JAPAN: My Adolescent years, 1945 – 1950

ADOLESCENCE:  Japan,  1945 – 1950 (On the right, me at the age 18)



I still don’t understand why I have taken so long to start writing about my adolescent years. I don’t think I had an unhappy adolescence. Maybe it is because of the fact that I was not a serious student in highschool and seminary. I was too busy with friends, later increasingly with girls friends. I ended up marrying one of them and divorcing her after 25 years. In retrospect, it is a story of a normal adolescence, but it took many years to accept that I was normal. I wonder if memories of those years are too guilt-ridden. I can not decide. However, when I went to my first and last class reunion of the seminary in June, 2010, one man commented of my student years, “You always seemed to be enjoying life.” I guess I did O.K. I should not feel guilty. After all, I did O.K. with my life. I was happy and must have looked so.


Five years after the Second World War, which Japanese prefer to call the War in the Pacific, were the years of dire poverty and hunger. Many people in Tokyo lived in shacks, wearing rags, and were always hungry. I remember feeling very cold and very hot in the summer. In winter, we warmed ourselves burning broken or half burned furniture. We cooked with that fire too. When it was unbearably hot, we climbed to the bell tower of the church and cooled ourselves in the breeze. It was windy on the tower which stood on top of five story building. !3 families lived in the half-burned out hollow shell of a concrete building that was my father’s church. We still worshipped in that building. It became slightly better when American soldiers began “GI Gospel Hour” in my father’s church. The chaplains, who must have been mainly Evangelicals. The U.S. Army cleaned the building, wired it, and brought in wood stoves for heating. They met every Saturday. That was my first encounter of the spoken English.

We were hungry all the time. Food was still rationed, but was never enough. Everybody survived buying food in the black market. One honest judge was reported to have starved to death because he refused to have anything to do with black market. It was touted as a stpry of the model citizen in the news papers. It was rather strange that one has to starve to death if one has to be a model citizen.  Because people were not used to question the system, it was a moral dilemma for honest citizens.  Food shortage was caused by the break down of infratructure and distribution system, not the shortage as such. Farmers were reluctant to sell their produce to the official food distribution system, because the orice the official price was unreasonably low.  the authorities had to tolerate the second tire market.  Food actually was plentiful.  A 5 minutes walk from Yurakucho station to Ginza church was lined with people selling food, bags of peanuts, boiled eggs, dried sweet potato, etc. They are all illegal black market but there was no visible law enforcement.  Everytime I found a ten yen coin in my pocket, I bought a bag of peanuts, a thirty yen, I ate a bowl of Ramen. Most of the venders were veterans, wearing torn army uniforms.  There was so few employment in industries.  Women on the streets who had nothing else to sell but themselves, in many cases to American G.I.’s.

In 1950, everything began to change drastically. The Korean War broke out, and industries suddenly perked up. Japan became the production and supply depot for the war. Anybody with grade nine education could find employment.  I learned I my early age that wars were good for economy, especially in the neighbourhood.


My family was always short of cash but I never thought we were poor. We always had cash-flow problem not because of small income. After all, my dad was a minister of one of the biggest church in Japan. He must have been receiving a not-so-bad salary. We felt poor because my parents were lousy managers of finance. Basically they really didn’t care too much about money. They must have thought money was there anytime we need it.  We ate sufficiently, and I was under the impression that we always paid the bills. My mother always fed other people at our table, because the manse was always full of people. My parents spent carelessly and gave away money.  When they ran out of money, they borrowed. My father never hesitated to help people. And people never hesitated to give or lend money to him. When my father suddenly died in 1956, we were horrified to find how much debt he left behind. It was all forgiven before his funeral. They knew he went into debt helping other people. When we had to leave the manse and had to find a house to live in after his death, my father’s friends launched a huge fund raiser to pay for the down payment of the house. So that’s how we bought a house. The income from the rent of that house supplemented my mother’s retirement in a nursing home in Canada until she died in 2003.

