Conditions in Japan following World War II were chaotic at best. Outside of urban areas, irrespective of the damage caused by the war, there were few telephones or automobiles, and all manner of items required for daily living were in short supply. Day-to-day life was a struggle, not to mention trying to organize a research center in the heart of the Japanese countryside. Beginning with correspondence and ultimately Professor Robert B. Hall's face-to-face meetings with General Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo, the Center was able to secure permission from the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers for studies in Okayama, Japan. According to General MacArthur:
"THE FOUR-YEAR PROJECT FOR RESEARCH IN JAPAN APPEARS TO BE BOLDLY PLANNED AND SOUNDLY CONCEIVED. CARRIED TO A SUCCESSFUL CONCLUSION, IT SHOULD RESULT IN A BODY OF KNOWLEDGE WHICH WILL PROVE OF INESTIMABLE VALUE NOT ONLY TO THE ACADEMIC WORLD, BUT TO A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF JAPAN BY OUR OWN PEOPLE."
While it is arguable what General MacArthur meant by "our own people," there is no doubt that the project would be carried out in the University of Michigan's farthest-flung classroom. The region chosen for the field station was located midway down the Pacific coast of Japan's largest island, an area euphemistically known as "the Cradle of Japanese Civilization."
A four-year plan of research was to begin there and then expand over the entire country. Having secured property (no small feat), the Center began working in the Okayama field station on April 1, 1950. Center staff and graduate students, the latter all Reserve Officers in the Army or Navy, were shepherded through a maze of red tape, vaccinated against small pox, typhus, and cholera, and sent on the long voyage to Japan. For the graduate students, this was an opportunity to assist professors in advanced research, while at the same time, to complete their own Master's essay and possibly choose a topic for a PhD.
Ultimately, the Center would be studying three separate villages near Okayama: one whose economy was centered around fishing, another concerned with agriculture, and the third, a mountain village. The research staff would be spread out, but the program set its sights on coming away with "an approximation of a total knowledge of these representative communities."
The normal working procedure was to have each community studied by specialists in several disciplines at the same time. During the first year, for example, the village of Niike, ultimately the focus of most of the research, was under almost daily observation by an anthropologist, a geographer, and a political scientist, among others. While it was neither possible nor desirable to live in the village, researchers averaged a six-hour day, four or five days a week, there or in neighboring villages, homes, or offices.
Keeping in Touch with Ann Arbor
In addition to a wide variety of research duties, center staff at the field station spent a great deal of time on "housekeeping" problems. Communication with the center offices back in Ann Arbor was slow by regular mail, so emergency messages, like this example from Professor Robert B. Hall (dated 1950), were sent by cable.
Daily struggles were never-ending for the residents of Okayama as well as the faculty, students, and staff of the Okayama Field Station. The Americans’ problems revolved around finding room for the constantly changing students, faculty, and staff, and securing even the simplest of supplies. Procurement of a stove, for example, took over a year, and included battles with the manufacturer, two shipping agents, a number of warehouses, and local authorities in Japan. The Center and its personnel were often the litmus test for new laws on immigration, imports/exports, and taxes, not to mention being the first foreigners many people had ever interacted with. As Curtis Manchester, one of several Research Directors at Okayama, revealed in a letter home, even making a payment for services rendered was not always easy.
"THE CENTER IS NOW INVOLVED IN A GIFT EXCHANGE WITH PROF. WAKITA. I PAID HIM A FEE RECOMMENDED BY THE KENCHO SOCIAL AFFAIRS SECTION. HE SEEMS TO HAVE CONSIDERED IT TOO HIGH AND...HE PRESENTED THE UNIVERSITY WITH AN EDO JIDAI INCENSE CLOCK. EVERYONE SAYS IT IS VERY RARE....THE SOCIAL AFFAIRS SECTION IS NOW PONDERING THE QUESTION OF HOW TO MAKE A PROPER RETURN AND END THE GIFT EXCHANGE. IT WILL MAKE A GOOD CONVERSATION PIECE IN A2."
The routing of supplies and personnel was often complicated. Travel to and from the villages was by jeep, and the field station's vehicles were in constant demand. It was also difficult to keep tabs on all personnel as dozens of people were applying themselves to hundreds of research projects simultaneously. These projects had to be woven into a fabric of goodwill as field station faculty members ingratiated themselves to local politicians, academics, and the public with seminars and social gatherings, both formal and informal. At the center of some debate was the field station's tennis court. Upkeep was expensive but deemed necessary as a way of putting up a good public front.
