Friday, April 24, 2015

Ethel Payne Visits the House of Bamboo

Tough-guy director Sam Fuller was at the helm of  House of Bamboo, the first Cinemascope film ever shot in Japan. The year was 1955, when the American military occupation of post-World War II Japan was still very much in evidence. In fact, House of Bamboo gives prominent screen credit to the Military Police of the U.S. Army Forces Far East, the Eighth Army, the Government of Japan, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department for facilitating the film's production.

This means, of course, that both the occupying U.S. Army and the Japanese forces of law and order are seen on screen in a wholly positive light. The bad guys are all American: a crime ring led by Robert Ryan, who rides herd over a bunch of dishonorably discharged GI’s. The number-one good guy is American too. He’s played by Robert Stack, who goes undercover to quash Ryan and his henchmen. But then there’s the inevitable “kimono girl,” played by the era’s favorite Japanese singer and actress, Shirley Yamaguchi. She was born Yoshiko Yamaguchi in Manchuria to Japanese parents. Early in her career, she played Chinese characters in Japanese propaganda films. After the war, she starred in both Japanese and English-language movies, and later served for eighteen years in Japan’s Parliament. She passed away last year at age 94. (My Japanese-American hairdresser was named after Shirley Yamaguchi by her father, who was a serious fan.)

In House of Bamboo, Shirley Yamaguchi’s character is that of a gentle but brave young Japanese woman who has made the mistake of marrying one of the American thugs. His death kicks off the film. Later, after being thrown together with Robert Stack, she displays great courage in supporting his efforts to bring the gang to justice. It’s predictable: she’s loving, domestic, and always submissive, entirely in keeping with the stereotypes of the era. In movies, at least, those sweet, docile Japanese women couldn’t seem to get enough of western men.

I thought of House of Bamboo when reading James McGrath Morris’s fine biography of  the pioneering African-American journalist Ethel Payne, whose coverage of the civil rights era helped shape American history. In 1948, as a young woman not yet bent on a journalism career, Payne shipped out to Tokyo to work with black servicemen through the USO. She was surprised to find young Japanese women being drawn to African-American soldiers. The attractiveness of Americans was obvious: in an era of deprivation they had ready cash and access to western goods. And Payne discovered that many Japanese women preferred black soldiers, whom they found kinder and more generous than their white counterparts.

Payne soon spoke to visiting African-American journalists about the attraction between black GI’s and what they called musumes (adapting the Japanese word for young lady). The musume, she noted, “fetches the GI’s shoes, washes, cooks, and irons. Keeps quiet, when asked. Never talks back. Laughs easily. All of which is very soothing to the male ego.” Payne displayed some skepticism about these women’s long-term motives: “Musume has played it cool. Her very helplessness has been a powerful weapon and an asset to her and she is using it fully.” Such observations ended up informing Payne’s own first bylined article in the Chicago Defender, which was topped by the headline “Says Japanese Girls Playing GIs For Suckers, ‘Chocolate Joe’ Used, Amused, Confused.”  

“Chocolate Joe” may have been used, but others suffered far more. Payne visited orphanages full of  mixed-race babies, abandoned by their mothers. Those who were half-black bore the brunt of two nations’ rejection. It occurs to me that there’s surely a movie in that.

Biographer James McGrath Morris, author of Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, will be a featured speaker at the sixth annual conference of BIO, the Biographers International Organization, on June 5-6, 2015, in Washington, D.C. The public is most welcome! 

And here's more on Ethel Payne.


  1. Wow - I'd never heard about this - what a terrible thing. I wonder if those mixed race babies were able to eventually overcome the negativity - or if their lives were insufferable for their entirety?

  2. I honestly don't know -- this could be the subject of a fascinating film or TV drama. I'm afraid that traditionally the Japanese have prided themselves on their racial homogeneity. When I lived in Tokyo, being of mixed background was a very difficult thing. I believe matters are improving now, but I don't know specifically about these poor post WWII half-black children.