Contrast in cultures

With orders to report for independent duty as the Supply Officer on the Hamilton County (LST-802) in the winter of 1955, Lois and I moved to Long Beach, California, the ship’s home port. Almost simultaneously I received a promotion to LTJG, and bright new stripes for my dress uniforms, a badge of honor that I was no longer a boot ensign. Fortunately for me, I received my additional half-stripe before locking horns with the captain of the ship, or I might never have seen the light of day again.

Following a few adjustments for its new mission as a Minesweeper Tender, we received orders to head for Sasebo, Japan. Pearl Harbor was our first stop in route, where we encountered some iron filings in a filter of one of the ship’s main engines. Except for the men in the Engineering Department, this unfortunate event forced us all into unrestricted liberty in Honolulu and Waikiki Beach for ten days. This repair time, plus our dashing speed of 10 knots while underway, consumed almost six weeks for us to arrive in Sasebo. This delay and transit time was apparently viewed with some distress by those in authority, and the ship had its home port changed to Sasebo, Japan for the duration. No more trips would be required through Hawaii, and no more chance collections of iron filings could be discovered as soon as we tied-up alongside the dock in Pearl Harbor.

An automatic byproduct of this decision made it legal for wives and families of the sailors to live in Sasebo. While government housing was not available for dependents, a fair number of sailors actually took advantage of this new arrangement, and flew their wives into Japan for a hearty taste of the Far East.

Just ten years after the end of WWII, Japan was still honoring most of her traditional and cultural trappings. For those from the United States, the time honored traditions of the Japanese people was something to behold. When meeting on the streets, Japanese acquaintances would bow to 90 degrees as a sign of respect. The wives walked through the streets two or three paces behind their husbands. If packages were carried, the wives carried them.

The time honored tradition of husbands spending one evening a week in the company of a Geisha was unquestioned, although the services provided by a Geisha were vastly different from those associated with call girls. At the same time, prostitution was fully legal, and for several miles surrounding each Navy base, the bars and night clubs featured signs advertising their beautiful and willing young ladies. On entering such establishments, the unattached ladies might form a circle or a line, expecting you to examine each in turn, and select the one that tickles your fancy. It was a bachelor’s paradise, featuring both immediate gratification and hidden perils that could appear suddenly or insidiously a few hours or days following such visits.

After setting up housekeeping in a private residence, and becoming familiar with the Sasebo surroundings, we started exploring the country side. Nagasaki was only an hour’s train ride south of Sasebo, so we booked fare to Nagasaki for a day of sightseeing. As everyone at the time knew, Nagasaki was the target of the second atomic bomb. Memories of the bombing were still fresh in all the minds, and actually visiting the site was high on our list of priorities. Of course, our memories and the memories of the residents of Nagasaki were vastly different.

butterflyhomeMadame Butterfly’s home overlooking shipyards that were intended target in Nagasaki

gardenshipydShipyard as viewed from Madame Butterfly’s garden across the bay

peacebldgNagasaki’s peace museum with repository of blast relics

nagasakiouraActual blast center in residential area of Nagasaki

ourafrontCharred remnants of church that was new, but in the blast center

statuePeace statue located at the blast center in Nagasaki

budhabibBudhist shrine with ceremonial bibs on small statues

clubparamountOne of the local haunts for sailors in Sasebo

saseboaptHome away from home on second story of private home in Sasebo

templegateEntryway to Budhist temple in Sasebo in 1957

One of our first visits was to the home of Madam Butterfly. Her romantic hideaway was beautifully perched on a hill-top overlooking Nagasaki Bay and the shipyards, which were the actual target of the bombing. As it turned out, the bomb was dropped more than a mile off target to the north, leaving Madam Butterfly’s home and the shipyards undamaged. The mushroom cloud erupted over a strictly residential area in a valley near the newly constructed Oura Catholic Church. It was a beautiful, red brick structure only a few hundred yards from the blast center, and except for a few reinforced columns and corner structures around the bell-tower, it was totally destroyed. The rubble had been cleared, but the front tower ruin was preserved as a historic relic for viewing by tourists. Looking down into the valley from the church ruins, we could see a peace statue in a small park at the precise center of the detonation. The surrounding homes had been rebuilt in the valley along a perfect grid of square blocks and straight streets with an underground sewage system, unlike that seen in any other city in Japan.