Monthly reports to Ann Arbor (which are on file at the Bentley Historical Library) took the form of long letters that mixed academic, financial, housekeeping, and personal moments in a telling jumble of conventional and unconventional education.
"DEAR BOB, I HAVE BEEN PUTTING OFF THIS THIRD REPORT IN THE HOPE THAT I WOULD BE ABLE TO REPORT THE SUCCESSFUL CONCLUSION OF A COUPLE OF PROBLEMS. ONE, THE PURCHASE OF THE 18,200 VOLUMES FROM THE KAMADA LIBRARY IS NOW SET UP; THE OTHER, THE CONTINUING PROBLEM OF THE ELUSIVE ELECTRIC STOVE, CONTINUES TO REMAIN UNSOLVED.... EVERYONE CONTINUES IN GOOD HEALTH, ALTHOUGH I HAVE ABOUT DECIDED THAT I AM ALLERGIC TO RICE (I WOULD SPECIALIZE IN JAPAN). I HAVE HAD A CONTINUAL AND MISERABLE ALLERGY EVER SINCE THE RICE BEGAN TO COME TO A HEAD IN AUGUST. . .I HAD PARTICULARLY HOPED TO BE ABLE TO REPORT CONNIE’S SAFE DELIVERY AND THE ARRIVAL OF A WARD HEIR, BUT SHE STILL CONTINUES IN FINE HEALTH, THOUGH OF ALARMING BULK. THE DOCTOR TOLD HER LAST THURSDAY THAT SHE WAS CARRYING 'TAKUSAN’ BABY, SO I GUESS IT WILL BE A PRETTY LARGE CHILD."
The Crown Prince Visits Ann Arbor
Interest in the field station brought more notice to the Center for Japanese Studies and Ann Arbor. The Japanese Ambassador to the United States cut the ribbon to open the University of Michigan’s Asia Library, and in 1953, then nineteen-year-old Crown Prince Akihito came to Ann Arbor to tour the Center and meet its scholars.
As Bill Bender reported on a local radio station:
"WEARING A GRAY BUSINESS SUIT, GREEN TIE AND BROWN OXFORDS, THE CROWN PRINCE IS A SLENDER YOUNG MAN OF 19 WITH CLEAR CUT FEATURES AND WIDE DARK EYES.... THERE IS A PECULIAR TIMELINESS TO HIS APPEARANCE HERE IN THE UNITED STATES. AS YOU KNOW, IT WAS AN AMERICAN NAVAL OFFICER WHO ENDED THE LONG CENTURIES OF JAPANESE ISOLATION FROM THE WESTERN WORLD, AND IT WAS EXACTLY ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO THAT COMMODORE MATTHEW C. PERRY FIRST SAILED HIS FOUR BLACK SHIPS INTO TOKYO BAY."
The original four-year plan for Okayama lasted more than five years, with the field station finally closing in 1955 after receiving immeasurable and invaluable support and cooperation from the residents of Okayama. Among center records is a book filled with pleas like the following from Okayama governor Yukiharu Miki.
"YOUR LETTER DATED MARCH 14 CONCERNING THE FUTURE OF THE OKAYAMA FIELD CENTER FOR JAPANESE STUDIES HAS STARTLED US GREATLY AND GIVEN RISE TO AN UNEASINESS. IT IS EARNESTLY DESIRED THAT WE SHALL BE RELIEVED OF THIS UNEASINESS... MOREOVER, YOUR RESEARCH SCHOLARS WHO ARE ALL TYPICAL AMERICAN GENTLEMEN HAVE MADE AN ENORMOUS CONTRIBUTION TOWARD THE PROMOTION OF FRIENDLY RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN THE TWO COUNTRIES THROUGH THEIR STUDIES AND DAILY CONTACT WITH US, BESIDES THEY HAVE INFLUENCED US GREATLY BY THEIR NOBLE CHARACTER."
Sorrow and Gratitude
Despite an outpouring of support, on June 28, 1955 the University of Michigan Okayama Field Station closed its doors.
The final cable between Ann Arbor and Okayama captured the mood in necessarily succinct tones.