Eleanor Roosevelt in Japan 1953
japan yesterday

Eleanor Roosevelt visits a burakumin village and Emperor Hirohito in 1953

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By Patrick Parr

If you walked the streets of Tokyo in June 1953, you would have witnessed a city being pulled in three different directions.

It had been a little less than eight years since the Japanese surrendered, ending World War II, and the physical and emotional scars were still visible. Despite the efforts of the American Occupation, which “formally” ended in April 1952, many Japanese citizens were unsatisfied with the results. What would be Japan’s place in the world? Would they be considered not much more than a puppet-nation on the strings of a growing American empire? Or should they resist U.S. capitalism and venture more toward a Soviet-style communist ideology?

On top of this was the despair among many older Japanese citizens that their own traditional culture was slowly eroding. Many had grown weary of the idea of a war economy and did not want to rearm. However, Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida said the $3 billion in American war “procurements” Japan received from the Korean War (1950-1953) — such as metals, fossil fuels, clothing and even, according to historian John Dower, “ammunition… and napalm bombs” — seemed to be a bittersweet “gift of the gods.” No matter where they placed their beliefs, the Japanese were doomed to feel inadequate — a historically rich nation buried under the boots of their conquerors and teased by the methods of their conqueror’s rival.

Former U.S. first lady and United Nations delegate Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) called Japan a nation “in flux” during her five-week trip across the country. Invited by the Japan Intellectual Exchange Committee (JIEC), Roosevelt agreed to one of the longest and most schedule-packed trips in her life. At 70 years of age, her physical stamina wasn’t what it used to be, but her desire to learn and understand was insatiable.

An ideological confrontation

Roosevelt took a Pan American Airlines flight, from New York to Los Angeles, laying over in Honolulu for several hours and then landing in Tokyo on May 22. With her at the time was her daughter-in-law, Minnewa Bell, and her personal secretary, Maureen Corr. “A night in bed, after two of sitting up in a plane, was pleasant indeed,” she wrote.

During those first few days of jetlag, she was greeted with kindness and given a bouquet of flowers and fruit baskets. “I rather like the sunken bathtub,” she wrote, “which is so easy to step down into.” As she recovered from her long trip, she did find time to look around her hotel in Tokyo. “One of the things which strikes me in the streets here,” she wrote in “My Day,” her widely syndicated news column, “is the number of men and women wearing Western clothes. Japanese clothes stand out because they are less frequently seen. This is probably so only in Tokyo, for it is the capital and many foreigners are constantly present.” On the flight over, Roosevelt had read Edwin O. Reischauer’s Japan: Past and Present, a compact history of the country, to prepare herself for the culture. Reischauer’s book may have helped Roosevelt  gain some cultural perspective, but it wouldn’t have prepared her for the pains Japan was going through at the time.

On May 25, after a round table discussion in a lecture hall with the Japanese labor ministry, Roosevelt headed for her car. Waiting for her were around 30 demonstrators — all women — carrying, according to the Yomiuri newspaper, pro-Communist Party banners and signs.

“Yankee, go home!” they shouted at Roosevelt. “We don’t want war.”

The situation escalated when Roosevelt, sitting in the car, was confronted by an American woman, Anna Fujikawa Eisenberg, an activist who’d participated in the May Day Riots in Tokyo on May 1, 1952, when Americans were “stoned and clubbed” by “Communist-inspired rioters.” The media blamed Fujikawa for organizing this demonstration against Roosevelt, and when she approached her open car door, Roosevelt stared at her for a moment. “You could see the fanaticism in her face as she approached,” Roosevelt recalled.

Fujikawa, married to a Communist Japanese politician, wanted to interview Roosevelt, but when the former first lady declined, she was pulled out of her car. Male Japanese guards tried to break up the scene, but one of the women slapped a guard in the face. The anger in the group was fierce. “We women who have gone through a war don’t want another war.” Roosevelt agreed. She didn’t want one either. A back and forth continued, and Roosevelt was able to defuse the tension, but there were no easy answers here. Fujikawa and the large group were concerned that the U.S. had plans to rearm Japan and have them fight in wars that don’t directly concern them.

