Far Flung Fieldwork
November 11, 2013 | by Gregory Parker
The spring rains had washed trails of gravel onto the court, and Japanese tennis great Harada Takeichi fell, scraping himself. The former Olympian and ex-national champion turned to the Governor of Okayama Prefecture and told him it was a lousy court. If you can get a truck, Harada offered, I’ll get the dirt, and we’ll fix it.
The Americans, watching nearby in the stands, were embarrassed. They demurred. It was their court, after all, part of the Okayama Field Station of the U-M Center for Japanese Studies. Hopefully, Harada was merely joking.
Less than five years earlier, in 1945, the U.S. Army had burned nearly the entire city of Okayama with incendiary bombs. Just 100 miles away, the U.S. military had devastated Hiroshima with the first atomic bomb, killing 80,000 and irradiating countless others—including residents of Okayama.
Now, the field station was the place to be for the Okayama elite: A venue that afforded the chance to practice English, grab a game of tennis, or socialize with former enemies at the only American university outpost in Occupied Japan.
U-M’s academic outpost in postwar Japan derived from the forward-thinking of geography professor Robert B. Hall (’23, A.M. ’24, Ph.D. ’27). An intelligence officer in both world wars and no stranger to bloodshed, Hall wondered if global understanding might preempt more wars in the future. “Were the wars more ghastly than they might have been had we known more of our enemies and our allies?” he wrote in a pamphlet for the Social Science Research Council.
A Society Under Study
In 1947, Hall founded U-M’s Center for Japanese Studies (CJS) in Ann Arbor, the first of its kind in the United States. It was, in some ways, a logical next step for the campus since, during World War II, the U.S. Army had partnered with U-M to establish a Japanese language school, headquartered in East Quad, which instructed approximately 1,500 soldiers.
With a solid foundation of Japanese language training, CJS students and faculty from multiple disciplines could now construct a nuanced portrait of the society under study.
Hall envisioned fieldwork in Japan—on the ground—as part of CJS’s work, even though the idea was a challenging one. Japan was essentially closed to outsiders and still occupied by an American-dominated Allied force. Approximately one-quarter of its total wealth had been destroyed in the war. Military and civilian deaths were estimated at 2.7 million. In major cities, an estimated 30 percent of the population was homeless. In the words of historian John W. Dower, “until 1949...most Japanese were preoccupied with merely obtaining the bare essentials of daily subsistence.”
While the Japanese government nominally remained in power, it took direction from the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), General Douglas MacArthur. The corncob pipe-smoking five-star general exercised tsar-like power over the entire country. He had reimagined postwar Japan as a reformed democracy, advancing his personal vision—sometimes singlehandedly—through an American-written constitution that renounced war, embraced women’s suffrage, and guaranteed civil liberties (except when citizens criticized the occupiers).
If U-M was going to be the first and only university with a presence in Japan, MacArthur would have to approve it. And Hall would have to ask him.
In World War II, Hall had been promoted to colonel and had directed operations for the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) in the China-India region. In 1947, he had spent three months as a SCAP staff consultant in Tokyo. Hall knew his way around the military.
More importantly, he knew his way around MacArthur.
Hall crafted his proposal in terms the General would appreciate: “All our students are Reserve Officers...the results of their work will, of course, be available to the Occupation and will be of value to it....It seems certain that SCAP will want to play a major role in this development of the next generation of American scholars on ‘things Japanese.’”
In 1949, Hall arranged to meet MacArthur in person in Japan, at his headquarters in the fortress-like Dai-ichi Insurance Building. The general agreed in principle to the field station—“boldly planned and soundly conceived,” in MacArthur’s words—but only if the University took responsibility for all logistical concerns, from food to fuel to paperclips.
Hall readily agreed and began looking for real estate in Japan.
In January 1950, the first group of researchers and their families, along with two CJS-issued Willys Jeep Station Wagons and a bevy of supplies, arrived in Yokohama. They stopped briefly in Tokyo for a visit with MacArthur, and then followed the Tokaido, the centuries-old national road, on their 400-mile overland journey to Okayama. None of the initial visitors, except for Hall, had ever been to Japan.
“It was winter. It was fascinating. And with postwar fuel shortages, both day and night, it was cold,” recalled Grace Beardsley, who accompanied her husband, Anthropology Professor Richard Beardsley, to Okayama along with their two daughters.
From their Jeeps, the Americans witnessed a Japan still reeling from the war. Major cities like Tokyo were pocked with blocks of rubble, and Japanese army veterans, disgraced and forgotten, begged for alms on the streets. Black markets flourished, hunger was common, and starvation was a reality.