I had a glimpse of how my parents raised funds at the time of need. Once I was selected to join the World Council of Churches program for youth, a work camp in the Island of Mindanao in the Philippines. I think it was in 1955. I was never worried how my portion of travel expense for would be paid. I grew up thinking that money would come around somehow. One day before the trip, my mother took me to a home of a member of my Dad’s church. It was not unusual for my parent to take their kid along for pastoral visitation. My Mom did quite a bit of visitation too. We had a nice visit with tea and lovely conversation. However, before we left, the woman of the household gave me an envelope without any comment nor explanation. There was enough money to pay for the trip. It was all pre-arranged. It was done with dignity, as though it was a normal occurance.

There were two things that made me feel a little bit humiliated. I never had sufficient pocket money: maybe nobody does. When I went out into town with friends, girl friends included, somehow I was always with people who were willing to pay. Another thing I felt slightly sad about was clothes. For a few years after the second world war, I didn’t had change of clothes. I felt ashamed about how I looked; shabby and probably a little smelly. I was always cold for not enough warm clothes on my back. It was a miserable thing for a teenager who was gradually becoming self-conscious. I hated to look shabby. The situation became better when we began to receive American second-hand clothing from my parents’ friends in the states. My mother was proud of her skills in sewing, and always willing to fix oversized clothes to fit me. My sisters hated wearing my mother’s work, but I didn’t care. The sisters didn’t think Mom was good in sewing. But I thought I looked O.K.   However, all in all, those were minor problems. I never felt I had unhappy adolescent years. I felt loved and was a happy boy.


My social life was always in the church, except once. People came to church in droves during those days. When the war ended, the church became suddenly a place overflowing with people, particularly young people. They just hung around in the church building all the time. I was never conscious about it, but the church must have been open, unlocked, all the time. People came in and out any hours of day and night. The manse was in the church building. It was an apartment built within the church. Friends came to our home just to hung around. Perhaps that was the reason I didn’t feel deprived, being rich in friends but cash poor. I will come back and speak about my friends, but I should mention about this one and only time experience of social life outside of the church. Like any teenage boy, I was very conscious of girls. But relationship with the boys was more important until I met this girl. Her name was Reiko Kezuka.


It was a girl who launched me into the one-time social life outside of the church. And it was my first romance, such as it was. It happened like this: My father started English language classes in the church soon after the war, because there was so much demand to learn English. I never paid any attention to those non-church people who came to the classes. They were not my friends. So I didn’t pay too much attention to those people who stood around the piano when I was practising. We didn’t have a piano in our home, so I used the one in the church hall to practice. Before Christmas one year, my last year of high school, a girl gave me a little package. That was not unusual. People gave each other gifts before Christmas in the church often, because Christmas was not observed in most of the Japanese homes. So they did it at the church. It was a Christian celebration in a non-Christian country. I got presents from lots of people because I was a family of the minister. In the package was a small notebook, which was the kind people would keep in the pocket to write ‘thing to do’. In it was a hand-written poem.

I was not a lover of literature, neither was I much interested in poetry. So, reading the notebook, I didn’t understand what the girl was saying. It was all about flowers and insects. I had no idea what she meant in subtlety with full of nuances. So this dim-wit casually showed it to a friend, who said right away, “Oh my god. Don’t you know she is in love with you?” Oh my God, indeed. However, I could not quite identify which of the young women who stood around the piano did this. But one day one of them gave me a bouquet of pink sweet peas. So that was the one. She was in the grade eleven and was always with a group of high school girls from the volley-ball team of a commerce school. She was not what you might term ‘beautiful’, but was an attractive and healthy looking sporty type of a person. She was a daughter of the owner of a shop specializing model aeroplanes in Ginza. Ginza still is a high price shopping area of Tokyo. It was a shop for people who spent big money on model aeroplanes. It had mainly American clientele, so I guess she needed to learn conversational English to help in the shop. I got to know her name, Reiko Kezuka.