“We have no common race in [the U.S.], but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity. We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.” —Eleanor Roosevelt, 1943, in reference to Japanese internment camps in America

Later, in a personal letter to her friend Joe Lash, Roosevelt was honest. “These people don’t want to rearm. I think they’d prefer to let the Soviets walk in than to fight.” She was then very direct. “They don’t like us deep down… because they think we’ll force them to rearm to fight the Asians!”

Roosevelt’s “My Day” columns were her professional voice, but it was in her letters to friends and relatives that her true feelings came out. To Anna, her daughter, one can hear the frustration in her words. “These people don’t want war again period, & if Russia invades [,] well, it may not be worse than present conditions is their feeling. Freedom & democracy are so new & so hard for the masses to understand & the communist ideal is easier to grasp & they know nothing of the reality.”

Roosevelt’s trip to a Japanese internment camp

To see Japan struggle was difficult for Roosevelt. She had been a leading voice in drafting the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When Roosevelt was helping to write this landmark document, she had only been a few years removed from visiting a Japanese internment camp in Rivers, Arizona, more casually dubbed by the government as the Gila River Relocation Center. Believing her husband’s Executive Order 9066 was a violation of human rights, she expressed the following to a crowd during the peak of World War II: “We have no common race in [the U.S.], but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion. Every citizen in this country has a right to our basic freedoms, to justice and to equality of opportunity. We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant to others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.”

After enjoying a kabuki performance and being invited backstage (“I don’t know how they bear their costumes; they are so heavy, and the stiff make-up and head-dress are as uncomfortable as they can possibly be.”), Roosevelt traveled to Kyoto, staying at the Miyako Hotel. Between May 31 and June 3, she visited Kyoto University and addressed students at Doshisha University, relieved to see that Kyoto’s temples, shrines and art collections had not suffered too much bombing during the war.

Factories and “burakumin” villages in Osaka

Next was Osaka, a city whose industries reminded her of a place back home. “I felt exactly as though I were driving into Chicago. So many smokestacks were pouring smoke all over the city.”

During a visit to a textile factory, Roosevelt marveled at how busy the female workers were. “In this particular factory,” she reported, “they give the girls, in their leisure time, classes in flower arrangement and the tea ceremony and they must dress in kimonos for this, though they wear overalls in the factory.” This was a common sight to Roosevelt throughout her travels in Japan. Whether in factories or on farms near Nikko, it was the women of the country who seemed to labor the most — due in part to over 2 million men who died during the war. To Roosevelt, it was the women of Japan who’d kept the broken pieces of the country glued together.

Also in Osaka, Roosevelt visited an American government-funded center where inside was a library with over 16,000 books in English. She watched English lessons taking place, curious readers filling tables and learning about the West. Throughout her trip, Roosevelt had an interpreter, Yoko Matsuoka (who also studied at Bard in the United States, where she met Roosevelt). It was here where Roosevelt recalled that, when visiting India in the past, bookstores were offering “Soviet books” for “a few pennies,” and translated materials were easy to find. The same kind of discount was happening in Japan, and a few of the Japanese workers at the cultural center hoped the center, funded by the American government, would provide more translated work. But Roosevelt didn’t think it would happen. Paranoia of the “reds” was too strong. “[Translations cost] money and the U.S. is not anxious to spend much money these days on providing information to the rest of the world about the U.S. That leaves the field open to the Soviet Union.”

More than any of the other historical figures I’ve covered in this series, Eleanor Roosevelt was indeed the most exploratory. Whereas most visitors with her celebrity status hugged the surroundings around her hotel and avoided photographers, Roosevelt was more interested in seeing what was real. In a poor village outside of Osaka, she saw past the intricate floral displays and expensive kimono fabric. “Japan, like practically every other country in the world, has its problems in dealing with its minorities. The village we visited on Sunday afternoon in the pouring rain was inhabited by about 2,000 people who belong to one of these minorities. By law they are now equal citizens, but old customs and habits are hard to break.”

