Table Speech

“Rotary Awareness Month” Meeting
“Memories of Tokyo in the 1950s”

January 13, 2010

Mr. Christopher W. McDonald
Member of Tokyo Rotary Club

 I came to Japan in April 1950, so this year will mark my 60th Anniversary or ‘kanreki’ as a resident here in Tokyo. I worked for NCR Japan for the first 30 years. I joined Tokyo Rotary Club in April 1981, a year after becoming President of Rolex Japan, sponsored by Kakuichiro Fujiyama. It would be difficult to condense all my experiences of 60 years, so my speech today will focus on what Tokyo was like in the 1950s soon after the war.

 I first landed at Haneda Airport on April 25th, 1950 on a BOAC flight from Hong Kong. Haneda Airport was the US military airbase then, allowing a limited number of commercial flights. Immigration and customs formalities were handled by Japanese officials.

 It was a dull rainy day, and the roads to central Tokyo were still badly scarred by the bombing raids of 1945 with numerous potholes. No new buildings had been constructed yet, leaving Tokyo with miles of drab buildings and small dwellings, a monotonous and dreary town.

 My official status was a ‘foreign trader,’ meaning foreign nationals engaged in commercial activities with the permission from SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers). I stayed at Hotel Teito, the predecessor of Palace Hotel, which was reserved exclusively for foreign traders. Imperial Hotel was for the exclusive use of senior US military officers, whilst the old Marunouchi Hotel was reserved for the British Commonwealth military officers. There were very few hotels in Tokyo then, because hotels like Okura, New Otani, Hilton and Palace were constructed in the early 1960s for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. With so many foreign traders visiting Japan to seize the immediate post-war business opportunities, available rooms were hard to find. I first had to share the room with three other guests, with one bathroom and practically no room for chairs. I can’t complain because I was lucky enough to finally get a room to myself, after a few weeks, by pressing the manager for better accommodation. My office was in Ginza, a walking-distance from the Hotel.

 Tokyo in 1950s was vastly different from what it is today. Streetcars still ran in the city center and dozens of ‘yatai’ (small stalls) were set up along the Ginza, selling variety of local merchandise and souvenirs for the American GIs. There was also a black market operating around Ginza, Shinjuku and Shibuya, peddling mostly imported American goods. The authority appeared to turn a blind eye to these activities, for business flourished until the Peace Treaty was signed in 1951.

 One thing I still recall is the average men in the street, despite all the hardships in the post-war years, were never openly despondent, never complained, was always clean and neatly dressed, and above all, appeared to still retain a real sense of pride in being Japanese. I am often tempted to draw comparison with the society of today.

 It was not unusual for us to carry around several different kinds of currency then, including the Japanese Yen curiously called the “indigenous Yen.” Fixed exchange rate was \360 to US dollar and \1,008 to the sterling pound. But you could purchase almost anything with the almighty US dollar. There was also MPC (Military Payment Certificates), which was for official use at US military camps and facilities including the PX (Post Exchange Store). Foreign traders had our own currency coupons ‘Foreign Traders Payment Certificate’ to be used at designated outlets such as the OSS (Overseas Supply Store) in Ginza and other similar establishments. The British Commonwealth Forces (BCOF) also had their currency for use in the main base Ebisu Camp.

 As my office was in Ginza, I tended to spend the evening with Japanese friends in and around the area, which was home to hundreds of clubs, bars and cabarets. There were plenty of small Japanese eating places to be found, especially around Shimbashi and Yurakucho, while western-style restaurants were few. What is to note is that almost all of these bars and clubs were ‘off-limits’ to military personnel. It was a common sight for several burly American MPs to suddenly appear and demand ID from non-Japanese present. Any military personnel found were immediately escorted off the premises.

 I visited various offices in the Marunouchi district for business. The Diichi Seimei Building at Hibiya was the SCAP Headquarters where General MacArthur had his office. He shuttled between his Headquarters and his residence at the US Embassy. Many Japanese were in awe of MacArthur, and gathered daily to catch glimpse of him as he commuted. When MacArthur was recalled by President Truman in April 1951, as many as 300,000 Japanese citizens lined the route from the American Embassy to Haneda at 6:30 am to bid him farewell.

 After staying at Hotel Teito for about two months, I moved to a small house found by my Company in Soshigaya-Okura. In 1952, I moved again to Kichijoji.

 My speech touched the surface of what Tokyo was like in the 1950s. It was indeed a different world. Tokyo today is a far more comfortable place to live in. Yet I feel a sense of nostalgia when I look back on those relatively primitive but nonetheless happy days.