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A Diplomat’s Wife in Showa Japan

1930s Japan—a time of emperors, tension in the Pacific, and mysterious unspoken social rules of the Showa Era. When Dorothy Emmerson moved to Japan, she was the young, practical wife of Ambassador John Emmerson, whom she accompanied to Tokyo where he served his first tour in the Foreign Service.

TMPD Building in Pre-War Showa Era (Pre-war Showa Era)| Metropolitan Police Department
TMPD Building in Pre-War Showa Era (Pre-war Showa Era)| Metropolitan Police Department

Dorthy soon found herself immersed in the culture, gaining up-close and personal experiences in Japanese customs as an embassy wife. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we explore various aspects of life as a “trailing spouse” as experienced by Dorthy Emmerson.

At her first post in Tokyo, Emmerson began training for the position of language officer, or “language wife,” learning Japanese and all the many proper protocols and manners that came with the position: protocols for gift-giving, learning the ranking system, knowing the order of guests at embassy parties, and much more. This training paid off, especially on visits to Emperor Hirohito’s palace. Emmerson recalls palace protocols being the most stringent in the country; these included taking a certain number of steps in front of the imperial family and even removing her coat in the emperor’s presence despite the weather of the day. For example, following the death of King George V, the Diplomatic Corps in Japan were expected to wear all black as a sign of mourning. Emmerson was caught wearing dark brown at an embassy function, resulting in the senior wife telling her to go home and stay home until she owned a black dress.

In 1940, tensions between the U.S. and Japan became too strenuous, so Emmerson and her children were evacuated from Tokyo. She stayed in Colorado with her parents until her husband was reassigned to Peru. Emmerson and her family moved about the next few years from posts including China, Lebanon, Pakistan, France, and Russia, until finally returning to Japan in 1962.

This time, her post included more responsibilities. Emmerson was now in charge of educating the new “language wives,” and accommodating visiting diplomats and their wives. On one occasion, she accompanied Alice Roosevelt Longworth, President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, to Nikko.

Dorothy Emmerson received her Bachelor’s degree from Colorado University and her Master’s degree from Columbia University. In 1966, she returned to the U.S. where her husband served as Diplomat in Residence at Stanford University.

Read more about Dorothy Emmerson and her career as the wife of a diplomat in her ADST oral history.

Drafted by Melinda Madden

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Palace Protocol: We were invited to the Palace along with all Embassy people on the diplomatic list (less than 100 officers in the Embassy at that time). Now the Embassy is large and the entire Embassy (on the diplomatic list) is presented to the Emperor in one large group, or so I understand, but then we were small—the Embassy officers less than 100—and each couple was presented separately. The wife was to wear a long dress—with a train—long sleeves, high neck, hat, gloves, no white, no black. We had lessons—how many steps to take as we entered the room where the Imperial family stood—how to back out with the dress train. The Imperial family stood on a platform in the middle of the far side of the room in the middle. We went diagonally from the right back corner of the room and stood in front of the Emperor and Empress, bowed to each in turn, then a bow to the men of the imperial family—to our left—and a bow to the Imperial family women to our right. We then backed out to the exit obliquely to the far corner of the room to our right, counting again the number of steps. I had to manage my train so it took some practice beforehand. We went directly to the taxi which was waiting for us. As we drove away I realized that I was so busy concentrating on my feet that I had seen nothing in the Palace!

No Coats Before the Emperor: In the fall the Embassy diplomats were to wait along a garden Palace path and bow to the Emperor and Empress as they passed along the path. It was very cold. We had been told never to wear a coat in the presence of the Emperor. I put on the largest dress I owned and padded it underneath with sweaters. When we gathered along the path to await the passing of the Emperor, I found that I was the only person present with no coat. Just before the Emperor arrived the others took off their coats and hung them on bushes until he had passed. I was very conspicuous and unhappy.

Adding value to agricultural products improves market competitiveness (2008) | Nigeria USAID| Flickr
Adding value to agricultural products improves market competitiveness (2008) | Nigeria USAID| Flickr

Japanese Gift-Giving: However, I do remember that once I was at a tea party; the women were seated at tables for four. I didn’t know the three women, all Japanese, I had never met them before, and you tried to get a topic of common conversation, and nearly always it would wind up about children. So I mentioned that our daughter was on Broadway, a singer in New York City, and how proud we were of her, and this one woman looked at me and said, “Oh, oh, our daughter just moved to New York City a few months ego and this wonderful singer in New York City—your daughter—introduced her to her voice teacher and she is taking lessons from the voice teacher that your daughter recommended to her.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know.” Anyhow, the woman was convinced from everything I said that it was our daughter who had introduced her. The following day we got a box. I don’t know whether you have ever seen a Treasure Boat or not. They look like gold and silver. It’s a little boat with treasures piled on top. This one, as I remember it, was around ten inches to twelve inches long and I knew how ghastly expensive they were, very expensive, and the note simply said, “Because your daughter has helped our daughter so much.” Well, I went to my records. I had a record of when her daughter arrived in New York because I had written that down at the table and I realized that our daughter had gone on tour and was not in New York when her daughter arrived, and was still on tour and had not been in New York. It couldn’t conceivably have been our daughter. I called the Japanese women in the Embassy who knew protocol, and I said, “What can I do?” And she said, “The only thing I know is you cannot return it.” Well, that left us in the soup. Exactly what could we do? They were having grapefruit at the commissary and I bought her, I think it must have been, a dozen grapefruit and sent them as a gift and thanked her enormously, etc. In one or two days we received a crate of the most expensive choice mushrooms that are grown in Japan and I wrote and thanked her for it. We invited them to dinner and the connection, as far as I was concerned—I couldn’t do anything else—I had to let the matter drop, because I had had it. I couldn’t think what to give them. I couldn’t return the gift, and so that’s where that incident wound up.

Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s Visit: I suppose my most famous and most dear and most treasured memory of a VIP was Alice Roosevelt Longworth. I kept her for myself. I didn’t ask anybody else to take care of her. She was there with her granddaughter, and she was a treasure that you would not believe. She went up to Nikko with me and spent a few days. I think two days there, maybe it was three. I found out that her light would be on almost all night long and I would say, “Did you sleep well? You know your light was on late.” And she would say, “I always read until very late.” Her granddaughter, Joanna, was with her, and Joanna and she and I went over to the temples and Joanna was going to take some hundreds of steps that went up to Ieyasu’s tomb [Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542-1616), first of the Tokugawa Shogunate who ruled Japan until 1868, when Emperor Meiji was restored] and Mrs. Longworth was to stay down at one of the temples and I took Joanna over to the place where you go up, and left her. She went on to climb and I went back. And there was Alice Roosevelt Longworth up on the roka, the veranda-type place of one of the temples, sitting in the Lotus position. [Mrs. Longworth was eighty-one years old at that time.] And I said, “Goodness, I didn’t know you could assume the Lotus position—I’m interested in Yoga.” And she said, “So am I. My father taught me Yoga and that’s when I first became interested and I have been interested in Yoga ever since.” I never thought of Teddy Roosevelt as being a devotee of Yoga. But that’s what his daughter said.


BA, Colorado University
MA, Columbia University
Foreign Service Posts
Tokyo, Japan—Language Officer 1935-1941
Lima, Peru—Diplomat’s Wife 1942-1943
Moscow, USSR—Diplomat’s Wife 1947-1949
Karachi, Pakistan—Diplomat’s Wife 1952-1955
Tokyo, Japan—Language Officer 1962-1966