Roosevelt was informed by a study at the time that “this minority” surrounding her was “made up of the Aborigines who were originally on this island and were conquered by the Japanese. To them, quite naturally, the lowest and most degrading work was given. They were butchers. They tanned hide and made shoes. They were day laborers. Perhaps when Buddhism became strong, they were looked down upon more than ever.”

As she toured the location, the man in charge of the village asked her if there was a place like this in the United States. Roosevelt confessed that, yes, “I had seen similar conditions in some of our Indian villages and in some of our mining areas.” The poverty and lack of running water or sewage system overwhelmed Roosevelt, who for a moment allowed her true feelings to come across in her “My Day” column. “… what harm segregation does! These are some of the villages from which girls go to the cities and turn prostitutes, and it isn’t hard to understand why.”

In June 1953, Roosevelt wouldn’t have been familiar with the term burakumin, which, depending on the context, can mean “outcasts” or “hamlet people” (literally, bu is “group,” raku is “fallen” and min is “people”) Around the Kansai area throughout the 1950s, communities of burakumin existed on the fringes of mainstream Japanese society.

As scholar Alastair McLaughlan described in 2006, the burakumin issue “in greater Kansai… is still very sensitive.” He added that “the risk of discrimination, ostracism and graffiti is still very real. One of the leading activist groups, the Buraku Kaiho Domei (BKD), reports more than 300 incidents of specific anti-buraku discrimination in Osaka City alone each year [as of 2006].” For Roosevelt, it was yet another reminder of how discrimination exists in different forms around the world.

The scars of Hiroshima

Eleanor Roosevelt in Japan in 1953. Newspaper Headline Collage by Patrick Parr.jpg
Newspaper headlines from Eleanor Roosevelt’s trip to Japan in 1953.

Eventually, Roosevelt made her way to Hiroshima. She knew it would be an uncomfortable and distressing experience. Before arriving, she’d learned that Osaka University students had seen how America was training its students to “duck and cover.” In their eyes, it was a naïve and foolish way to understand the impact of an atomic bomb: “When we hear or read about the practice of evacuation under [the threat of an] A bomb[,]” Americans should “express their ignorance about the terrible destructive power of this weapon[.] [Y]ou must educate your people about it.”

After being enthralled by the beauty surrounding Miyajima, Roosevelt returned by boat to Hiroshima and met with a group of Japanese women interested in the daily routine of their American counterparts and “how they carried on their household duties and still took part in the government,” Roosevelt wrote in her column. After the meeting, she moved on to a governmental research organization, called the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission. It was here where Roosevelt saw the wounds and scars of those who still suffered. In her “My Day” voice, she explained the findings of the commission. “Since fires started immediately after the dropping of the bomb, there are many casualties which were caused by the fire and are not actually considered atomic injuries but, nevertheless, the people feel they have caused as much suffering and the fire was a direct consequence of the bomb.”

In her private voice, in a letter to her friend, Broadway producer John Golden, she was more direct. “I know we were justified in dropping the bomb, but you can’t help feeling sorry when you see suffering.” Roosevelt hoped to never see another atomic bomb drop again, and she believed, writing to Golden, that “the machinery set up through an organization such as the U.N.” could potentially end “the causes of war.”

Roosevelt also stopped in Fukuoka Prefecture and traveled around Moji before heading back to Tokyo. She had seen angry demonstrators, victims of the bomb and a village purposely excluded from the majority. Her eyes had been opened. “Everywhere great kindness has been shown us,” she wrote for newspapers near the end of her trip. “The people have also been willing to tell of their points of view even though I am sure these have been toned down now and then, for the Japanese cannot bear to be completely honest when this requires rudeness.”

Roosevelt was also self-conscious as to how she must have come across to the Japanese. “I keep thinking how queer they must find us, since they all stay slight and slim. I think I must look grotesque to them, but they are very polite and very kind, always greeting me smilingly.”

