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One family's version of post-war Japan

By Helena Cobban / August 16, 2000


We're in the private room of the classy Nara Hotel. Outside, tame deer wander unabashed around this historic city's five-story pagoda, Buddhist temples, and Shinto shrines.

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Inside our room, six preschoolers careen between tables laden with Japanese food. Their parents catch up with long-parted cousins. Their grandparents - four couples, all 60-something - discreetly supervise the arrangements. And from upholstered chairs behind the microphone, great-grandparents Hiroshi Murai and his wife Toshie preside over this joyous celebration of Mr. Murai's 90th birthday.

My husband Bill Quandt, along with our daughter Lorna, Bill's sister Emmy, and I are all honored to be part of this landmark family event. Back in 1958, Bill was in the first group of American teenagers who did a summer homestay with families in Japan: He stayed with the Murais.

Mr. and Mrs. Murai refer proudly to Bill as "our American son." And keeping in good touch with the Murais for 42 years, the Quandts all certainly think of the Murais as "our Japanese family."

Back in the 1950s, many Japanese still had bad memories of the United States bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. In Japan's fairly inward-looking society, it took some courage for the Murais to take a tall Californian teen into their home. Bill remembers no hostility during his stay at the Murai home in the tony central-Japan town of Ashiya - but there was a lot of joking about the gaijin (foreigner), and intense curiosity from all the neighbors' kids.

The older Murai has lived through nine decades that were tumultuous for many Japanese. From a young age, he was an entrepreneur. During World War II, he ran businesses that - separately - made electrical wire and soy sauce. These goods were considered "strategic," so he was exempt from the military service that between 1935 and 1945 cost many male countrymen their lives.

Family members say Murai judged early on that making war against the US, as Japan did with the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, was a mistake. But caution kept him from saying so openly. After the war, in the keiretsu takeover system, his soy-sauce label was put out of business by the government-backed conglomerate that owned the Kikkoman label. In the 1990s, his oldest son, Masaru, would extract something like revenge against the still-powerful keiretsu system, when the independent computer company that he founded, Compaq Japan, survived several attempts by the vast NEC conglomerate to put it out of business.

By then, Masaru (Vic), his two brothers, and brother-in-law had all become pillars of the manufacturing-led boom that marked the past 50 years of Japan's history, and that continued only somewhat dented by the financial setbacks of the 1990s. Following long tradition, those four men all sought their parents' permission, or more active intervention, to marry women who then stayed home to raise their children.

The lives of the family's next generation - now aged between 25 and 35 - already look fairly different. Some of the younger men stayed in engineering, but others have moved into other fields. Kiyoshi Murai, 32, is a sought-after composer of music for Japanese video-games.

Masaru Murai's kids all went into banking, though his daughters got sidelined by parenthood. Some of the cousins talk about careers that notably don't involve staying with one company for life.