Sunday, January 24, 2010

Working on MacArthur's first report to Washington, and a trip to a geisha house

This next letter was written four days after the last one, which is an uncharacteristically long interval.  He does mention that he is having to work hard to produce the first major report to Washington, and that he has been writing "into a void," with no letters from home since he left San Francisco, which must make it difficult to keep up the semblance of a correspondence.

This is also the first letter where Maj. Gillham uses new air mail stationery that he must have purchased at the PX.  It has horizontal red stripes on the top and bottom borders, with a stylized sketch of an airplane circling a blue globe centered at the top.  The words "Air Mail" run along the base of the globe.  I will scan an example of this as soon as I can.

Tokyo, Japan
14 Nov 1945

Dearest Darling,

I haven't heard from you yet, but don't give up -- just keep on writing and the letters will start coming through before long.  From all I can hear, I imagine you are getting my letters in about 10 days.  I hope so, for I have been writing into a void for some time now.  Everyone has the same trouble at first, but as soon as mail starts coming to the new APO it comes all right.

I haven't had any time off since I have been in Tokyo, as we have been working pretty hard trying to get out MacArthur's first official, complete report on the occupation for Washington.  Today I went down to the Civil Communications Section scouting for a job and found the head of the Wire Communications branch to be a Lt. Col. Jacobs, a Southern Bell man who was construction supt. in Georgia.  He is going to try to get me into that section if he can work it.

I got my laundry back tonight and it was beautifully done in three days and only Y4.20 or less than 30 cents.  It had my room number sewn into each piece with red thread in Japanese numerals:  roku roku ku, or 669.  I also had a pair of new pants shortened for Y4.50 by a tailor downstairs who did a fine job.  Such services are very reasonable here -- it is only goods, especially food and anything that can be used as souvenirs, that are sky high.  As I get a chance, I am trying to get a few little presents for you all, but I am afraid you had better not count on them for Christmas.  So will you get everybody Christmas presents for me?  I will get these things off as soon as I can, but the mails are so burdened with Jap rifles, etc., that are being sent home that I am afraid it will be January before it arrives.  I got Pop a little brass pipe type cigarette holder like the Japs use.

Last night several of us went over to a "Tokyo Officers Club" run by some Japs.  It is a cross between a pub and a Geisha house.  We took our own beer since they can't get any, and for a cover charge of Y10 we were entertained all evening by the various "hostesses."  Some wore Japanese dress and some Western style clothes.  All our conversation was in Japanese, and we found it to be an excellent way to practice Japanese.  That is really the whole story and all there is to it.

Every night the little floor boy comes down to my room and turns the cover down for me.  And did I tell you we have an excellent orchestra that plays for us at supper?  It's a tough life.  In fact there is a sign in the lobby reading, "It's Hell, Ain't It?"  With it all, I am already anxious to come home, and will do so at the first opportunity.

Lots of love,



Judging from Maj. Gillham's short description, the "Tokyo Officers Club" he writes about was probably not a traditional geisha house and was likely something set up just for American soldiers.  The geisha culture is very rigorous and structured and would certainly not be mixed with women in Western dress.

Traditionally, geisha start their training at a very early age and decide then to make it their life's vocation.  They are trained in dance, voice, literature, oration and what could be called hospitality -- serving food, pouring drinks, lighting cigars, making tea, etc.  All geisha are single and once they marry they must give up the profession.  The tradition got its start in 17th-century Kyoto, where men were the original geisha.  Women accompanied them and soon outnumbered them.  The okiya, or geisha houses, were very well respected and visited by the well-to-do.  The two kanjis, or Japanese symbols, comprising the word geisha mean literally "art performer," and a geisha's primary job is to entertain with dancing, singing and recitation.

Unfortunately, the international reputation of the geisha took a big hit after WWII when prostitutes in Tokyo began dressing like geisha for the soldiers, who didn't know the difference.   Soon the term "geisha girl" (mispronounced "geesha" instead of "gaysha") became synonymous with streetwalkers.  This is still a common misconception among Westerners.

The geisha today are very rare and usually cater only to foreign tourists.  It is estimated that there are only 2,000 geisha in all of Japan, most of them based in the spa resort of Atami, just south of Tokyo on the Pacific coast.

The decline of the geisha can be traced to Japan's general lack of interest in historical preservation, which is very different from attitudes in the West.  The Japanese embrace the new like no other country, and entire sections of Tokyo are routinely bulldozed and rebuilt into shiny glass-and-steel caverns without so much as a whimper of protest.  Anything of historical significance, such as temples, museums, and the geisha culture are generally sustained by foreign tourists.

Traditional geisha costume with ornate hairstyle,
face paint, kimono and high-soled shoes

Back view of a geisha, showing strips of unpainted nape, which act as a
sort of tease, like low-cut dresses in the West

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