We went out for maybe a year, more or less. In the beginning she always came with a bunch of girls, as I said before. It was not unusual for people to hang around in the church and in the manse. We did the usual things for teenagers, going for a walk in Ginza, had coffee, window shopping, etc. Then she started to come by herself, always to our place to my room. Once she invited me to come to her school after their volley ball practice to go for coffee in town. Again, I remember being surprised how much pocket money ordinary kids of my age had. I never paid for anything, movies, restaurants, etc. I might have been attracted to her, but I can not say I was crazy with her.

By then I began to realize that there was an invisible barrier between my friends in the church and the ones outside of the church. Frankly speaking, ordinary kids outside seemed to me to be so dumb. In the church, my friends and I were discussing issues, and outside gossiping. No wonder I was never comfortable with my peers at high school either, especially when they were giggling in dirty talks. I could not stand it. They sounded so below my dignity and stupid. I was interested in opposite sex just the same but differently. My high school is known even today as an elite school, but even then I thought those kids in my school seemed to be so dumb. I now realized the nature of Christian churches in Japan. The church in Japan is an institution for the elite and is generally speaking puritanical.

Just before I started the Tokyo Union Theological Seminary, Reiko was picked to be a member of Japan’s first women’s professional baseball league, and she invited me to visit her at the Spring training camp. It was in a warm Pacific coastal region near my birth place of Numazu. I watch the training for a few hours, and was totally bored. She took a room in a hotel for me, and came to see me. I had no idea what I was expected to do. It was a beautiful time of the year, flowers blooming, ocean was blue, a perfect time for romance. But we sat and just talked. How naive could I get! She didn’t insist. I broke up with her soon after, and she cried. A strange thing was: just before I came to Canada, by then I was already married to Chieko, she wrote to me. She was also married and lived in the western coastal region by Japan Sea. I didn’t understand what she wanted. So I ignored it and forgot about it.


There were three boys close to me throughout my teen years. We were so close that other church people called us “three crows – Sanba Garasu.” I think the term came from a legend of three young samurais, which extolled the virtues of friendship. Eiji Ooshima was a son of a diplomat, went to the elite Tokyo University and became a university professor in Physics. Masao Fukai was raised by a single Mom, known as a famous geisha madam in Ginza. Nobody gossiped about his mother nor his origin in the church. Only the Japanese would know that Geisha is a special class, cultured and respected. We certainly didn’t care nor question about his background. He also went to an ellite Keio University and became an editor of a political magazine. We were confirmed together.

They came often to the church after school just to hung around in dusty rooms of the concrete church building. Often we would just sat and chat. We organized the boys and girls who came to the church, summer retreats, picnics, come springtime hikes in the green hills in the country. We edited the journal for the kids in the church and compiled and printed camp song books. We organized Christmas Carols visiting church members at their homes, and created a Junior Choir. We were busy. We thought we organized the whole church. We attended the AGM, and joined the discussion about the budget. We did all this before we went to university. In retrospect, we were extraordinary group of teen age boys. I am also surprised that the adults let us do all this.

At the time we were preparing to go to the university, “Three Crows” gradually disintegrated. I began to feel the distance from two others; was a more accurate way of to describe the dissolution.

I can not quite pin-point the reason for this. Ooshima started to go out with my sister, Taeko, could be one of the reasons. I was not jealous, but I didn’t like to see the relationship btween my best friend and my sister. It was too close to comfort. Also, I started to hung around with another group of boys who all came from Keio University as Fukai. To me they were much more fun.

It is this group who still keep in touch with me even after fifty odd years, I lived almost entirely outside of Japan, Canada, Lesotho, and Switzerland, and most of them stayed in Japan; with a few exception of them who had a successful lives overseas, in New York, London, Switzerland (he still lives there.), and Eastern Europe. Tokyo University is known as an institution that produces the elite academics and government bureaucrats, while Keio produced the elite business class. Keio crowd is the one who still get together whenever I go to Japan.

