The Stainless Steel Kimono

Occupied Japan as a "military purgatory"

By William Wetherall

First posted 3 April 2007
Last updated 18 March 2009

1947 Simon and Schuster edition (3rd printing)
The original brown on the spine has faded to green.
1955 Perma Books edition
1965 Macfadden Books edition

Three editions

Most true and fictional accounts of the Allied Occupation of Japan, from 1945-1952, have been short-lived single-edition works. That Elliott Chaze's The Stainless Steel Kimono was not scripted for a movie would also decrease the likelihood of a reissue, much less two. Yet there were multiple printings of three editions spanning 1947 to 1965.

One hardcover edition

Elliott Chaze
The Stainless Steel Kimono
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1947
x, 207 pages, hardcover (3rd printing)
Dust jacket illustration by Albert Dorne

The hardcover edition, which went through at least three printings, has a white dust jacket showing seven soldiers eying a geisha.

The third edition has silver titles on the spine and a figure of a soldier on the left (like the one on the spine of the jacket) watching a geisha on the right (like the geisha on the jacket. The first edition may have a black cover with silver titles and figures.

Two paperback editions

Elliott Chaze
The Stainless Steel Kimono

New York: Perma Books, 1955
x, 159 pages, paperback (M-3011)
Cover illustration by Albert Dorne

There is also a Montreal edition.

Elliott Chaze
The Stainless Steel Kimono

New York: Macfadden-Bartell, 1965
143 pages, paperback (MB 60-214)

Cover illustration unattributed


While well crafted, The Stainless Steel Kimono probably enjoyed the publishing history it did because of the sheer numbers of male military personnel who would have acquired a taste for the subjects of its stories and Chaze's sense of humor. This would include roughly 400,000 such personnel at their peak in late 1945, and the continuing population of roughly 150,000 foreign military personnel, mostly Americans, from the middle of 1946 to the end of Occupation.

However, Japan was a staging area for the Korean War of 1950-1953 and the Vietnam War from 1964-1975. A number of large US military hospitals also operated in Japan during these two wars. Not a few military personnel spent time in Japan either in transit or from Korea and Vietnam, or came to Japan during during these wars, from Korea or Vietnam, on R&R leave -- R&R meaning usually "rest and recreation" though the second R is also taken to mean recuperation, rehabilitation, or relaxation.

Okinawa -- a separate entity from Japan since before the end of the Pacific War and until its return to Japan in 1972 toward the end of the Vietnam War -- also severed as a staging area for these two wars. As of this writing, under the Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and Japan, Okinawa continues to host more US military bases and personnel than all of the rest of Japan combined.

Twenty-eight stories

The Stainless Steel Kimono is a collection of 28 stories, some very short. The stories, as told through the eyes and ears of a first-person narrator, about the narrator's six paratrooper buddies more than about himself, are listed in the front of the book.


The Good White Life: Model Frocks, Inc.
Silver Star
Re the Rat and the Ragged Tooth
The Passionate Feet of Motoku
Mr. Walmsley Brutalized Wilson
God Helps Scared People
How to Hypnotize a Monkey
A Brave Mouse
The Rim of the Coolie Hat
Lieutenant Appleton
How to Smell a Ski
But I Know It Is if It Is
The Hand-picked Volunteers
The Costly Bright Feet
Two Roofs and a Snake on the Door
It Takes Two People to Raise Hell Proper
Soto, Tunker of Ears
Real Life: the Cigarette Test for Quick Tricks
Sake and Stainless Steel
Christmas and Leprosy
Madame Buttercup
Angels Don't Eat
They Cast Their Beans
Come On In

The title of the collection is inspired by "Sake and Stainless Steel" (pages 114-119). This story, set in a Japanese night club, features a "monkey-like dame at the next table" who is wearing a black kimono, has four stainless steel teeth that flashed like match flames when she grinned, and is "gettin' older and uglier every minute" (page 114).

The stories -- despite the hype in the promotional blurbs, and impressions from phrases such as those cited in the above paragraph -- are mainly studies of a few Americans and Japanese who, if not for the Pacific War and its outcome, would never have crossed paths to fight, kill, then live beside and even fall in love with one another. Most of the stories are about the narrator and his six buddies, but some are more concerned with the local men and women the paratroopers meet in the course of their Occupation duties and adventures.

