Cohen Bros. Moments: How Japan met America at the end of the Pacific War

First scene: the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan

In the end it was the Tenno, 天皇 (てんおう), the Son of Heaven, the divinely appointed ruler of Japan, who made the decision. The credo of Budō, the Japanese Way of the Warrior, demanded that a warrior surrender his life whenever his lord needed it. That had been the cornerstone of the Empire’s zeitung, its imperishable spirit of conquest. The Empire’s armies had beaten the British and the French, and ground down the Chinese. Those British had treated the emperor with contempt. That ex-King had mocked him and his impeccable Western clothes, as a “prize monkey”. The news that a British battleship Prince of Wales had been sent to the bottom by Japanese torpedoes, had given the emperor grim satisfaction. That ex-King had been Prince of Wales when he gave such insult. During the siege of Singapore, the British soldiers thought that the Japanese bicycles running on stripped steel rims were tanks, and the civil servant in charge had meekly surrendered what Churchill thought an unsinkable battleship. Unfortunately, all its guns pointed out to sea.

"Budō" shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu

“Budō” shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu

Then the Empire had taken on a greater foe. That foe should have fallen apart at that first crushing victory. Its leaders had let the country rot for over ten years, leaving it to gangsters and film starlets to run things. They were a mongrel horde without discipline. But it hadn’t worked out like that. What should have been an easy next battle turned out to be a disaster. Somehow the mongrels knew and were ready. They had conjured aircraft carrier after aircraft carrier from who knows where. Their airmen were ferocious. At least as committed as our warriors who had been given Bushido souls with their mother’s milk. The mongrels never ever gave up, and kept coming on, hit after hit, until we started to lose aircraft carriers, the proud victors of the Battle of Pearl Harbor; first Soryu and then Kaga. We lost four irreplaceable ships and so many men. In the end Admiral Nagumo had to give up. The rout was hidden for a while. The eyewitnesses who might have spread discord, those soldiers and the airmen who had survived were interred. Our propagandists announced a great victory. But that was a lie.

Now the Tenno and his generals were down to just two options. Super weapons had vaporized the downtowns of two medium sized cities, apparently left intact by the Super Fortresses just to see what these weapons could do. And who knew how many more super bombs the enemy had and where they would be used? One thing was for sure, there was nothing that the army, navy or airforce could do to stop them. The slimmest, deluded hope was an agreement signed back in the glory days. The fact that it had been a cynical matter of convenience, at least by the ally who sponsored it, didn’t seem to matter much. He had gone to break the farcically named “non-aggression” treaty with a spectacular invasion, which he had called Barbarossa. The snows of the Steppes and the bloody minded persistence of the Untermensch, had turned it into a hellish rout which had rolled all the way back to his Fuhrerbunker under his chancellery in Berlin. Now he was dead, suiciding not by honorable Seppuku but a quick bullet and glass vial of prussic acid, while around him raged Gotterdammerung , a monstrous parody of Wagner’s tale of the Nordic gods. Hitler’s war had shattered European imperial power forever, at an incalculable cost in resources and some fifty million lives. (There is an excellent film on those last days called “Downfall”. The drawback is that it’s in Deutsche but is nonetheless an absolutely compelling tale.)

Empress Sadako with Prince of Wales in 1922

Empress Sadako with Prince of Wales in 1922

That other Axis ally had always been a flake and was dead too, shot by peasants and his corpse urinated on by their women. Now Uncle Joe, the Tsar in all but name of the Soviet Union, had unequivocally torn up that ‘non-aggression’ agreement by formally declaring war. The Russian army had already beaten the Imperial Army once before, and was now on its way down the Trans-Siberian railway. The great Soviet General Zhukov, who had seen off the Wehrmacht and had commanded that first defeat of Japanese forces in Manchuria, would steamroller the last vestiges of Japanese Imperial might and, if the Soviet Army behaved as it had done in Germany, would fulfill every horror story concocted by our propagandists. The Imperial Army had a lot of hidden skeletons like those tales back in Korea and China.

The options were simple: trust General Anami’s Ketsugō plan, which included arming children with sharpened bamboo sticks, or surrender to the Americans. Hirohito, Divine Son of Heaven, Tenno, chose door number two. The Tenno, divinely appointed ruler of Japan, the pinnacle of Bushido, had decided that he preferred to live and take his chances.

:Namban Attributed to Kano Naizen

:Namban Attributed to Kano Naizen

The Atomic Bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9th which was the same day that the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. After trying to get a concession or two the Empire of Japan signaled that it accepted the Potsdam declaration, which demanded total and unconditional surrender. On August 15 the Japanese people heard the Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast telling them that they would have “to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable”. Few of them understood what was about to happen due mainly to the archaic form of Japanese he used, which was something like FDR or Churchill using Chaucerian English, and in part to the scratchy recording made by NKK and the Emperor’s thin reedy voice. Japan waited for the victors.

