Black Market History

One fascinating and colorful story involves my grandfather helping relatives in Japan after the war through the postwar black market. The family of one of mom’s cousins in Japan had owned a thriving bathhouse business. They lost their business, their home, and pretty much everything during the horrendous fire-bombing. They were lucky to escape with their lives, and just the clothes on their backs.

My mom’s cousin, who was probably not even 20 years old yet, wrote to my grandfather to ask for help. The cousin specifically asked for antibiotics that could be sold on the black market to raise sufficient funds to start a legitimate business. My grandfather turned to his eldest son (my uncle) and told him to obtain the drugs.

My uncle, who had served in the U.S. armed forces in the South Pacific island-hopping campaigns was hesitant. He knew it would be illegal, wasn’t sure how to obtain the drugs, and, even if he could get them, wasn’t sure how they would make it all the way into our Japanese cousins’ hands without getting intercepted and confiscated.

My grandfather allegedly ordered my uncle to carry out his orders. No one is sure how, but he did. The drugs were obtained, shipped to Japan, made it to the cousins there, and were sold on the black market.

How I wish I had known this story before my uncle died! I wish I could have asked him how he did it and how he felt about it. How I wish, too, I could have asked my Japanese second-cousin, the one who made the original plea to my grandfather. He was alive 19 years ago when I visited Japan the first time, but he passed away about nine years later. What stories they would have to tell!

I did ask his son about it. He was vaguely aware that his father, uncle, and maybe another family relative were involved in some shady dealings during the rough postwar years, but it was little more than rumor and innuendo. It wasn’t something he would have talked with his father directly about. His sister was totally unaware of the story until we talked about it on this trip. The family prospered, and built and owned several large and successful (legitimate) businesses, in the following decades.

I often encourage people to sit down and interview their older relatives about family history. People put it off, and elders, when asked, will often beg off, stating that “it’s not that interesting,” or “it’s not that special.” I encourage people to be persistent. Use a digital recorder or a video camera. Even a recording of your relatives’ voices after they are gone is really a wonderful thing to have. You will not regret being persistent, and after your elders open up, both of you will likely enjoy the process.

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