On June 24, her trip ended with a visit to the Imperial Palace to meet Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako. For one hour, they discussed various matters. The 19-year-old Crown Prince Akihito had been planning a month-long trip to the United States and Roosevelt may have offered Hirohito a bit of travel advice to pass along to his son, who was in London at the time. Roosevelt and Prince Akihito would reunite in September, in Hyde Park, New York, Akihito placing a wreath on her late husband Franklin D Roosevelt’s tombstone.

As for what Roosevelt and Emperor Hirohito talked about specifically, one can only speculate. As poor villages similar to the one she visited continued to endure harsh conditions, newspapers in the United States reported that the Japanese government had decided to raise Akihito’s annual salary from ¥30 million yen to ¥38 million yen (converted and adjusted for inflation, just over $1 million). Hirohito was also publishing his second book related to marine biology — a passion of his, since he enjoyed investigating the waters of Sagami Bay, near his summer house. In an April 1953 interview with journalist Roy Howard, Hirohito alluded to some concern over the pro-Communist demonstrations, but once more mentioned his gratitude toward General Douglas MacArthur for his hand in helping the country transition into its current state. It had even been brought to the public’s attention that Hirohito’s favorite American television show was Superman, starring George Reeves.

Perhaps after her discussion with the emperor, Roosevelt rested easy. American capitalism was leaving its mark on the country, for better and for worse.

After her royal meeting, Roosevelt was back on a plane once again, first to Hong Kong, New Delhi, Istanbul, Greece, Vienna and London before finally reaching her home in New York. For more information about Roosevelt’s life, check out the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University.

Our next Japan Yesterday story will feature Muhammad Ali’s trip to Tokyo to fight professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976.

Other stories in the Japan Yesterday series:

Volume 2 (September 2019 – present)

Volume 1 (November 2018 – May 2019)

Patrick Parr is the author of One Week in America: The 1968 Notre Dame Literary Festival and a Changing Nation (March 2021). His previous book is The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age, now available in paperback.

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5 Comments
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Good article, thank you.

The mention of the A bombing of Hiroshima brings back a memory from my youth. I met a young Korean woman who was traveling here in California. We met and talked a few times. She said that she was greeted by the Korean community here partly because she was related to the Korean imperial family. She also said that her father was working in Hiroshima when the A bomb went off. For a long time after the bombing they had no word from him, and feared that he was dead. One night, after everyone was asleep, he showed up at home. He did not wake anyone up, just went to sleep. In the morning they all found out that he was alive, well, and home.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Everything I've ever read about Eleanor Roosevelt has shown her to be a very gutsy and admirable woman. Interesting that in the brief newsreel film the only thing mentioned apart from her actual arrival was the incident where she was pulled from her car. It seems that despite that incident she was otherwise treated with politeness and respect, probably as a natural response to her obvious interest in being in the country - and as it turned out, Mrs. Roosevelt didn't have to worry about the Communist Party taking over.

Roosevelt and Prince Akihito would reunite in September, in Hyde Park, New York, Akihito placing a wreath on her late husband Franklin D Roosevelt’s tombstone.

What a hugely positive symbolic gesture. Was it seen as such at the time, I wonder?

Really enjoy this series by Mr. Parr, thanks for running it.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Another great read from this series.

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“Since fires started immediately after the dropping of the bomb, there are many casualties which were caused by the fire and are not actually considered atomic injuries

She was soft spoken yet did not pull any punches. I am far less forgiving about such utter selfish, lying hypocrisy, of which many things like that she pointed to are in the article. But I do very much appreciate how she could put it out there. At the same time though, none of it really changed or changed soon enough or changed really due to her voice. There are so many in the world who simply need a good slapping around.

Still, my country needs a hundred more of her at least. The world could use 10, 000. How much different this stupid, hateful mess of a world would be with so many of her like around.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Roosevelt was informed by a study at the time that “this minority” surrounding her was “made up of the Aborigines who were originally on this island and were conquered by the Japanese. To them, quite naturally, the lowest and most degrading work was given. They were butchers. They tanned hide and made shoes. They were day laborers. Perhaps when Buddhism became strong, they were looked down upon more than ever.”

That is the first time I hear the Burakumi are related to the Japanese Aboriginese. Is this commonly accepted, or just the idea of the article writer?

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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