Hard Times in Sendai
This is the way it was in Sendai in 1954

By Abraham Lincoln

I was sent to Sapporo in 1953 and stayed there until April 1954 when I moved to Camp Sendai. Sapporo was a large city filled with smoke from fires used to keep people and buildings from freezing. Sendai was a small city with small buildings, a few trees and not much else.

Soldiers stationed at Camp Lanier, Camp Sendai and Camp Schimmelpfennig went into Sendai and surrounding towns for recreation. Most soldiers spent their money in town for a variety of things.

The Japanese people had begun a long struggle to rebuild Sendai. Nobody had any ideas that Sendai-shi would be called the “City of Trees.” I came when this “rebuilding” process was just getting started and quickly learned that the people were poor and in need of many things.

At that time the soldiers used Military Payment Certificates (MPC) instead of U.S. Dollars for currency. In 1953, 54, and 1955, soldiers were paid in MPC and each $1.00 Dollar was worth ¥ 360 Yen.

My Japanese friends thought American soldiers spent money foolishly, but it was this money that gave many businesses the resources they needed to become successful.

A GI could trade for almost anything in those days. Families would accept coffee, toothpaste, cigarettes, soap, and MPC for the things they had for sale.

Almost all of the people soldiers met had something to do with soldiers. They were cleaning people, or they were employed at Camp Sendai or Camp Schimmelpfennig.

Nine out of 10 soldiers smoked when I was in Japan back in the 1950s. Cigarettes were thrown on the ground or put out in ashtrays.

Three old ladies who cleaned the offices at Camp Sendai collected the ash trays filled with cigarette butts and dumped them into a large bucket. Once they had finished their cleaning chores for the day, they would set down in a group and strip the cigarette paper off the cigarette butts and dump the tobacco into another bucket.

One day I asked them what they were going to do with the tobacco they collected and they told me that they made cigarettes for themselves and they sold the rest to their friends and neighbors.

Downtown on the sidewalk near the train station a young man shinned GI shoes while we waited. This man made a considerable amount of money and used it to buy himself a small house in Sendai. I no longer remember his name, but I did visit his small home once or twice.

At his house hanging on long bamboo poles were the only squid I ever saw and I had no idea that people would eat something like dried squid. But he ate them and said they were good to eat.

A lot of men still wore caps and trousers from their war uniforms. Not many men wore western style shoes. I don’t know if it was because they didn’t have shoes or they were saving their shoes for important occasions, but most men wore sandals and wooden clogs.

More women wore kimonos than western style dresses. Younger girls wore western style dresses and shoes. Children going to school wore school uniforms that looked alike.

A coal boiler at the back of the two-story building heated our barracks at Camp Sendai. This boiler was kept going by a maintenance man who also cleaned the barracks for us.

A laundry man collected our clothes to wash. Each week he returned with clean clothes and newly dry cleaned wool uniforms. The wool uniforms smelled like gasoline and we were told that he used it as a dry cleaning fluid.

Our company commander thought the gasoline fumes would be ignited from a smoking cigarette if we put them in the lockers without airing them off first. So we had to hang them outside on a clothesline to air off before we could put them in our lockers.

I had not traveled much and I was only 19 years old in 1953 when I arrived in Japan and was sent to Sapporo, Hokkaido. Sapporo was a big city whose sky was filled with smoke from all the fires burning to keep people and buildings warm. I thought it was the coldest place on earth.

I never really felt welcome in Sapporo. I really felt like I was a soldier and not just another human being.

In April 1954 when I came to Sendai, I was astonished to see how primitive the city was compared to Sapporo. There were not many cars on the streets in Sendai but there were a lot of 3-wheeled scooters used to haul things around town.

We soldiers who were off duty and permitted to go downtown walked in the streets with the rest of the people.

The children played in the streets and it was common to see dogs asleep in the middle of Aoba-Dori. The people I met in Sendai were friendly and I felt like a normal person among them and not like a soldier.

I had learned how to say, “Hello” in Japanese and often greeted people this way and in Sendai the people nearly always answered with a slight bow and a “Hello” in response.

In those days, many trees were damaged or destroyed when the city was bombed and few were left. The “City of Trees” was a dream that had just been planted and only small saplings were growing along Jozenji Street when I was in Sendai.

In spite of the hard times people faced, they were very polite, courteous and got along well with most soldiers that I knew. I really enjoyed talking to those who could speak some English and I really liked exploring the city to see as much as I could before I had to leave.

The children were well cared for and respectful of all adults. The children thought teachers had reached the highest level a working person could hope to achieve. While there were some instances of farmers selling children because they could not afford to take care of large families, I think it was rare, but it did happen.

Homes were heated with hibachis and the gas from these would give soldiers the worst headaches they ever had in their lives. I was always amazed that the Japanese did not complain about headaches from hibachi fumes.

As I look back on those days, I don’t think the people were really poor. Maybe they were poor in material things, but they were very rich in their heritage and in their relationship to their environment.