From the church we went to the small park preserved at the blast center where the large statue was displayed. The statue was of a person with one arm raised with the index finger pointing toward the sky. The other arm was outstretched horizontally to the side with the hand positioned parallel with the ground. A nearby plaque contained a detailed description of the symbolism included in the design of the statue, a wish for peace. From my perspective no symbolism was needed for this turning point in a war. The arm extended toward the sky points to the blast center, and the horizontal arm displays the result. In other words, the bomb came from above, and flattened everything you can see. War is hell.

Our final visit was to the Peace Center, a museum which displayed much of the memorabilia from the bombing experience. It showed garments discolored by the heat and radiation from the blast, straw embedded in solid bricks, and glass fused into rock-like structures. Prominently displayed were copies of leaflets and fliers dropped by American pilots a day or two before the bombing advising the population to leave the city in order to avoid death or serious injury. It was reported that the authorities would not allow the people to leave the city in response to the notice, resulting in far more casualties and injuries than necessary.

The last stop before leaving the Peace Center was a badly needed visit to the public facilities, the restroom. It was located just off the large atrium on the ground floor. While Lois and I were both in need, Lois’ need was approaching acute. The facility featured only a single door, and displayed the usual entry sign in Japanese. Lois sought confirmation that this was the place for both men and women, and was assured that it was. Lois appealed to me to accompany her through the single-door entryway. I declined her request, assuring her in the process that there are just some things in life you must do by yourself. Finally she entered on her own, achieving an experience she has found necessary to describe on many subsequent occasions.

To her dismay and distress, the single door opened up into a huge, unisex restroom. It was designed to accommodate both men and women with equal facility, featuring no booths or partitions for privacy for the tasks to be accomplished therein. Neither did it feature any porcelain facilities for sitting while achieving. Rather it displayed, in open air for all to see, a series of holes in the floor along the walls over which one could assume the proper posture. There were no leaning, resting, or grab bars to assist with one’s descent to or ascent from the holes in the floor, requiring that one innovate and balance as needed. Those unaccustomed to such low-rise facilities were called upon to exercise muscles and achieve movements not entirely within ones ready repertoire.

She surveyed this situation carefully, and never having witnessed such a facility as this in her previous 23 years, she puzzled over exactly how she should proceed. As she was wearing a long, tight skirt, high heels, a girdle with fasteners for long hose, and long hose, she knew that the experience would be a painful and protracted affair. With her light skin, she was certain that the surrounding patrons would thoroughly enjoy watching her wrestle with her attire to accomplish her mission.

When compared with his and hers facilities, partitioned private booths with porcelain seating fixtures in the United States, Lois was certain that this personal experience would become life’s most embarrassing moment. Unfortunately, nature’s call can be delayed only so long, so she took the plunge. The emotional overlay was matched equally by the physical feat she was challenged to achieve in the process.

Precisely, the physical challenge she describes as having to pull a very long, straight skirt clear up to the waist, in order to pull the girdle and hose clear down to the ankles, while balancing on high spike heels all the time. Following these maneuvers, she must then assume the position sufficiently centered above the hole in the floor without the assistance of grab bars, and maintain this position for the duration. The entire act would challenge the skills of an accomplished acrobat, and was on display for all to see.

As she emerged from the facility, there could be little doubt that she had lowered herself to the occasion, perched perilously with perfect poise, and performed in such a fashion as to raise no suspicion at all. From the look on her face, she survived the unisex toilet relieved, unscathed and undamaged, except for the emotional scars from the anticipation.

In what appeared to be an anticlimax, she succeeded in her mission, and was shocked to discover that nobody in the facility even seemed to acknowledge that she was there. The Japanese tradition of extreme politeness was a surprise byproduct of her restroom experience, as nobody looked, she thinks, while she was so busy.

The return trip to Sasebo on the train was uneventful, which Lois enjoyed in complete comfort. Because I had refused to enter such an undifferentiated facility, I thereby deprived myself of one of the cultural thrills from our many months enjoying Japan and the Japanese people.

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