The manner in which the stories are told is well-within the highest contemporary standards of spar, minimalist, hard-boiled writing. Each story is a structurally standalone vignette that, apart from its theme and phrasing, would pass any test of narrative quality. This can be said of the best story telling of any era, no matter how controversial or unacceptable its execution then or now.

Impressive stories

Some of the stories are truly impressive. Among them, "Saito" and "Mike", and "Madame Buttercup" and even "Real Life: the Cigarette Test for Quick Tricks", represent the current of humanity that runs under the honest racialism and sexism.


"Saito" is about a boy the paratroopers rescue from the streets and put to work in their quarters.

"Real Life"

"Real Life: the Cigarette Test for Quick Tricks" gives only a few graphs in the middle of its two-and-one-half pages to a Williams' theory that "a girl was a quick trip if she co-operated before finishing at least three cigarettes." The story is about what the soldiers plan to do in "real life" -- i.e., Stateside. They dream of many things, including how they would seduce women in their home towns. Nothing in the story is about Japan -- except that, "the longer we were in Japan the less real it became. And the more vivid and concrete things seemed back in the States."

"Madame Buttercup"

"Madame Buttercup" dramatizes, in eight pages, the beginning, middle, and end of a romance between Wagman, one of the paratroopers, and a girl who sang with the band recruited to play in the company day room one night. "Wagman liked the singer and later in the evening he met her and fell in love with her."

Wagman told his buddies "It's the attraction of the oriental for the accidental."

Wagman ends up living with her, until she is beaten up. He thinks she knows who did it but isn't telling him because "she's afraid I'll shoot somebody's ass off and she cries when I ask her. She just cries and it hurts her mouth and I quit asking her."

Something similar had happened to one of Madame Buttercup's friends. "The police think Jap soldiers did it. They come home from the Pacific islands and find their women sleeping with Americans and so they smack them around when they get a chance."

Wagman never went back to see Madame Buttercup after her beating. He wasn't afraid. That I know, because I know Wagman. I think he figured it was the only way to keep her out of trouble, to stay away from her.

He began smoking again and refused to order his own candy bars at the PX. He said he didn't quit smoking cigarettes to unwrinkle his lungs. He quit so he could sell his forty packs a month, at thirty yen a pack. That came to almost the price of his home with Madame Buttercup. I mean almost the money price.

We never saw her in town after that.

The last page of the story is about a declaration from a general, after the Wagman affair, that Japanese homes were off limits. A boom in venereal disease also inspired restrictions on off-base activities.

"We could go to town on pass so long as we simply walked the streets and didn't go in homes or shops or places. There were a lot of places."


"Mike" is about their interpretor, who had migrated from Japan to California when a boy, helped out in his father's photography shop, majored in English at the University of Sourthern California, and fallen in love with "the white girl at Southern Cal" who became the cause for his return to Japan and change in career.

Mike tells the paratroopers he returned to Japan before he killed the girl's father for humiliating him. The father had thrown Mike's plate, drinking glass, and silverware out the back door one morning after Mike had eaten breakfast with the girl and her parents. Mike had arrived the night before, invited to spend the weekend by the girl, with her mother's consent. The father had already gone to bed when Mike arrived and. The next morning, the father remained silent until, after breakfast, he asked Mike to open the back door -- please.

Back in Japan, Mike joined the army, got a commission as a bayonet expert, and was sent to Manchuria to train Chinese. A Chinese kid ran him through, he spent some in and out of hospitals, and was finally discharged with a bayonet cough.

The story ends like this.

Mike told us the drinking glass story between pretzels and about the bayonet business and a lot of homely little stories about Japanese family life. As a rule he refused to talk about Japanese politics or ideology, but once he surprised us saying in the saddest voice I ever heard: "I'm Benedict Arnold with fish on his breath. I'm the Japanese Man Without a Country. You people don't really trust me. And I work so closely with you that my own people don't trust me."

He grinned at our silence and laughed his apologetic laugh when no one answered the grin.

"You better have a pretzel," Cole said.

"Yes, I better. Thank you."

Mike picked one from the waxed paper bag, broke it in half against the table top and slowly scratched his cheek with the rough sharp salt on a half pretzel. He looked dully at the waxed paper bag as he scratched. "Benedict Arnold with fish on his breath," he said. Then he popped the piece of pretzel into his mouth.

