Yokohama Gaijin: Memoir of a Foreigner Born in Japan

Yokohama Gaijin: Memoir of a Foreigner Born in Japan

by George Lavrov


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G e o r g e L a v r o v

George Lavrov was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, where he attended St. Joseph grade and high school. He is a graduate of San Francisco State University, with a major in international trade management with area specialization in Japan and the Pacific Rim. He is the author of The Pacific Rim--Threat or Promise, as well as various other articles dealing with Asian and international business. Being trilingual, he speaks English, Russian and Japanese.

During 1975 to 1986, Lavrov was based in Tokyo where he represented American insurance interests. Since returning to the U.S., he has continued to work in the international arena, especially related to Asia and the Pacific Rim.

Yokohama Gaijin is George Lavrov's personal story, told from his own eyewitness account. It recounts the horror of WWII carpet bombings of Japanese cities, including the tragic loss of his elder brother, Konstantin, who was killed instantly when a bomb from an American B-29 bomber made a direct hit on the Lavrov residence in Yokohama, Japan, on May 29th, 1945, the harsh wartime treatment of gaijin (foreign) residents of Japan and much more. It is the true story of a stateless White Russian and his family, as they coped through some of the most difficult times of the 20th century--the WWII period in Japan and the postwar years that followed. But it's also a story of faith and hope in the future--a future that spelled A M E R I C A and a successful career in the international business world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781467870535
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 01/17/2012
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.46(d)

Read an Excerpt

Yokohama Gaijin

Memoir of a Foreigner Born in Japan
By George Lavrov


Copyright © 2011 George Lavrov
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4678-7053-5

Chapter One

May 29, 1945: Target Yokohama

On May 29, 1945, 450 B-29s from the Marianas, escorted by about 150 P-51 Mustangs from Iwo Jima, attacked Yokohama with 3,200 tons of incendiary bombs. Nine square miles of Yokohama were literally wiped out, including the Sagiyama Ridge neighborhood where my family lived. The air raid warnings sounded, and we rushed to a nearby cave that had been converted to a bomb shelter. My older brother Konstantin, who was fifteen, was not with us, but my parents assumed he had found a safe place.

I recall how hot and uncomfortable it was in the shelter, with sparks flying all over. When we were allowed to leave, we witnessed the inferno, which was like an earthly hell. Everything was burning, some of the fires reaching five stories high. As my family and I walked down the steps from the shelter, I saw some Japanese folks sitting nearby. I soon realized they were dead. The smell of burning flesh permeated the whole area, and it appeared eerily quiet.

Our house had taken a direct hit. My brother had not found a safe place; believing it was another false alarm, he had gotten under his bed. Konstantin was killed instantly, a horrible tragedy for everyone in my family.

May 29, 1945, is forever etched in my mind, even today, sixty-five years later. When I hear a plane aloft in the middle of the night, I immediately wake up and, for a few seconds, relive the fear of that attack all over again. It is my first vivid memory as a child of four.

In this final B-29 raid on Yokohama, and except for our expropriated house, my family lost everything, including our beloved Konstantin, who was buried in the Yokohama Foreign Cemetery. It was a difficult time for my parents, who now had to find a place to live and somehow provide for their children. Fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Ivan Gerasimoff, longtime family friends who had earlier sought refuge in Hakone, were able to take us in for a few months, until the war's end. Only then were we able to return to our own house, next to the Yokohama French Consulate on the Bluff. This property had been taken over by the Japanese government some years earlier since it was located on the Bluff, which was off limits to all foreigners. I've been told that, during the war years, the Japanese military positioned an anti-aircraft artillery battery close to our house.

Contemporary writers often write about the hate and hysteria that occurred on the West Coast of the United States during WWII, and the internment of Japanese nationals and their US-born children. However, in my view, they omit the totality of that period by concentrating solely on the West Coast side of the tragedy. Some of these revisionists would make one believe that it was America that started the war in the Pacific. In fact, Japan was the aggressor, starting with its encroachment of Manchuria in the early 1930s, and then China proper and beyond, culminating in the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At least some of the anti-Japanese hate, suspicion, and animosity, are understandable, in view of the Japanese militarists' brutal track record during the years preceding Pearl Harbor.

