Occupied Japan, 1949-1955
Showing Santa Claus flying through a Japanese gate toward Mount Fuji, this cover illustration on a U.S. military menu in 1949 represented a new style of graphic design, one that showed traditional holiday images in the same pictorial space with the iconic symbols of Japan. This exuberant scene stood in stark contrast with the deep despair that had been prevalent in Japan during the years immediately following World War II. By the end of 1945, more than 350,000 U.S. military personnel were stationed in the country, supervising almost every aspect of civilian life. Sometimes called the “Confusion Era” in Japanese art history, this chaotic period was also disorienting for the Americans who lived there during the Occupation. However, the situation had improved considerably four years later, when this Christmas menu appeared at the Tachikawa Air Base.
The U.S. military provides traditional holiday meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas throughout the world. Since the fare is usually the same, it is the other information on these menus that make them interesting. Typically, the illustrations employ conventional holiday imagery, or depict some aspect of the place where the unit is based. However, when the Occupation of Japan entered its fifth year, whimsical designs mixing both themes began to appear on holiday menus at the American military bases. Suddenly, things like turkeys, pumpkins, and candy canes were being shown in the local setting. The new design concept lasted four years, seemly expressing a growing awareness of the culture and natural beauty of Japan.
The 1950 Thanksgiving menu below features a C-124 Globemaster II flying in the middle distance between Mount Fuji and a turkey. In addition to the strange juxtaposition of images, there is something else that is unusual about this menu. Ironically, Air Force Colonel Troy W. Crawford concludes his holiday message with the exhortation, “Let us be Americans in everything we do or say,” ignoring the fact that the bill of fare is printed in French, something rarely seen on a U.S. military menu.
The menus from the Naval Air Station at Atsugi in 1951 provide other examples of mixed imagery. Startled by the goofy turkey, or the jet flying overhead, a local farmer on the Thanksgiving menu drops an assortment of vegetables normally associated with the American holiday. For Christmas, the illustration features the Star of Bethlehem shining in the night sky over Mount Fuji—a peaceful scene framed in candy canes.
The Women’s Army Corps at Yokohama clearly got into the swing of things. Although a rickshaw is not an icon of Japan, this Christmas menu expresses a playful mixture of East and West.
When the Occupation officially came to an end in 1952, some units of the U.S. military remained at the invitation of the Japanese government. Dating to the following year, this Thanksgiving menu from the 6412th Air Base Squadron features an enormous turkey looming behind various vignettes of classical landscape scenes. Mount Fuji, the preeminent symbol of Japan, is seen in the background.
Although the Marine Helicopter Transport Group at Hanshin may have been too disciplined to mix their icons, this Christmas menu from 1953 projects a particularly cheerful feeling. Portraying a scene reminiscent of Golden Week, the holiday celebrated in Japan each spring, this illustration shows a helicopter buzzing over cherry trees at the base of Mount Fuji; the word “Christmas” provides the only indication of which holiday is being celebrated.
In 1954, two years after the official Occupation ended, the multicultural motif began to change. The beginning of the transformation can be seen on this Thanksgiving menu from the Atsugi Naval Air Station. The symbols of the two countries are no longer placed within the same pictorial space. Instead, they have receded to separate planes, marking an inflection point in the evolution of this design motif. In the future, U.S. military menus in Japan utilized either traditional holiday imagery, or the symbols of Japan, but they no longer used both within the same design.
By the following year, the transition was complete. This Christmas menu from the U.S.S. McKean at Yokosuka only shows the iconic symbols of Japan; there are no western references.
On the other hand, these holiday menus from the Matsushima Air Base employ traditional holiday imagery without any visual references to Japan.
Both countries learned a lot about each other during the Occupation, but Colonel Crawford did not need to be concerned about the men in his command. Americans were going to be themselves in everything they said and did, even when it came to expressing their appreciation of another culture using the irreverent humor of their own.