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JAPAN AND AMERICA, c1930-1955:


Series Two: The O'Ryan Mission to Japan and Occupied China, 1940

Japan-America Student Conference, 1940: Recollections of Mrs Simon N. Whitney

The O’Ryan Mission and the 7th Japan-America Student Conference happened to coincide in the summer of 1940. I was to be a delegate to the student conference. To qualify for the conference I had written two papers on current political and economic conditions in the United States which I would read at one of the discussion groups. My major at Northwestern University had been in political science with an emphasis on Chinese and Japanese history and government. Most of my courses had been with Professor William M McGovern, an authority on the Far East. He had been a speaker at last year’s student conference held at the University of Southern California. In regard to increasing tension between Japan and America he had said, “The fault of ruthless bureaucrats of both countries is tremendous. It is most desirable to harmonize and recover the US-Japan friendship through personal friendship of citizens of both countries.”1

Knowing civilian suffering during World War II it is difficult to remember the hope, and also innocence, of the thirties. Students like me from the Mid-West and California knew that Japan considered all embargoes, especially that of oil, a threat. Would it take advantage of the heightening European war to jump further into South East Asia, a major oil source? Was it too risky a time for Americans to be traveling to the Far East? I hoped the conference would be held even if I had to return early. My passport did have a “warning” that the neutrality act of November 4, 1939 declared it to be illegal for an American citizen to travel to an area declared by the President to be a combat zone. When my mother asked Professor McGovern about the safety of the trip, he replied, “The worst danger is matrimony!”
Tension between Japan and America had inspired the first student conference held in Tokyo in 1934. Four Japanese students anxious for peace and eager for American friends had come to the University of Washington, in Seattle, to ask if anyone would like to travel to Japan in the summer for a joint student conference. They would exchange political, economic, and cultural views and then visit Korea and Manchukuo (as Japan’s puppet state was then called).2

It took courage to invite the Americans. When they accepted wholeheartedly, the Japanese students returned to Tokyo torn between success and panic. How would they raise the money and make the arrangements? It had been agreed that the Americans would pay their steamer passage, but they were to be guests in Tokyo and while travelling. The Japanese students appealed to the English Speaking Societies of Tokyo universities. These societies joined together to become the Japan English Association. They raised all the money from educational institutions, civic organizations, and corporations. Some of it came as hospitality at colleges, Rotary luncheons, and even theatre tickets. No government funds were accepted. They were able to entertain ninety-nine Americans at the First Japan-America Student Conference that summer (only fifty had been expected). The opening events were attended by the ministers of foreign affairs and of education. They were endorsed by Ietatsu Tokugawa, descendant of Shoguns, and United States Ambassador Joseph Grew.3

The American delegates to the Seventh Conference boarded the Asama Maru in San Francisco on June 20th. I felt as if I had already arrived in Japan! I was assigned to a cabin which seemed impossibly small for six American sized college women. We learned Japanese ways in a hurry. The stewardess first bowed and then gestured to us to leave our shoes outside in the corridor. Cotton slippers were handy. Then she skillfully stowed our unreasonably bulky and heavy luggage. She was efficient and embarrassingly polite. Such politeness made us uncomfortable. We knew it was a Japanese characteristic which would follow us all the way back to San Francisco. I think it must have covered up their true feelings at times. When we were settled, the steward came to make bath appointments. At the set time he would escort us down the corridor to the bathing room where the tub was already full of simmering water.

The second class lounge turned out to be crowded with families. They greeted us with bows and smiles. We tried to join their games and listen to their music whose timbre and intervals were strange to us. Then we went to the top deck. Nine times around was a mile. On the fourth of July we were touched by the efforts made to help us celebrate with American flags and Sousa music.

On July 8th we arrived in Yokohama. We were surprised that the Japanese student delegates who met us wore military style black jackets with high collars and dark trousers. They took us by elevated train and bus to Tsuda College near Tokyo. In my diary I describe the houses as being “almost on top of each other and almost on top of the railroad tracks. They and the people look very dirty.” I’m reminded of the elevated train circling my hometown. A man’s costume interested me. He was wearing a long kimono, clogs, a straw hat, and carried a western style umbrella. Finally we arrived at Tsuda College where the Japanese women delegates welcomed us. We were surprised that none of them had come to Yokohama to meet us. They were shy but not unfriendly. They were at a disadvantage in the discussion groups because their English was not as good as their male colleagues’. Embarrassingly enough, our Japanese was limited to “Sayonara”. For shopping purposes I did learn to count to ten which I still remember.

The next ten days were filled with the serious discussion groups and sightseeing. We were taken to the wall surrounding the Imperial Palace where we were expected to bow to Emperor Hirohito. We inspected schools. A Japanese family invited us to a tea ceremony in their rock garden planted with stunted pine trees. We toured the Shinto Shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meijii, grandfather of Emperor Hirohito. Shinto shrines feature various kinds of wood finely carved. We saw two little girls who were asking people to sew knots in a piece of material. When they had one thousand knots they would give it to a soldier for his protection. On these trips, during informal times at the college, and shopping in Tokyo, our Japanese colleagues were friendly and helpful. They even showed their sense of humor and I grew to like them.

