When the commercial treaties negotiated by American Townsend Harris and other Westerners “opened” Japanese ports to foreign trade, the economy of Japan was rattled by the influx of industrially manufactured cloth and other goods. Even before the ports officially opened, Japanese merchants responded by establishing “bazaars” to hawk Japanese souvenirs to the incoming foreigners. From the 1860s through the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, Japan aggressively marketed handicrafts—the stuff of souvenirs—to Westerners to support the Japanese economy. As industrialization and modernization proceeded in Japan, however, these objects diminished in significance.
The American Army arrived in Japan in 1945 to conditions far different from those faced by nineteenth-century traders. American soldiers came to a country decimated by war and an economy in tatters from wartime restrictions and destruction. Although the start of Japan’s postwar recovery is usually attributed to the influx of American money and soldiers during the Korean War, the country’s immediate response mirrored that of almost a century earlier. Although initially many Japanese sold family heirlooms to survive, in short order handicrafts were produced to supply members of the U.S. military and their families, reviving even those industries that had been in decline such as ivory carving.
This paper examines the contribution of G.I. shopping to Japan’s postwar recovery using personal memoirs, interviews with craftsmen and souvenir shop owners, and U.S. occupation papers, contrasting efforts to market handicrafts in early postwar Japan with the better documented ones of the nineteenth century.