Some memories of World War II in the Pacific do not fade: the attack on Pearl Harbor, the battle of Okinawa, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But the war also generated acts of kindness in this region that are not so well remembered. A group of Japanese and North Americans gathered in Tokyo last night to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a US-based charitable effort that eased the deprivations of millions of Japanese in the war's aftermath.
On Nov. 14, 1946, a shipload of food, clothing, and medical supplies landed at the port city of Yokohama for distribution in a nation shattered by war and defeat. The goods were funded by a group of 14 church and social welfare organizations known as the Licensed Agencies for Relief in Asia.
LARA supplies, provided by citizens and private groups in the United States and Canada from 1946 until 1952, were said to be the difference between death and life for some destitute people in postwar Japan.
Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, in a message marking the commemoration, noted that he had been a schoolboy during the years the effort was under way. "In my childhood, the beautiful and sweet name of LARA represented love and kindness," he said.
LARA supplies totaled some $400 million - in 1950s dollars - and are estimated to have helped 15 million people, or about a sixth of the Japanese populace at the time. Church World Service, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Catholic War Relief Service provided most of the material. The Christian Science Board of Directors (under whose auspices this newspaper is published) was one of the groups involved, as were community service organizations, labor-union federations, and other religious institutions.
The LARA effort also drew support from Japanese residents in the US and Americans of Japanese ancestry, who collected 15 to 20 percent of the goods shipped to Japan.
Yesterday's event was mainly to thank the LARA participants. "You lit such a light of hope and love in the dark, dark era after the war," said Hide Saito, the superintendent of a children's home, who addressed representatives of the LARA member organizations.
The Rev. Newton Thurber, who helped distribute LARA supplies as a representative of the Presbyterian Church in Japan, distinguished the effort from the administrative, official role played by US occupation forces in Japan. LARA was "the expression of free will ... on the part of ordinary people" who donated food and clothing and raised money to help the Japanese, he said.
Like other speakers at the commemoration ceremony, Mr. Thurber's words were interrupted by an emotional pause as he reviewed some of the memories that he and his wife have of their years in Japan. "We remember children in our neighborhood who are alive today because there was food shared with them."
Many of the organizers reflected on the circumstances of the era. The war had just ended, and there was nowhere near the level of international communication that facilitates relief efforts today. Yet Midwestern farmers donated enough food and local church groups raised enough money to keep supplies flowing for more than half a decade.
Approximately 200 shiploads of supplies - ranging from diapers to live goats - were sent to Japan and distributed to welfare facilities.
"I don't think a similar effort could be generated now," says Toshio Tatara, a Japanese who heads the National Center on Elder Abuse in Washington and who is working on a history of the LARA effort. He sees an "atmosphere of cynicism" that would dampen such an outpouring of generosity.
"Imagine - this [material] was donated to a former enemy country," he says. He recalls that his first taste of butter - which he didn't like very much - was made possible by LARA. And "we had no idea milk came in powder," he says.
The commemoration was organized by the Japanese Council of Social Welfare, which solicited letters from institutions that had received the supplies. Kuniko Ozasa, now the chairman of the board of a social welfare institution, recalled the day a truck with LARA supplies reached her facility.
"The clothes had been dry cleaned and they were pure wool, a textile unseen in Japan for many years, but they were in huge sizes," she wrote. "The slacks, jackets, and bags to carry school supplies and books had to be cut down in size so children could use them. It brings back fond memories of having pedaled the sewing machine like mad to get this task done."