restricted access A Friend in Need: Esther B. Rhoads, Quakers, and Humanitarian Relief in Allied Occupied Japan, 1946–52
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A Friend in Need:
Esther B. Rhoads, Quakers, and Humanitarian Relief in Allied Occupied Japan, 1946–52

Following World War II, voluntary private charities and relief organizations played an important role in reaching out to the desperate and needy in Europe. Asia, however, was largely an afterthought until the creation in early 1946 of the Licensed Agencies for Relief in Asia (LARA). It was organized as a single regional or umbrella agency to represent and coordinate the private relief activities of eleven—ultimately thirteen—North American charitable and religious organizations for operation in Japan and Korea. The core members were the Church World Service (Protestant), American Friends Service Committee (Quaker, also known as the Religious Society of Friends), and War Relief Services (Catholic). In addition, a Quaker held the top administrative position of chairman in LARA’s New York headquarters.1

Central to the narrative is Esther B. Rhoads (1895–1979), a prewar Quaker missionary teacher in Japan who returned in June 1946 as one of only two authorized representatives of LARA. In addition, she worked for one of the constituent bodies, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).2 Her contribution to voluntary relief in post-defeat Japan, although crucial, well-known, and deeply appreciated at the time, has [End Page 54] been remembered by only a few scholars.3 Her early postwar experience does not fit the paradigm of American women in Occupied Japan primarily as democratizers. Her long career in Japan offers a challenge to assumptions about the American white women’s burden or theories of American imperial feminism.4 If not a conscious feminist, she recognized the ability and accomplishments of women in domestic and public life and the need to educate and raise the status of girls and women. As a Quaker relief administrator in the aftermath of total war and widespread destruction and suffering, she was an agent of reconciliation.

The role of Rhoads in AFSC and LARA further suggests the usefulness of applying gender not only to organizations but also more broadly to the study of transnational relations, in this case between the Americas and Japan. Women have long played influential roles in cross-border social and cultural activities, a form of soft power, even when lacking authority to make formal policy.5 Rhoads’s reports to LARA and AFSC officials and her correspondence with family and friends describe not only poverty and adversity in defeated Japan but also the daily problems of collection, allocation, and distribution of relief supplies through collaboration on a basis of equality with Japanese counterparts. She moved effectively at grassroots, middle, and elite levels. Rhoads, a Friend in need, was a key figure in LARA’s success story in Occupied Japan and its contributions to postwar advances in Japanese social work and welfare institutions.


LARA was allowed to operate in Allied Occupied Japan as part of the response of General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), to a severe food crisis. In the wake of cold weather and crop failures, worsened by poor distribution, Japanese government rations in 1945–46 were able to supply only 700 calories of an already low 1,200 calorie diet. Japanese in urban areas were reduced to scavenging, buying food on the black market, or growing food in tiny plots. MacArthur gained permission in early 1946 from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to distribute U.S. Army surplus food supplies to the Japanese. His rationale for aid, accepted in Washington, was to prevent disease and unrest, keep conditions stable in Japan, and protect the occupiers while the work of democratization and demilitarization proceeded.

In early May 1946, shortly after the revival of May Day demonstrations following a ten-year Japanese government ban, President Harry Truman’s World Food Relief Survey, headed by former President Herbert Hoover (also a Quaker and famous for European food [End Page 55] relief following World War I), arrived in Tokyo and gave full backing to MacArthur’s estimates of Japan’s needs.6 By then, MacArthur had also decided to allow voluntary private aid, but only as supplementary relief and subject to his conditions. He recognized the newly formed...