Second scene: Flashback

tengu statue by the station by erysimum9

tengu statue by the station by erysimum9

The Japanese do not call themselves Japanese. Their name for themselves is Nihonjin and the name of their country is Nihon (日本), the sun’s origin. Europeans first learned of this country from Marco Polo’s book where he described an island known to the Chinese as Zipangu. Our name Japan was garbled from the original by filtering it through Mandarin and Italian or maybe Cantonese and Dutch. Any which way, one would be hard put to find more dissimilar languages.

Until 1945, Japan had never been successfully invaded, although Genghis Khan had a couple of goes back in 1274 and 1281. They are a homogeneous insular people, courteous and intelligent, and minimalist by necessity and by taste. They also think very highly of themselves.

When in the 16th Century Europeans arrived, the few Japanese who met one were not impressed. Yes, the Europeans brought interesting ideas like muskets which the Japanese readily copied but the men themselves were appalling. They were ketto yabanjin(けっと 野蛮人), dirty hairy beasts just like the goblin tengu 天狗 with huge long noses, enormous penises and venal tastes. During the war, the Imperial propagandists had capitalized on these prejudices. And now these barbarians would have the run of the place.

Third scene: Atsugi Air Base, Japan

Ase o fuku onna by Utamaro

Ase o fuku onna by Utamaro

It wasn’t long before those dreaded Americans arrived. On August 28, 1945, only 13 days after Hirohito’s broadcast American troops arrived at Atsugi Air base, just south of Tokyo, with orders to secure Yokohama for General MacArthur and his staff. The troops formed a convoy of trucks and ventured into enemy territory. They were soon met by a Japanese convoy sent by a new organization set up by the helpful Japanese government called the Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA), and these trucks were carrying Japanese women in elegant kimono, who had “volunteered” to service the horny Yanks. Well, for many of the women sex was their day job anyway. The American officers were shocked and offended, and said so but, no doubt, some of the GIs would have been game. And so began a fascinating bit of human history, replete with every human vice but also much sweetness.

Atsuji wasn’t the only airfield which had to be commandeered. In early September, fifty Marines were sent to secure the air base at Omura near Nagasaki in Northern Kyushu. They too were welcomed by a party of geisha, and finding the base adequately secured, the men, lead by their fearless first sergeant, moved on to commandeer a nearby geisha house which they chose as their billet — while they waited for reinforcements — as it was well supplied with beer, ‘hibachi-grilled fish’ and girls. The doughty first sergeant of MAG-44 commandeering party was 22-year-old Nick Zappetti who already had a colorful history. He had grown up in the Italian enclave of East Harlem on Manhattan, New York. His cousin was Gaetano Luchese aka “Three Finger Brown” and Zappetti knew lots of other guys with nicknames, “Boss of Booze” Joe Rao, “Trigger” Mike Coppola and Joe Stretch whose real name was quite melodramatic enough.

Fourth scene: Hikari wa Shinjuku Yori, Japan

Bob Johnson of Reading, Mass. cordially greets Tamiko San by Okinawa Soba (Rob)

Bob Johnson of Reading, Mass. cordially greets Tamiko San, by Okinawa Soba (Rob)

Japan, of course, had its own wise guys. They called themselves ya-ku-za, the numbers 8-9-3, a term for a losing hand in cards. In other war torn countries black markets had flourished and Japan was no exception. While the Emperor and his cronies mourned, and the people feared the impending hordes of yabanjin, the yakuza reaction to the cessation of hostilities was let the good times roll. Only three days after the Emperor’s speech, they placed an advertisement for a black-market market called charmingly Hikari wa Shinjuku Yori (Shinjuku has more Light) and a couple of days after that the market in Shinjuku opened with supplies which had been destined to support General Anami’s Ketsugō army and then liberated and repurposed by the Yakuza. It was not long before the victors and vanquished were able to make working arrangements about the economic facts of life.

Tokyo was a shanty town of lean-to huts; some folk were even living in bomb craters, and nobody had enough to eat. The point that the government ration was totally inadequate was neatly, if inadvertently, made when a Tokyo District Court Judge who had refused to eat anything bought illegally died of malnutrition. So, despite “not overly successful” attempts to rout out American involvement, the light of Shinjuku AKA the black market boomed. Some eight million dollars worth of remittances were sent back to America, more than “the entire military payroll”. Naturally, the Yakuza claim that they saved the people at the beginning of the post war period.

Fifth scene: Rikidozan in the Ring

Fascinating although this is, it isn’t really Cohen Bros. material. For that we have pro-wrestling. After years of being told how tough the Japanese fighting man was (true) and how victory was inevitable (not so true) the post war Japanese male felt something of a letdown. The depth of such feelings were discovered on the night of February 19, 1954 in a puro-resu bumu held on Tokyo.