The formal discussion groups were very different. I wasn’t aware at the time that the Japanese delegates assumed there were plain clothes military police seated among them. Now I try to guess how uncomfortable the students must have felt. Kiichi Miyazawa, a future prime minister, had been a delegate to the 1939 conference in the US. At that time he had said, “The United States participants had their own opinions, made intense discussions and even criticized their own government. I thought it was an astonishing country.”4

I later learned that as the time for the 1940 conference approached, the Japanese government pressed financial aid and other support on the students. The students had refused fearing that interference. The day the conference began military police came to Tsuda College demanding entrance. The student chairman, Yuji Yamuro, had the courage to turn them away. Nonetheless, the Japanese delegates defended their government and did their best to explain fighting in China and occupation of Manchuria. I wondered if they believed that their country was bringing prosperity, even peace and education, to backward peoples! We were depressed by their unwillingness to consider the “facts” we had to contribute.

On July 19th, all the delegates started on our trip through the rest of Japan, Korea, and Manchukuo. After the frustrating discussion groups this was a welcome change. We relaxed and I hoped the planted “students” were no longer with us.

When we reached the city of Kobe most of the Americans were invited to stay in Japanese homes. During the spring friendly families had volunteered to make this contribution to the conference. This may have been one of the earliest examples of bi-national family exchange.
Two friends and I went to the home of Mr and Mrs Yabe. According to my diary, our hostess was petite and charming. She wore colorful kimonos and spoke English. Her house was surrounded by a precisely sculptured garden. The living room and the dining room were European but the rest of the house was Japanese. When we arrived she served citron (lemonade, I suppose) and sweet cakes. After Mr Yabe came home, a traditional Japanese tea was served. This tea is dark green and has a very thick consistency. Then it was time to dress for dinner. Mrs Yabe gave us kimonos and slippers and showed us the very large, deep, hot, wooden bath. In the evening we saw Mrs Yabe’s collection of dolls who had stylish wigs and brilliant orange-red, plum and gold kimonos. Finally, a neighbor girl came to dance for us. When I lay down on the floor mat for the night, I felt as if I had experienced Japan completely. The warmth and hospitality of Mr and Mrs Yabe were touching.

After this visit we continued travelling through Japan to Shimoseki where we took an overnight steamer to Korea. What a contrast to Japan! Many people lived in mud and stone huts with thatched roofs. We saw a mutilated beggar and naked children. Was this an example of Japan’s co-prosperity sphere? In Seoul, which looked more prosperous than the countryside, many of the people wore traditional costumes, maintaining their identity, in contrast to their Japanese occupiers most of whom wore western clothes.

We took the overnight train to Mukden, Manchukuo, Three of us slept on straw seats pulled together copying our Japanese friends. The most famous sight on the way to Mukden is the huge Fushun open pit coal mine. The size of the pit was impressive but I, and other Americans, were appalled by the sight of the emaciated Chinese coolies who staggered up the pit sides harnessed to small carts of coal. They lived and died in paper hovels around the rim of the mine.

When we reached Mukden we saw our first Russians. They were intermediaries between the Chinese workers and the Japanese administrators. We all enjoyed their sweet shops and purchased some of their “antiques”. We rode in rickshaws and buggies. In the evening we were invited to a formal Chinese dinner. The birds’ nests and sharks’ fins had a sweetish, chewy taste, but my diary says, “I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, eat sea slugs for anything!”

We travelled as far north as the old White Russian city of Harbin. Here I went with a friend to tea at a private home. Our hosts spoke some English and welcomed us enthusiastically. They served a traditional Russian tea which we enjoyed but, of course, worried that they had given us months of their sugar and flour.

From Harbin we turned back to Japan and Yokohama. It was time to leave the Japanese delegates. I still remember some of them as friends, but by mid-August 1940, I felt anxious about the complete military take over of their government. Yushin Yamamuro, the student who was to plan the 1941 trip to the United States called on Ambassador Grew. He was told that there would be no US visas for students the next summer. But the Seventh was not the last student conference. The idea that cultural understanding and close association would lead to lasting and influential friendships was taken up again in 1964 and in 1994 the sixtieth anniversary of the First Japan-American Student Conference was celebrated.5

When we boarded the Asama Maru for the return trip we met the members of the O’Ryan Mission. Simon Whitney interviewed many of us. He reported in his diary that the American students were anti-Japanese.6 They were less impressed by Korea and Manchukuo’s industrial development than by their abject poverty and cultural deprivation.7

Adding a personal note, a year later Simon Whitney and I were married. We moved to Washington, D C where he worked for the Board of Economic Warfare. On Sunday, December 7th we saw smoke rising from the chimneys of the Japanese Embassy as they burned their papers.

1 Saburo Shiroyama, tr. Akiki T Clayton, “Friendship Has Its Power” at page 9 (Kodan-sha K K, Tokyo, 1988), referenced as “Friendship has its Power”
2 Ibid at page 21
3 “The Japan-America Student Conference: Celebrating Sixty Years” at page 5 (The Japan-America Student Conference, Inc, Washingrton, D C 1994)
4 “Friendship Has Its Power” at page 3
5 Ibid at page 23
6 S N Whitney, “Diary of a Far Eastern Trip”
7 The Japan-America Student Conference: Celebrating Sixty Years, Foreward



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