Hard Times in Sendai
This is the way it was
in Sendai in 1954
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
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
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
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
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.
who were off duty and permitted to go downtown walked in the streets with
the rest of the people.
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
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.