The Unforgettable Alice Kurusu, Wife of a Diplomat

The Rev. Dr. Neal Henry Lawrence, OSB

Lecture 2000-05-15

Summary of the May meeting:
Among the many visitors the Society welcomed to hear the Rev. Dr. Neal Henry Lawrence speak on "The Unforgettable Alice Kurusu, Wife of a Diplomat" were Dr. Kokukui Kurusu, husband of Madame Kurusu's adopted daughter Masa, and their son Jenki and daughter Aileen; and Fr. Lawrence's former superior at St. Anselm's, Fr. Kieran Nolan. Before calling on Fr. Lawrence to speak, our President, Dr. Erich Berendt, announced the new agreement with Yushodo, whose former President and current CEO, Mr. Mitsuo Nitta, was also with us; he also spoke of the Council's search for a new home for the Society and announced the speakers and subjects of forthcoming meetings.


Fr. Lawrence said that in September 1969 he had read to the Society a paper "Saburo Kurusu -- Diplomat and Man," which was later published in the Transactions of 1981. This time he wished to speak about Kurusu's American wife Alice Jay Kurusu, drawing first on an article he had written at the invitation of the Tokyo branch of Reader's Digest at the time of her death in 1973 at the age of 80; the article was eventually refused publication because the company heads had a policy never to mention Saburo Kurusu, as he was a "liar." Madame Kurusu had never written an account of her life, although James Michener had urged her to, and Fr. Lawrence now wished to give some hint of the unique life of this lady whom he had first met in 1962.

Fr. Lawrence had already known Saburo Kurusu in 1948, when he was in the Diplomatic Section of General MacArthur's Headquarters, and knew that their marriage was a famous example of a happy international marriage. At that time Kurusu was living in retirement and trying to clear his name of the allegations that he had known of the Japanese military's plans to attack Pearl Harbor when he had been sent to Washington as a special negotiator in November 1941. (When Fr. Lawrence gave his paper on Kurusu, Madame Kurusu called it a complete vindication of her husband, as it made clear the fact that he had been negotiating in good faith.) Madame Kurusu had seemed like a queen to him, as she extended her white-gloved hand, and it had seemed quite natural that she should be introduced as 'Madame Kurusu' in the older diplomatic style. It was only later that he learnt that those who knew her well affectionately called her 'Momie.'

The genius of Alice Jay Kurusu was her presence -- royal, warm, intelligent, vibrant and gracious. She was born in New York of British parentage. Her father, James Little, was an Anglican clergyman who died when she was four, leaving her and her two brothers to be brought up by their mother. Mrs. Little was a grande dame with a dominant personality, and Alice doubtless followed in her footsteps. She was educated at Columbia University, but never graduated, as she took only the courses she was interested in; nevertheless her knowledge was encyclopedic. The whole family had an interest in Japan, and she and her brother Norman met Kurusu at meetings of the Japan-American Society. Kurusu wanted to improve his English, and Norman agreed to help him, so he was often at the Little home. He was a handsome young man with cosmopolitan manners. He had already perfected his English at Hitotsubashi University, and was infatuated with America. She was a striking beauty, with raven hair and jet black eyes, and ruby red lips which she was proud of, disdaining the use of lipstick.

Saburo and Alice were married in October 1914, when he was vice-consul in New York. Shortly after that he was appointed consul in Chicago, and the family remained there throughout World War I, returning to Japan in 1919. Alice's upbringing fitted her perfectly to be a diplomat's wife. She was a natural hostess, entertaining people with ease and good taste, and Saburo was always grateful to her for her contribution to his career and her ability to adapt. He said she had the good sense to remain quiet until her opinion was sought, but then was intelligent enough to say something worthwhile.The Kurusus, with a son and daughter, arrived in Yokohama in 1919. Alice had become a Japanese citizen upon her marriage, but this was her first visit, and she was given the unique sight of all the heads of the Kurusu family coming to greet them in order of precedence. Everything was done to make her feel at home, and a house was provided for them in Hakone. On the first morning, when Saburo had to go to the Ministry in Tokyo, the whole household turned out to see him off. He prepared to kiss his wife as he had always done in America, but she held him off; he was puzzled by this until he returned in the evening, when she told him the family would have been shocked if he had done that!

Before long Saburo was sent to the Philippines as the first consul general, being considered the man most able to stop the passage of the 'Jones Bill,' which would have meant the confiscation of the property of Japanese colonists in the Philippines. Subsequent postings were to Chile, Peru, Greece, Italy and twice to Germany. In recognition of his brilliance as a diplomat, Kurusu was appointed ambassador to Belgium in 1936; although Japan was now looked down upon, the Kurusus were tremendously popular, and entertained not only national leaders but also King Leopold and Elisabeth the queen mother. In August 1939, Kurusu was asked to become concurrently ambassador to Germany. Madame Kurusu recalled being sent an enormous bouquet of roses from Hitler on her arrival, and it was clear to her that Germany was out to woo Japan. Kurusu had tried to refuse the appointment, as he disapproved of the Tripartite Pact, but the Emperor had ordered him to go, so he had no alternative. After signing the pact he resigned from the diplomatic service in protest.