In the blue corner representing America were the Sharpe Brothers, Ben (6’ 6”, 240 pounds) and Mike (6’ 6”, 250 pounds). In the red corner representing the Land of the Rising Sun, Home of Sumo were Rikidozan (6’ 2”, 220 pounds) and Kimura (5’ 8”, 170 pounds). A Japanese journalist wrote, “The difference in physical size, especially in Kimura’s case, triggered painful memories among the spectators of Japan’s devastating loss in the Pacific War.” The ring announcer agreed, “Those Americans are huge. How can they possibly lose?”

The American Goliath, Mike Sharpe, climbed into the ring to confront tiny Rikidozan. Then Riki, as he became known, ‘flew into the ring and began pummeling Mike Sharpe with powerful karate blows.’ Mike backed down towards his corner and was quickly worn down by the furious Jap. To escape he tagged his brother. Ben received the same warm welcome. The blitzing attacks of the feisty Riki dazed him; he collapsed and Riki held him down for the count.

Rikidozan in action

Rikidozan in action

The audience went wild, jumping to their feet and throwing cushions, hats and anything else into the air. The crowd of some 20,000 gathered at Shimbashi Metro Station to watch the match on a 27 inch “General” went bananas, stopping traffic outside. Folks who had climbed trees to get better view of another jumbo TV in Ueno Park were so jubilant that they fell from their perches, “incurring serious injury and … ambulances shuttle[d] back and forth …. to the nearest hospital for much of the evening.”

It was estimated that between 10 and 14 million Japanese had watched the show live, and when it was broadcast 24 million, around a third of the population, watched. Riki was now a celebrity adored by millions including the media mogul and owner of NTV Matsutaro Shoriki who said,”Rikidozan, by his pro wrestling in which he sent the big white men flying, has restored pride to the Japanese and given them new courage.”

Alas, it was pro-wrestling and pro-wrestling is not known to be much of an actual contest, and this wasn’t at all. The match had been “scripted, rehearsed, and staged with the full cooperation of the Americans, who had been extremely well compensated for their trouble.” Nick Zappetti realized that was money to be made and was recruited to be a fall guy along with fellow American, one John MacFarland the Third.

Sixth scene: The Imperial Hotel Diamond Incident

MacFarland was not exactly inconspicuous in a nation of shortish, black haired people. He was 6’ 4”, 250 pounds, his red hair was cut into a duckbill, and he went by his wrestling name of “Gorgeous Mac”. As well as being a prize on the pro wrestling league, he had issues. He had been hospitalized for manic depression and treated with insulin shock therapy for his shocking temper. Gorgeous Mac was also in debt and an illegal, as his tourist visa and his passport had expired, so he need a lot of money fast, so he talked with Nick, with his connections and all, how this could be achieved.

Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.

Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.

The plan MacFarland came up was a doozy. He wanted to rob the Diamond Shop in the arcade of his swanky hotel. First off, this was some hotel. It was called the Imperial and had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and had survived the great Kanto earthquake in 1927. It was a home-from-home to high-ranking officers from GHQ, senators and Hollywood stars and was ‘generally acknowledged as the Greatest Hotel in Asia.” The plan sounded simple enough. The Diamond Shop offered ‘private showings’ of its merchandise to certain qualified guests. Gorgeous Mac would establish his credentials with a suitcase of cash, which in reality was newspaper with a thin overlay of bills. He would get chummy with the salesman and offer him a drink. The drink would contain ‘knockout drops’, rending MacFarland and the salesman unconscious, Zapetti would emerge from another room and swipe the diamonds. It seemed plausible until Gorgeous Mac said, “I gotta have a gun”.

Zapetti tried to argue him out of his questionable request by pointing out that he was an enormous pro-wrestler and could easily handle any salesman. All Gorgeous Mac would say is “I gotta have a gun”. Zapetti had seen MacFarland totally lose it before, so declined to be part of the venture. He did however provide a .38 revolver which he gave, sans bullets, to one of   Gorgeous Mac groupies. This teenage boy was nicknamed the “Mambo Kid”, “M” for short, on account of  his taste in clothes: ‘black rhinestone-studded Latin clothes and big pompadours’. Should you doubt that Japanese folk love Latin dance you should go to the Asakusa Samba Festival.

So, on “January 15, 1956, at 10:20 AM, Imperial Hotel arcade jeweler Shichiro Masubuchi carried a briefcase filled with . . . diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies to MacFarland’s room.” He was relieved of the case by MacFarland and M who then chose to take the elevator to the main lobby, “where MacFarland agreeably stopped to sign autographs. Then he stood in line for a taxi in front of the hotel …” That evening MacFarland made front page news and had a team of seven detectives “- one for each leg, one for each arm, one man to grab his torso, another for the neck and a detective to snap on the handcuffs on” – on his trail. It didn’t take long to find, and when they caught him he came along quietly. MacFarland got eight months in a Japanese jail for his trouble.

So there you are.

This is but a taste of the wonderful Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster. As the wise man said no one could make this stuff up. and Cohen Brothers would have a field day making it into a film.

Featured Image: Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.

 

 

 

 

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