I would like to acquaint the reader of how the Japanese wartime government treated its residents, particularly those who were foreign born and many who had Japanborn children. People may not be aware of it, but there were thousands of such permanent residents living in Japan who suffered greatly during the war period. All gaijins (non-Japanese residents, regardless of whether they were born in Japan or came from abroad) were generally viewed as enemy spies and collaborators. My parents, originally from Russia, happened to migrate to Japan from China in the late 1920s. My siblings and I were all born in Japan, but unlike America (which granted citizenship to Japanese Americans born in the United States), Japan followed a discriminatory citizenship policy. Unless you were a Japanese native of pure Japanese racial stock, the doors to citizenship were generally closed to you.

After Pearl Harbor, we were under constant surveillance and harassed continuously. When all foreigners, including the French and Swiss teachers at St. Joseph's, were ordered to leave Yokohama's Bluff area, our family relocated to the Sagiyama neighborhood. The Kempeitai, the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo, harassed us by visiting our home at all hours of the day and night, performing spot searches. I remember them even checking the kitchen pot to see what my mother was cooking for dinner.

As the tide of war turned against Japan, with constant bombings of Japanese cities, the treatment of resident aliens worsened. If someone expressed the mere thought that Japan might lose the war, that was cause to be picked up by the Kempeitai for questioning, often accompanied by beatings, and in some cases, even worse. Toward the end of the war, life in Japan deteriorated so much that people were literally starving, especially the gaijins. On May 29, 1945, we lost everything. My father suffered burns to his arm but recovered. Somehow, out of the ruins that were postwar Japan, we survived. In retrospect, I must admit that I would have preferred living in a relatively safe and well-provided US internment camp like Manzanar or Topaz, rather than under the constant police surveillance or the carpet bombings of the B-29s that were blanketing us in Yokohama, or the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I don't have to detail the horrors and atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese militarists against non-Japanese civilians outside of Japan and in areas of their occupation (i.e., China, Korea, Philippines, etc.) to emphasize that they had a direct bearing on the atmosphere of hate and suspicion that occurred in California and along the West Coast. Those were horrific times, and when we think about the agony and suffering of the Japanese Americans, it's important to remember the plight of the subjugated people in Japan and elsewhere who suffered similar, and worse, treatment at the hands of the Japanese militarists. Those of us who were there, and especially the downed American pilots and other POWs, who survived, will never forget the truth of the Asian Holocaust in WWII.

Unlike the US government's belated apology and compensation to Japanese Americans, modern, democratic Japan has consistently shied away from any responsibility for its actions in WWII. Instead, it prefers to evade the whole subject, rewriting the history of the Pacific War at every opportunity.

Chapter Two

The Lavrov Family

My family's roots go back to Imperial Russia. My father, Saveli Klementevich (son of Klement) Lavrov was born in 1898 in the rural community of Krasnoufimsk, in the Urals. My mother, Daria Fyodorovna (daughter of Fyodor) Dolya (or Dolina) was born in 1903 in the small village of Chishki in western Ukraine. My mother's family, when she was a young girl, moved to Primorye, in the Russian Far East. They went there to take advantage of resettlement benefits for farmers known as the Stolypin Agrarian Reforms. This was during the period of the early twentieth century, when, with the expansion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, migration to Siberia and the Far East increased significantly—approximately 2.8 million people between 1908 and 1913 alone.

The members of my father's family, though not wealthy, were successful landowners. Saveli, together with his father and brothers, worked on the family farm until World War I, when he left to join the Russian Imperial Army. At one time, he fought in an artillery division on the Austrian front, where he lost some of his hearing in one ear; on another occasion, he served in the cavalry. When the Bolsheviks overthrew the czar and his government, civil war erupted and Saveli joined the White Army. Under the command of Admiral Kolchak, Supreme Leader of Russia, my father fought the communist Red Army all the way through Siberia until, finally, the Whites were forced to retreat and seek refuge in Harbin, Manchuria.

