Gotemba Liberty 1954

W.F. Bellais II

Being an illiterate in Japanese did not concern him. He believed everyone spoke English in Japan, but on arrival at the Gotemba railroad train office, or RTO, the signs and train schedules meant nothing to him. Before leaving camp the Marines with whom he shared the barracks at Camp Fuji told him not to worry; just follow the other Marines on the station platform he would arrive at his intended destination, the City of Tokyo.

The boy, now a Marine for the past six months, thought of this as his first solo adventure into a foreign culture. Then again, he thought, joining the Marine Corps actually qualified as a solo adventure into a foreign culture. Nevertheless, the culture of the Marine Corps allowed for nothing less than the hubris of self-confidence. Any challenge Japan placed before him, including deciphering signs at the train stations, traveling to and returning from Tokyo by train and people who all looked alike to him could be surmounted.

He arrived at the RTO in a Datsun, a small Japanese car seemingly made of tin. These ubiquitous and four door vehicles, unknown to him before his arrival in Japan, predominated among a fleet of taxis waiting at the camp’s gate. The cabbies crammed as many riders into their taxis as they could, which led to some unpleasant remarks. Cramped in the back seat of the Datsun with three other Marines and two in front; he wondered how he would unfold himself. He thought of the circus clown trick he had seen when in the sixth grade. Fortunately, the trip only two miles from the camp’s gate to the RTO meant he would be dislodged from the cab before suffering claustrophobia. The right side steering wheels and the drivers hurling their vehicles on the left side of the road raised even more concerns.

Cultural issues compounded by the language barrier led to embarrassing situations.

On arrival at the Gotemba RTO he needed to use the head (Marines used a nautical term when speaking of the toilet) and he saw what he believed to be such a place; a public restroom. Someone had decided to place signs in English and Japanese over the doors, solving a problem for him. The boy walked into the door clearly marked Gentlemen. He faced two immediate problems; how to use the holes in the floor he took to be toilets and the lack of a wall between the men’s and women’s sides.

The custom of bowing rather than shaking hands and other cultural issue puzzled him. How deep a bow and to whom should he bow? And then trying to remember to be polite with a people who had been the hated enemy from the time he was seven to eleven years old (only eight years had passed since the end of the Pacific War). He noticed quietness and courteousness of the people at the station; politeness everywhere. The agents at the RTO ticket window and at the entry wicket greeted everyone with sincere interest.

His observations of this exotic culture of kimonos, people walking in sandals that
lifted them off the ground called geta, and an undecipherable language began to hold him in sway. Not there yet, but now the phrase “going Asiatic” began to be understandable; he could be drawn into Japan and held there for a lifetime.

Cultural observations momentarily ceased with the arrival of the locomotive and its passenger cars in tow. The locomotive belched smoke and steam seeped rhythmically out from under its wheels. The passenger cars appeared as antique as the locomotive. The train slowly eased into the station. The coal generated smoke settled to the tracks and onto the platform. People began to board the cars. Because he could not read the signs and markings on the cars, where to board or even if he should entrain gave him pause. He decided to follow the more seasoned Marines on the RTO platform that made this trip every liberty weekend. While uncertain about many details, he believed he had one certainty nailed. Because he had bought a round-trip ticket he was certain on departure to return to camp before liberty expired.

Farm animals in crates and people jammed together leaving little breathing room kept him on edge. The odor coming from crated animals punched at his stomach and his worries about the close quarters and the possibility of pickpockets stealing his liberty money required him to constantly check if he still had his wallet. Then, should he look or not when he spotted women breast-feeding their babies. He had never seen a woman breast feed an infant in his life; in fact, never certain about breast-feeding or any other female things the boy admitted to sexual ignorance and naiveté.

All this excited his interests, but while at the station waiting for the train, he had
observed the small town served by the railroad. He decided that the rustic and rural nature of Gotemba required exploration. Determined to do so, he set on making Gotemba his next liberty destination the following weekend.

Gotemba, a small city on the east flank of Mount Fuji, had a rural charm. Fuji, an extinct volcano (he hoped), was the iconic picture of Japan. Remembering pictures he saw in school of Mount Fuji, he was thrilled to be so close to it in life. Just about every day in his time there (only a few weeks to this point) he saw the snowy peak of the mountain shimmering in the sun and on the nights of a full moon Mount Fuji glowed. To him it felt like the mountain had a personality and spoke to him. However, Gotemba’s character independently held his curiosity and imagination. Buildings made of wood, leaving no space for a yard or garden, lined a bewildering maze of unpaved or not well paved streets. The townscape offered a glimpse of the pre-war past and a “frontier” feeling. The bars and honky-tonks that catered to the nearby military camps added to the frontier ambience. The boy expected a town marshal with six shooters to emerge at any time. No marshals or cowboys but bar girls abounded.