During the war Kurusu lived in retirement, and the family spent most of their time in Karuizawa, living there exclusively after their Tokyo home was bombed. During those difficult days Alice displayed her customary initiative and ingenuity. She rescued the daikon tops the farmers threw away, and boiled them as greens. She also used the plants that the chickens ate. She once boiled up a whole cow's head, giving a shock to an inquisitive neighbour who lifted the lid! There were also many tales about the ways in which she helped her Japanese neighbours to survive during the war, making herself beloved of the local people at a time when there was hard feeling against the Anglo-Saxons. Even in times of personal tragedy, she displayed an indomitable spirit. When their son Ryo was shot down and killed in February 1945, she remarked to someone who tried to console her "You should rather congratulate us, for our son had the honour of dying for the emperor."

The courses in medicine that Alice had taken at Columbia proved useful in 1948, when Saburo suffered a stroke and the doctors gave him no chance of living. With her nursing skills she helped him to live six years longer, leading a fairly normal life and working to have the purge order against him removed. They sold the house in Karuizawa and moved to Tokyo, where he could get the necessary medical treatment. They built a new, smaller house on the site of the old house, and 'Momie' did her best to make sure that they lived with as much as possible of the dignity to which they had been accustomed. One of her characteristics was the frequent changing around of the furniture to make the home more attractive, and this was a standing joke in the family: Kurusu would ask the children "Which room am I sleeping in tonight?" After Saburo's death in 1952, Alice latterly shared this house with the family of her adopted daughter Masa, having an apartment to herself upstairs. (Her own daughters, Jaye and Pia, had married Americans and gone to live in the United States.) She made use of her native language to make a living for herself, teaching English especially to those planning to go to American universities, and imparting to them not only English but also her professional knowledge.

During their diplomatic career, Ambassador and Madame Kurusu were perhaps the best-known couple in the diplomatic world. On her 80th birthday the Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented Alice Kurusu with a silver memento for her services to Japan in giving her husband her unstinting support. She had not only made a home for him but had entertained in a charming fashion, conscious of what was necessary to win friends for Japan. She considered the roles of men and women to be different but complementary, and she felt her marriage had been happy because there was both love and mutual respect. Though an imposing lady, she was equally well-known for her kindness and warmth; to the staff of the places she visited regularly she was the great Madame Kurusu, but they also knew her for her friendly greetings and would go out of their way to serve her. The waiters and waitresses at International House missed her after her death; they remembered the way she would decide on a table in the dining room and arrange the seating of her guests just as she had done at the height of her diplomatic life, and how she would carefully consider the menu, even though it was always essentially the same. Her Japanese was not equal to all occasions, but she would listen intently and make intelligent-sounding responses, so that the person speaking felt that she understood perfectly. That was her attitude -- always the gracious lady.

In her last years, Alice Kurusu began attending Fr. Lawrence's church, and was baptized as a Roman Catholic. The last time he saw her was at the mass on May 4th, 1973, when she came up to him extending her white-gloved hand as she had done some ten years before; the next day she died. At the Requiem Mass, Mrs. Kazuko Aso, the daughter of Shigeru Yoshida, said, "That everyone called her 'Momie' is the best witness to her greatness." She had charmed people all her life, whether from among the royalty, or the leaders of every ideology, the workmen who repaired her home, or the staff of the clubs and hotels she frequented. She herself once said, "When I die, I want to feel that the world is even a slightly better place because I lived in it." The memory of this great and good lady will live on among her family, her friends, her students, and the members of organizations to which she belonged.

Besides this prepared paper, Fr. Lawrence had also assembled a number of anecdotes and other items, from which he selected a few to read. One item was a recent Kodansha International publication: an English translation by Ian Hideo Levy of Otohiko Kaga's novel Riding the East Wind. Though it is called a fictional tale, and the name of the family is changed from Kurusu to Kurushima, the writer has displayed an uncanny ability to portray the Kurusu family as Fr. Lawrence knew them. Fr. Lawrence put on display a copy of this book, together with photo albums of the Kurusu family, going right back to the wedding photographs.

No time was left for questions, and the meeting closed with a vote of thanks proposed by another visitor in our midst, former President George Sioris. Mr. Sioris excused himself by saying that a living legend like Fr. Lawrence was a difficult act to follow, especially when one was still jet-lagged. He recalled hearing Fr. Lawrence speak on Saburo Kurusu in 1969, and said that this evening's talk had been given with Fr. Lawrence's unique sense of humour and also with affection. Mr. Sioris added that he would like one day to hear someone speak on another diplomatic couple, Eileen Kato, now an ASJ Council member, and her late husband.


Adapted from "The Asiatic Society of Japan Bulletin No. 6", June 2000, compiled by Prof. Hugh E. Wilkinson and Mrs. Doreen Simmons.