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The Surprising Results of R&R in Japan on Young Soldiers during the Korean War

Excerpt from Korea: The First War We Lost, by Bevin Alexander, pages 396-98

One important reason why morale in Eighth Army had improved so dramatically was that, starting around the first of the year [1951], the army inaugurated a new program of five-day Rest and Recuperation (R&R) leaves in Japan, for which the lowliest GI and the highest officer were eligible. The program got started slowly—at first only about two hundred men per division per week were able to go—but it quickly accelerated, and it soon became an extremely significant factor in the capacity of American and other UN soldiers and marines, as well as airmen and sailors, to endure the loneliness, exhaustion and danger of their assignments.

The transition of a war-weary soldier or marine from a foxhole in Korea to the dazzling lights of Tokyo or other Japanese cities was staggering. But the hope for R&R buoyed many a man whose morale otherwise would have sunk. GIs quickly dubbed the R&R leaves I&I (Intercourse and Intoxication), or, more vulgarly, A&A (Ass and Alcohol). There were, indeed, great opportunities for both in Japan. Clubs for officers, noncoms and enlisted men abounded in Japan, but the many excellent commercial nightclubs run by Japanese claimed the attention of most of the R&R men. These clubs offered superb Japanese beer, professional Japanese combos with female vocalists singing American pop tunes and generally a plethora of Japanese girls waiting to be picked up. Americans and other UN troops were overwhelmed by the often beautiful but always extremely polite and clean Japanese women. The Japanese ran official red-light districts, providing, in typical Japanese fashion, offerings for any taste—from raucous and bawdy to restrained and refined. Some men frequented these houses, but the greatest and most sought-after sources of feminine company were found right on the streets of the cities. Generally the Japanese girls and young women were not prostitutes in the traditional sense; rather they were working women who were attracted to the excitement and comparative high life that a man on R&R could offer. Almost without exception the Japanese women stood shyly on the streets, seldom calling or hustling, and responded to inquisitive glances or nods by Westerners with embarrassed giggles and polite responses in generally bad broken English. To the hollow-eyed young men from Korea, badly in need of solace, comfort and affection, these young Japanese women were apparitions come to life. There were a lot of American women in Japan: wives of officers and noncoms on duty in Japan or sent to Korea who remained in their excellent apartments and quarters in Japan, a few female military personnel and nurses, and many civilian women who held jobs in the U.S. occupation. These civilian women, universally called DACs (for Department of the Army civilians, whether they worked for the army or not), were by far the most visible American females in Japan. But despite nostalgic glances at long American legs by many a veteran from Korea, the DACs attracted little attention as compared to the Japanese women. Sometimes this was because DACs played American boy-girl games and acted coy when they encountered young men, and soldiers who had been through the ordeal of Korea often found themselves unable to readjust their thinking on short notice to this sort of play-acting. Another reason was that many young American women in Japan seemed surprisingly unaware of and unaffected by the agony going on in Korea. Because they spoke English, they conveyed this indifference or ignorance to men on R&R, for whom Korea by no means was a matter of indifference, though they seldom wanted to dwell on the subject. The Japanese girls may have had no more understanding of or interest in Chosen, as the Japanese called Korea, than the typical American DAC, but their English was generally limited. The extent of their discussion of the problems and policies of the Korean conflict was usually restricted to some statement such as, “You Chosen go?” accompanied by a look of great sympathy. This meant, ”Have you been, are you going, or are you going back to Korea? How sorry I am for you!” While American women were expected to understand the trauma of Korea, Japanese women were not; or they were given credit, whether deserved or not, for deeper insights which their poor English prevented them from expressing.

Whatever the other reasons, the principal reason why American women were not pursued more persistently was that the Japanese women answered every possible need of young men who wanted to get away from the reality of Korea and had little time in five days to explore lasting or deep relationships. The ready availability of modest, demure and extremely feminine young Japanese women seemed to them a heaven-sent gift. Strangely, however, the very muteness that the barrier of language placed between Westerner and Japanese often forced them into expressions of real feeling which a mutually intelligible language might have masked or prevented. However short they were, many of the encounters between GI or officer and Japanese girl-san left deep and lasting emotions on both sides. Although the reconciliation of the Japanese people with the American people began in the years of the occupation before the Korean War, it was the war itself, with its hundreds of thousands of young American men who briefly visited Japan and briefly encountered Japanese people in bars, clubs, hotels and on the streets, that slowly turned a World War II-spawned antagonism for the Japanese into an affection for the Japanese. It was a rare American who visited Japan, even on a five-day R&R, who came away with anything but admiration for the Japanese people.

While the men in Korea joked about I&I or A&A, and many of them practiced both (and most of those who did not lied about it when they got back to their outfits, young men not wishing to be ridiculed by their peers), the fact is Rest and Recuperation leave was well-named. The majority of men from Korea with any sophistication at all immediately abandoned the spartan quarters provided for them on military bases and removed themselves to small Japanese inns. At the inn the young man was met by a solicitous, bowing proprietor (usually a mature female and always called Mama-san), who directed him to remove his shoes at the door and led him to a scrupulously clean and neat room with tatami mats on the floor and spotless bedroll likewise spread on the floor. Subsequently the Westerner was directed to the rear of the inn where a traditional Japanese bath was installed: that is, a hot tub which was used exclusively for soaking, the washing and rinsing having to be done in advance with a tiny wash basin, soap and rag. The effect of this cleanliness and this peace on the mind and body of a young soldier or marine after months of dirt and weariness in foxholes was likely to be devastating. Despite all the talk (and some action) regarding wine, women and song, the most lasting and happy memories that most men carried back from their R&Rs were remembrances of being clean and of being able to lie down in peaceful sleep untroubled by mortars or wet or cold. Few veterans of Korea would ever admit it among their associates, but a great many of them slept away great portions of their R&Rs.

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