Hall had arranged to rent the former Okayama officers club, a sizable compound that would serve as headquarters for a dozen faculty, students, guests, and their families. It was staffed by cooks, housemaids, nursemaids, typists, receptionists, and others hired locally.
The station was organized with economy, collaboration, and production in mind. In cold weather, fuel for use in bedrooms was strictly regulated. Food was costly and often had to be shipped in. At times, to keep costs down, desserts were prohibited at lunch, seconds on meat were forbidden at dinner, and mayonnaise was substituted for butter—minor inconveniences compared to the diet of the average Japanese.
Despite this relative austerity, there was one unwritten rule: a mandatory evening cocktail hour.
The entire affair was managed locally by a series of faculty research directors, many of whom relied on their wives to manage accounts and write reports back to CJS in Ann Arbor.
“Frankly, I don’t like the job,” wrote Political Science Professor Robert Ward to Robert Hall. It’s easy to understand why, with a constant stream of social engagements, concerns over the Korean War, local press inquiries, and logistical details including the whereabouts of a stove that took more than five months to reach Okayama.
Despite the logistical challenges, faculty and students did make it into the field.
Documenting Everyday Life
Okayama is located in the Inland Sea Region of Japan, close to rural communities that researchers wanted to study. The choice baffled Japanese scholars, but the Americans were looking for areas that “were more representative of the nation’s cultural traditions and foundations than are cities.”
A rotating cadre of U-M faculty and students scattered among different villages, amassing the greatest body of research on Niiike, a 130-person, rice-growing community, which they observed—and probed—continually for more than four years.
Each morning, researchers drove the CJS Jeep to Niiike, and each evening they returned to write up their findings and share them with colleagues. They also consulted with Japanese scholars and coordinated with local university students who had been hired as research assistants.
Every aspect of daily life was studied in detail, from outhouse fixtures to household bathing order. Observing a cremation,
the U-M contingent witnessed relatives of the deceased “using special chopsticks that picked out the [fragments of bone], beginning with the foot bones and ending at the skull, under the cremator’s direction.”
They documented a day’s work schedule of a nine-person family, broken down by half-hour increments, for each family member. For the grandmother, the 2:00 P.M. entry reads, “gossips while baby naps,” while 4:00 P.M. notes, “takes wakened baby on back, resumes strolling on hill.”
Niiike was portrayed to the researchers as a unified village of 24 households that placed neighborly virtues above all else. As outsiders in a close-knit community, the researchers had little hope of testing whether this was truly the case—until a rare, if not unprecedented, crime rocked its residents.
On a spring evening in 1950, one of the villagers, while sleeping in his home, was assaulted with a cultivating fork that split his cranium in two places. The victim was discovered, bloodied and unconscious, the next morning, and the researchers drove the victim to Okayama City for emergency treatment.
Back in Niiike, investigators turned up a startling lack of clues or motive. The finger pointing soon began.
Some of the residents purchased watchdogs. Long-held grudges resurfaced and led to hints and then to outright allegations. The researchers could finally test whether neighborly virtues truly held sway over kinship ties. They did not.
Village life did return to normal, and the factionalism died down, but the crime was never solved.
Eventually, the Niiike study was written up by Beardsley, Ward, and History Professor John W. Hall and published as Village Japan in 1959. It ranks among the leading English-language studies of Japanese rural society.
Sorry and Gratitude Mingled
In 1955, news leaked to the Okayama press that the field station would soon close because it lacked funding. Politicians, business leaders, and citizens flooded CJS with pleas to reconsider.
“The Okayama Field Center is...the window of Okayama, through which Okayama has been introduced not only to the United States but all over the world,” read one plea, signed by more than a dozen officials, including bankers, a judge, the hospital director, and chief priests.
Geography Professor Curtis A. Manchester, the field station’s research director at the time, wrote to Robert Hall of a meeting with another group of Okayama notables opposing the closing. “They consider that the Center has compensated for the burning of their city during the war. They added to this that 85 percent of their city was destroyed, which may give you some idea as to just how much it does mean.”
Despite this support, the field station officially closed on June 28, 1955.
By that time, MacArthur had been sacked, the Occupation had ended, and the Japanese economic recovery had hit full stride. The country surpassed the standard of living it enjoyed before the war.
Before they left Okayama, outgoing researchers signed off with a final cable to CJS: WELL DONE SORROW AND GRATITUDE MINGLED.