With Vladivostok also in revolutionary turmoil, and with a relative already in Harbin, my mother decided to move to Harbin, which after 1918 became the largest Russian enclave outside of Russia. As fate would have Russian Easter celebration. My parents with it, her and Saveli's paths crossed, and they were married there on October 9, 1927.

Harbin, located on the banks of the Sungari River in Manchuria, was established in 1898, when Russia commenced building the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER). This extension to the Trans-Siberian Railway provided a vital shortcut from Chita in Siberia to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, and links to Dalny (Dalian) and the Russian naval base at Port Arthur. The Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1931, when the White Russian population in Harbin numbered 200,000. After Japan created their protectorate, Manchukuo, Japanese troops occupied the city in February, 1932, and proceeded to exert control over the local and foreign population. Eventually, Harbin became the center for Japan's infamous Unit 731 at Camp Refuge, which was responsible for some of the most grisly biological and germ warfare atrocities of WWII.

My parents lived in Harbin for a relatively short time before moving south to Shanghai. Harbin was saturated with White Russian refugees, and employment opportunities were limited. After failing to find a suitable job, my father decided to take Mother to Shanghai, where there were fewer White Russians and more jobs—or so he thought. Shanghai, in the era prior to World War II, was the largest international city in northeast Asia. Known as the Paris of the Orient, as well as the Pearl of the Orient, it was a thriving cosmopolitan city with, in 1930, a population of more than three million. After working for some time in Shanghai, my father heard from friends and business acquaintances who had traveled to Korea and Japan, that there were much better business opportunities there. So, still in search of a better life, my folks decided to move to Japan.

Japan, in the late 1920s and 1930s, was still transitioning from the old, traditional Japanese way of life to a more Western one. One manifestation of this change was in the clothing of the Japanese, especially for the men. They were changing their business attire from the traditional Japanese kimono to a western-style business suit. As a result, there was a huge demand (especially outside of Tokyo and other major cities) for western clothing. As most White Russians didn't speak Japanese, at least at first, and as there was limited work for them, they had to improvise their skills. Fortunately, the market for "western-clothing specialists" offered a good opportunity; and many White Russians, regardless of their previous work or abilities, turned to the job of transforming the traditional Japanese into Western men and women—at least from a clothing standpoint. And this is the line of work my father chose to do.

In their early years in Japan, my parents were nomads, traveling the entire country, from Japan's southern tip to the most northern region, South Sakhalin. (South Sakhalin is now part of Russia, but at that time it was under Japanese rule and called Karafuto.) In some towns, they owned their own clothing store; in other places, my father traded as a wholesaler of various kinds of fabrics. Konstantin, their first child, was born in northern Japan's Akita prefecture in 1929, followed by Victor (1) in 1934. Sadly, Victor died at three months from meningitis. He was buried in a Japanese cemetery in Akita. Victor (2) was born in Karafuto in 1935, and was followed by my sister Antonia in 1938, who also was born in Karafuto. Finally in 1941, I was born in Yokohama, the youngest.

As their children reached school age, Saveli and Daria had moved the family to Yokohama, the largest port city, with good foreign schools and, most importantly for my parents, a Russian Orthodox Church. They acquired a two-story property consisting of two apartments in a semi-western style next to the French consulate property, and settled down to a quieter, less hectic life. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and everything began to change for the gaijin families in general, and our family in particular.

With spy fever already rampant in Japan, especially with the arrest on October 18, 1941, of Richard Sorge, a Soviet spy posing as a Nazi journalist in Tokyo, rumors were flying high. The commencement of hostilities only added to the doom and gloom feeling of most gaijins, especially the Americans and their allies, who were now enemy nationals. For the hapless White Russians, the realization of being stuck in wartime Japan, without a passport, was absolutely frightening. The Americans and other nationals could turn to their governments for help and, in time, be repatriated (in exchange for Japanese nationals living in the United States and elsewhere). The White Russians, on the other hand, who were literally folks without a country, had only their wits to rely on.

