Tokyo today is one of the world's most civilized, sophisticated cities. Years before the iPhone, Tokyo teens were thumbing their way through music, video, the Internet and text. Japanese toilets have emerged as the 21st century's ultimate in creature comforts. Eleven Michelin 3-Star restaurants grace Tokyo's culinary landscape, compared to three in New York City.
It wasn't always so.
Rutherford Poats landed in Japan in December 1945 at age 23. The United Press correspondent (it didn't become UPI until 1958) first saw Occupied Japan through the window of a U.S. Army car in Yokohama.
"It was a scene of utter devastation," he recalled last week. "Incinerated houses, caves and holes in the ground covered by lean-to pieces of metal."
Tokyo, Osaka and Yokohama had been virtually destroyed by U.S. firebombing -- before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Poats marshaled his memories at a unique gathering of "Japan Hands" -- foreign correspondents who covered Japan from right after World War II to the present day. The reunion was held at the Overseas Press Club in midtown Manhattan, where the venerable institution that honors foreign correspondents has also held China and Russia Hands kumbayas.
Some 80 hacks and their spousal units -- none wearing trench coats or fedoras -- turned out for three hours of recollections and war stories.
Bill Holstein, who won one of the club's prestigious awards for reporting from China, is on its board. With Toshio Aritake, Al Kaff, Richard Pyle and Calvin Sims, he planned the event, and Sonya Fry of the OPC made it happen.
Itochu International, the giant trading company, chipped in to help underwrite the sushi and roast beef tables and, of course, with a roomful of newsies, the open bar.
Holstein noted that after 65 years of coverage of Japan, he wasn't sure if most Americans still knew enough about it. Poats and the other speakers agreed.
"When we rolled into Tokyo, we found almost no hostility," Poats recalled, "no sense of reprisal."
He contrasted the reception to Americans there and then with recent examples of U.S. occupation of other nations. "That was a nonstory for us," he said.
Rafael Steinberg was posted in Tokyo during both the 1950s and '60s for Newsweek.
"We couldn't write about Japan and explain it as much as we wanted," he said, echoing a timeless complaint of foreign correspondents anywhere. He wrote one story in the '60s headlined, "Why No One Pays Attention to Japan." In 13 years of that period, for instance, Time magazine put exactly two Japanese on its cover.
Eamonn Fingleton, one of the few remaining foreign correspondents in Japan, told the crowd that coverage by the international press "has never been worse." He disputed the popular notion that Japan has now suffered two "lost decades" after its financial bubble burst in late 1989.
"The Japanese consumer is one of the richest consumers in the world," he argued. "Japan hasn't been underconsuming -- it's been saving."
And Japan exports four times as many goods and services to China as does the U.S. -- a clear sign of its trading power.
Your 'Copy!' columnist covered the '70s and '80s -- "what he can remember of them," Holstein said in his intro. Files sent earlier from a half-dozen Japan contemporaries yielded a flood of yarns, some of them printable. Father Jim Colligan, a Maryknoll priest who covered Japan for 40 years before moving to L.A., said reading them was like hearing confession.
Rotarians, Lions, Kiwanians, college and high school students and other Mercedians have heard or read this column's views on Japan already, so it'll be more fun to chronicle the Overseas Press Club evening's lighter moments.