realized that I had an extremely favorable position, located in a great city while in Japan, and that I would just be another competitive salesman during a non-military career.  Anyway, that one-time dream always remained just that.

After discharge and returning to Columbia, my job goal after earning an M.S. was to be a management consultant because I was so impressed with one professor, who himself, was in that occupation.  In a combination of luck and taking advantage of a situation, I quit my job in Bethel, CT (just before I was going to get married) and joined a management consulting firm.  I liked the work so much that it became my career for more than 50 years.  I can’t think of more interesting work.  Since gradually phasing into retirement, I have continued to do volunteer management consulting for non-profit organizations.  I headed up a regional office for the Natl. Executive Service Corps, but about 9 months ago decided to be just a project consultant because being a regional manager took too much of my time.

During my consulting days, I developed an expertise in recycling, long before it became a popular “green” fad here.  I was contacted to deliver a speech to an international recycling conference in Osaka.  And so, my first trip back to Japan, 25 years after leaving, was at this conference.  I took a few days to visit old friends and renew acquaintances.  You can imagine my considerable surprise, when I found that the old Kyoto of rickshaws, honey buckets, and the sound of people clip-clopping down the street at night to the communal bath house, had a subway system.  To me, this was as strange as finding a subway on the moon.  During my visit to Kyoto, on that trip, someone arranged for a gathering of my good friends at the ex-Nomura estate. It was very touching.  I think that my eyes were watery most of the time during that party.

A consulting client was the NY office of a second-tier Japanese trading company.  One of its younger staff became a personal friend, whom I have visited in Osaka a couple of times.  One of that office’s food manufacturing clients became one of mine when he wanted to sell certain food products through supermarkets in the U.S.  I had lunch with that client in Tokyo on one trip, at a very up-scale restaurant.  He knew my background with the tea ceremony family and invited me to have some at that restaurant.  At the first sip, I realized that the tea at the Sen home was far superior.  I still have a small canister of the powdered tea from my Kyoto days.  Mr. Sen told me that what I drank in his home was about 75 years old (back in 1947) and that it came from Korea.  He also took me to his potter who made a bowl for me with the Sen insignia. I imagine that it’s valuable to aficionados of that ceremony.

The Japanese manager of the NY office eventually became president of the entire trading company.  The company nearly went bankrupt about 15 years ago, and in keeping with Japanese tradition he accepted personal responsibility and resigned, although the bankrupting event was not associated with his presidency.  He has since invested in, and became general manager of, a company that raises roses in China and sells them in Japan. Anyway, he also became a personal friend and came here to attend my second wedding.

Incidentally, my first wife died of cancer after 50 years and one month of marriage.  Later, I married one of our best friends who is originally from Taiwan.  She teaches Chinese to the high school level at a very expensive private girl’s school in Greenwich, CT.

When consulting projects took me to the Orient, I arranged my itinerary to get back to Japan.  Those situations, plus some vacationing on my own, have resulted in 7-8 return trips.  I may go to Thailand this summer, so will get to Japan again, probably for the last time.

I did only a little consulting for U.S. federal government agencies, but one client was the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, for its Navy and Marines’ morale and recreation program.  My travel orders were just a telegram from the Secretary asking the commander of each base I was to visit to treat me with courtesy and to accommodate my professional and personal needs.  You can imagine the confusion at each base gate when the officer of the guard saw that telegram.  He did not know what to do, except to call the base commander’s office.  I got royal treatment wherever I went.  If I was escorted by anyone less than a bird colonel or a navy captain, I almost felt insulted.  I sent other project team members to bases in Europe, while I went to Hawaii, Guam, Philippines and Japan.  Again, another chance to see old friends.

A very interesting coincidence occurred during my Japan part of the Navy/Marines project, which took place in the late 1970’s.  About that time, the two countries were negotiating for the return of property to Japan.  We had a number of army, navy and air force bases throughout the country.  Initially, I imagine they allowed the U.S. to maintain an armed presence during the post-war years to make certain that armistice and final treaty conditions were carried out. Then, they were important during the Korean “conflict” (never a “war,”).  Finally, it was time to return some property to a peaceful Japan.  I don’t remember why, but the negotiations dragged on.  It happened that my project contact in Japan was the admiral in command of the Navy base at Yokohama.  He was also the principal negotiator for the U.S.  The next week, I visited friends in Kyoto.    Mrs. Takaori took me to the finest sushi restaurant in Kyoto – she would never take me to anything of lower caliber.  You may remember that patrons usually sit at a counter, facing the proprietor and principal chef, to have a lively exchange of conversation.  The gentlemen sitting next to me at the sushi counter turned out to be Japan’s principal negotiator for the return of property.  Remember the adage during WW II that “loose lips sink ships.”  Well, they were loose that evening.  Once I learned of his position, I refrained from further drinking and kept ordering more for him.  Of course, I did not tell him why I was in Japan, other than re-visiting an old friend.  He knew of Mrs. Takaori from general reputation and must have thought I was a safe visitor.   Apparently, I have an innate ability to get people to open up.  He told me useful information on Japan’s negotiating strategy.  As soon as that night, I telephoned this information to the admiral who, I’m sure, made good use of it.

This is the first time that I have committed this history to paper.  The many letters that I sent home were not kept, although I have found a few among other papers.   I’ll have to make a copy of this one for myself and for my descendants to read.

So, here I am in my ‘80’s, supposedly retired, but too busy.  The brief army career changed me from a boy to a man.  I buckled down after discharge and did well at Columbia and later also earned a master’s degree.  In June I’ll return there for my class’ 60th reunion.

As you probably know from Donna, when my oldest daughter, Shelley, was a high school sophomore or junior, we got into the American Field Service program.  We had four girls from Europe, each of whom stayed with us for a year, and several shorter-term students from South America under the Open Door program. We also hosted an American Indian girl from southern Arizona, which turned out to be the most interesting stay for me.  Other than English being her principal language, her culture was as different from ours as that of any of the foreign girls’, and language was no barrier to talk about it.  I’m sure that having foreign students live with us whetted my children’s appetites to see other countries.  Three of my four daughters have traveled abroad.  My third daughter, who died a few years ago from cancer, traveled around Europe, the Middle East and Asia for more than two years, living out of an oversized backpack and duffel bag. Donna has been to Europe and Central America a number of times.  Now, she is retired from an army career.

I’m so glad to have read your book, both because it was interesting and a reminder of my personal events.  It also has led to this history on paper. Frankly, I found it so interesting to dredge up these memories, that I’ve re-read this letter several times.

I don’t know if we’ll ever meet, but I feel that we would know each other well.  Best of luck in your travels and the rest of your life.

Bob Havemeyer