My parents endured the difficult war years, including the horrors of the May 29, 1945, bombing of Yokohama, when my brother Konstantin was killed, as well as the general deprivations and harassment that all gaijins suffered. After the war ended, and especially during the early postwar years, it was still difficult to survive in Japan, but somehow my parents managed. They lived in Japan almost thirty years, mostly in Yokohama. In February 1958, the family moved to Australia, where we lived for four years before immigrating to San Francisco in February 1962. My parents led a quiet life in the Bay Area, and in the midseventies relocated to Calistoga, a picturesque part of the wine country north of San Francisco. They lived there for eighteen years. Father and Mother were devout believers and members of the St. Simeon Russian Orthodox Church in Calistoga. My father loved fishing at the Russian River in Sonoma County and tending his vegetable garden, which was his pride and joy. Though my parents lived to see the disintegration of the Soviet Union, due to their advanced age, they were not able to actually witness the new Russia that was emerging and that they had spent their whole lives waiting for. Mother died in May 1995, and Father passed away in February 1997. Their final resting place is at the Serbian Cemetery in Colma, California, near San Francisco.

Chapter Three

Preschool Years (1946–1947)

With the end of the war, Yokohama became the hub of the US Army's occupation of Japan. Just as, General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (SCAP), ruled over occupied Japan from his headquarters in the Daiichi Life Insurance building in Tokyo, Lt. General Robert L. Eichelberger commanded the Eighth Army's Japan-wide operations, with headquarters in the Yokohama Customs building. A large section of central Yokohama was taken over by the US military. This included the port area, where General Eichelberger's HQ stood, as well as choice business and scenic areas. The Yamashita Park/Bund section, where the New Grand Hotel—residence to General Eichelberger and his staff-was located, as well as large tracts on the Bluff, an upscale, predominately foreign residential area with beautiful homes and gardens, represented the crown jewels of the requisitioned property. In addition, other large city blocks were acquired for building housing for the officers and men of the Eighth Army; and later, housing for the wives and children that followed. Various recreational areas, including a racetrack, parks, a stadium, and an Olympic-size swimming pool, were also requisitioned. An army airstrip was constructed right in central Yokohama.

At this time, many local residents apparently avoided the area most frequented by the GIs and sailors from nearby naval facilities. Japanese historian Takemai Eiji wrote that US troops behaved like conquerors, especially in the early months of the occupation. Some of the crimes GIs were accused of included black marketing (which was rife), petty theft, reckless driving (which caused many accidents), and being drunk and disorderly. There was also vandalism, assault, arson, murder, and many rapes. As a kid, I did not see very much of this behavior, except for all the spent condoms that littered the street. Some of the neighborhood children used to play with them, thinking they were balloons! Before long, however, censorship was instituted by General MacArthur's GHQ, and much less crime was reported in the press. Eventually, more and more of the war veterans were rotated back to the States, with new occupation troops, who had not fought in the war, shipped to Japan. These were not hardened fighting men, and they soon settled into a comfortable lifestyle in Yokohama and other cities and towns all over Japan.


Excerpted from Yokohama Gaijin by George Lavrov Copyright © 2011 by George Lavrov. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1 May 29, 1945: Target Yokohama....................1
Chapter 2 The Lavrov Family....................7
Chapter 3 Preschool Years (1946–1947)....................15
Chapter 4 St Joseph College—My Alma Mater....................27
Chapter 5 White Russian Community in Japan ca 1955....................39
Chapter 6 Teenager in Yokohama....................49
Chapter 7 Sayonara Nippon....................59
Chapter 8 Life Down Under....................67
Chapter 9 San Francisco....................79
Chapter 10 Working My Way Through College....................89
Chapter 11 Opportunity Knocks—My First International Assignment....................101
Chapter 12 Japan Revisited....................109
Chapter 13 Life of an Expat in Japan, Part I....................121
Chapter 14 Life of an Expat in Japan, Part II....................135
Chapter 15 Doing Business in Japan....................149
Chapter 16 Back in the USA....................161
Chapter 17 Japanese Resource....................171
Chapter 18 Japanese Consultant....................179
Chapter 19 Epilogue....................187

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