The closest friends among the Keio crowd were three, or four if you include me. The leader of the group was Atsuo Ishiwara. He worked his entire life for the Mitsui Trading Company, no relation of mine, in Asia and in Eastern Europe. He was smart, knew he was smart and behaved like one. He became friends with an American businessman, attended his Bible class and started to attend my father’s church, Ginza. He brought his best friends at the Keio University to church, Takehiko Nozaki and Yasutake Nambu. I joined the group and four of us stayed life time friends. Nozaki became a banker, and when he retired he was a branch manager of one of the most important Mitsubishi Bank in Down Town Tokyo. Nambu joined me at the Seminary and became a minister of the United Church of Christ in Japan. He went to the Union Theological Seminary in New York to do his doctrate. We got together and discussed theology, and often listened to Ishiwara’s lament about girls. Ishiwara was always in love, but never succeeded taking any of them out. It is strange that any of them married the girl who was in the group, except me. They all married in a traditional way, arranged marriage. Strange that I am the only one who failed in marriage.

During the first year of the university, one more joined in a tight circle of friendship. He is Reiji Yuminoke, who turned out to be my closest friend. However, until Yuminoke (we called him Noke) four of us were cash poor. We called ourselves “Waterman’s Club.” When we felt the need for a change of scene, we went out and went in any coffee house, chatted a long time sipping water without ordering anything. We normally didn’t have money for coffee. After a while, enough chatting done, we went out. So the name, Waterman’s Club. But Noke was a boy who was no short of pocket money. No more waterman’s club. He always paid. No question was ever asked about this rather unfair arrangement.

It came to be like this: Noke needed help in his academic work. So we often stayed at his home to help him, in writing papers and in preparing for exams. Ishiwara was a literary type, so he helped in Literature. Nambu was a philosopher, I did English, and Nozaki French and the rest. We had good times at his home. Besides, Noke’s mother was a good cook. We ate well and had a whale of good time. Noke’s father owned a small book binding business, not a millionaire but had more money than any of our family. It is the best memory of my youth. We talked about everything. Often we talked about Ishiwara’s latest love, rather we listened to him lament; he was always in love. Poor fellow. I always had a girl friend – different one every time. All of them knew them but never spoke about them. Odd!

We talked mainly about Theology, and girls. We planned outings, retreats, parties, special worship services, choir. We published regular papers for our age groups. We attended the AGM for the congregation. We thought we ran the church. In retrospect, it is amazing that the elders of the church let us do all this.

Girls were all from Christian girls’ schools. They were required by the schools to attend the church. They were from the Methodist school (Aoyamagakuin), the Disciples, (Seigakuin), the Anglican (Rikkyo), the Canadian Methodist – later United (Eiwa), the Quakers (Friends), you name the church, we had them. Another odd thing about my friends at the church, the only ones I made friends were at the church, is the fact that girls came from Christian schools, and boys were not. Even I went to public schools all through teenage years. Boys I made friends with were mainly from Keio, a secular ivy league elite school.

Another odd thing about the circle of friends at Ginza Church was the fact that, though we were very close and hang around together all the time, none of them married each other, except me. I guess there was a kind of ‘brother-sister’ psychology working. They were so close that after sixty odd years, they still get together regularly, a few times a year, for re-union for dinner in expensive restaurants, with former Sunday School teachers as honoured guests. I don’t go because of distance, except twice when I just happened to be in Japan.

After the university, Nambu went to my alma mater, Tokyo Union Theological Seminary and became an ordained minister. Ishiwara was hired by the Mitsui Trading Co., and spent most of his life oversea, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, etc. Nozaki became a banker and became a branch manager of one of the most prestigious branch of the Mitsubishi Bank in Ginza. Noke succeeded his father’s book binding business and became the most successful business man of the group in terms of financial gains. He continued to treat me every time he had a chance, allowing me to use his house in Hawaii, took us to holiday resorts, and taking us to expensive restaurants..

This pattern of the circle of friends at Ginza Church continued until I left Japan for Canada in 1957. By then I was married to one of the girls from Seigauin (The Disciples school), Chieko Fukushima. She was my first wife.

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