The boy came from a sheltered life. He never experienced anything like bar girls; in fact, except occasional wine at the dinner table, he had never tasted alcohol. At the camp’s Post Exchange canteen he got a can of beer, sipped, and then put it aside. His first taste of alcohol and he did not like it.

On his exploratory expedition to Gotemba he and a two other Marines decided to
investigate the bar that came up often in the talk around the barracks. On a back muddy lane they found the bar. The Madame Butterfly had an elegant but understated outward appearance and inside a dark and intimate atmosphere. Tables lined three sides of a dance floor and on the fourth a small band played popular American music. All the customers were Americans.

The boy sat at a table with his compatriots planning to order something light. Not certain what to drink, he thought of a Tom Collins cocktail and also gin and tonic. He had no idea what either tasted like or their potency. Recalling movies
depicting exotic Asian places he pictured Sidney Greenstreet wearing a white tropical suit, Panama hat, a black string bow tie, and sitting in a rattan chair with an overhead fan lazily circulating the tropical air drinking gin and tonic. He liked the image. While not tropical, Gotemba, being in Japan, and Japan being in Asia, seemed to fit that image of what an American should drink in the Far East. Further, he had heard that tonic water had quinine in it and that would prevent malaria; the boy had not heard of malaria being in the area, but who knew.

As they sat at their table bar girls immediately sat down along side. The women, they certainly were not girls, told the waiter to bring them champagne cocktails. The waiter, an older Japanese man wearing a white shirt, black bow tie, and black slacks, took orders and promptly returned with the drinks. When the tab was presented the champagne cocktails added substantially to the bill. One of his companions protested, but quieted when told that the club required customers buy drinks for the “girls.” If he did not buy, he would be required to leave.

About nine that night a woman performed on the dance floor. She came onto the floor dressed in a flowing red costume of lace and ruffles. Moving about the dance floor she teased the nearby men. Eventually clothing fell off. The men in the audience urged the dancer on until she danced naked. The boy sat speechless. He had heard of this sort of thing, but never saw anyone take off their clothes in public. Instead of shock, however, he liked what he saw. The dancer’s well proportioned and small Asian body moved blithely. He planned to come back to see this show again; he did. In fact, the boy went back several times to enjoy the company of the bar “girls” and watch Americans make fools of themselves. Because it gave him the opportunity to experience life as an adult stimulated him, he liked Gotemba and everything Japanese.

As far the boy knew, there were no hotels in Gotemba. Because he returned to camp after an evening at the Madame Butterfly, this fact did not concern him. One evening he stayed at the Madame Butterfly too long and drank too much gin and tonic. When he left the nightclub the cabs had gone. In his stupor he decided to go to the RTO to look for a cab there. As he walked the uneven street in the dark he began to climb a mound of earth and before he could catch himself he fell into a ditch. As he struggled out the ditch, which apparently was part of some municipal improvement, he decided to go back to the Madame Butterfly and look again for a cab. A vision of a bar “girl” emerged from the gloom.

She said, “What happened to you and why are you out so late?”

He said, or slurred, “Fell in a hole. Can’t find a cab.”

She said, “You will not find one now. There is a curfew.”

He said, “A curfew?”

“Yes,” she replied. Then she added, “You have to be off the street by midnight.”

He asked, “What time is it now?”

She said, “Oh, I think midnight has come.”

The girl from the Madame Butterfly told him of a house only a few meters away where people stay. She took him to the house.

Both nervous and excited, he believed this was an invitation to spend the night with her. But when they arrived and the landlord stood in the door she explained in Japanese the circumstance and then disappeared. The boy felt awkward as the
landlord pointed to the boy’s shoes. He took them off. Then the landlord invited the boy in.

The second story room, empty and bare with a matted floor and rice paper sliding doors, worried him even more. With no place to bathe, finding a toilet on the ground floor meant he could at least take care of basic needs. The landlord brought blankets, a rice-filled pillow, and then said something about having a nice sleep. The boy finally realized he would spend the night on the matted floor.

Rising early he dressed and left the house. He searched for a place to eat breakfast. On a busy corner he found a place. It was open on three sides with picnic-style tables. As he entered, the woman who had directed him to the house saw him. She approached, greeted, and smiled.

She said, “You like Gotemba?”

He said, “Yes.”

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