Author as narrator

The list of stories is followed by a brief foreword that appears to define the narrator as the author. The other six characters, however, are qualified as composites of men the narrator/author knew in the Airborne -- as he proudly refers to his branch of the US Army.

The foreword does not preclude the possibility that, while the stories may be based on the Chaze's own observations, the narrator may also be a composite, meaning that the first-person narrator, too, is an imaginary character. This, however, would be true of most first novels as fictionalized reflections of the writer's own life.

The foreword runs about one page (Perma Books pages ix-x, Macfadden page 7).


I believe the reaction of most occupation troops in Japan is that of a person suddenly handed a brimming bedpan and told to guard its contents carefully. It comes as a shock to the average American to find himself custodian of such a smelly and strange country. His initial impulse is to remain as aloof from the Japanese as possible. But as time and circumstance prove this unworkable, the occupation troops devise their own methods for forgetting that the thing entrusted to them seems hardly worth the trouble.

In this book I have attempted to show how the dizziest, and to my way of thinking the most hardy branch of the army, reacts to the occupation job and how the men divert themselves from the task in their spare time. When it comes to diversion and the enjoyment thereof, the paratroops bow to no group. For that reason I think you may find my six buddies entertaining, as each character is, in reality, a composite of several men I met in the Airborne.

When I returned Stateside and picked up my old job with the Associated Press, I was satisfied for a time to edit the night wire out of New Orelans, and to write an occasional feature on a Negro by the [no "the" in Macfadden edition] name of Willie Francis. Francis made the headlines by walking away from his own "electrocution" when a portable electric chair failed to function lethally. One evening as I was talking with him in his death cell (prior to his more orthodox trip to the chair) it occurred to me that, interesting as his case was, I knew a group of men in the Pacific who prepared to live more interestingly than Francis prepared to die.

I say those men "prepared to live" and that's what they did. The Japanese occupation was to them simply a warmup for civilian life, a type of military purgatory in which they were neither in heaven nor in hell, and in which they could float along without paying particular court to either. The result was human nature in the medium-rare, if not in the raw.

Chaze is saying -- in smelly, religious, and meaty metphors -- that civilian life seems heavenly in the hellish throes of war -- while survivors, who enroute home find themselves pulling occupation duty in the country of a defeated enemy they have no reason to love, must also survive the moritorium of life in a world that is to them at once utterly both alien and human, however opaque, chaotic, and unpredictable.

Cover blurbs of 1955 and 1965 paperback editions

As is the case with most reissues, story blurbs are recast, partly to keep book designers busy, and partly to appeal to a new generation of readers while also exciting nostalgia in the older generation.

1955 Perma Books edition

1965 Macfadden Books edition

Front cover

The bawdy adventures of seven
tough paratroopers in Japan.

Front cover

They came, they saw, they conquered -- girl after
girl after girl. The Ribald, racy romp of seven
wild and wacky paratroopers in occupied Japan.

Back cover


    That's what the United States Army trained the paratroopers to be. The Stainless Steel Kimono is the ribald story of seven young paratroopers trained to fight tough and dirty -- then assigned to occupied Japan when the shooting war was over
    Here is their never-fail cigarette test for telling if a girl is a quick trick. The risks of playing footie with a pretty Japanese girl at the family dinner table. A sure-fire recipe for livening up a dull New Year's Eve . . . and much more.
    No matter what the incident, Elliott Chaze captures with honesty and sure humor some of the most rowdy and bizarre experiences a soldier can have.

Back cover



When seven wild and wacky paratroopers hit Japan, the geisha girls took to the hills, but the jumpboys weren't far behind. The troopers were determined to seduce the entire Japanese female population, and almost succeeded -- on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields and in the streets -- to say nothing of in the sleeping bags and in the bathhouses.

" . . . the book is both hilarious and grim . . . raw is perhaps the better word. Mr. Chaze spares neither the four-letter words nor quails at relating the most intimate details about life and love among the paratroopers and the Japanese."           The New York Times

Lewis Elliott Chaze

Louisiana-born Lewis Elliott Chaze (1915-1990) received a BA in journalism from Oklahoma University in 1937 and later settled in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Kara Templeton summarize his life straddling the Pacific War like this (Mississippi Writers & Musicians), based on Marshall Keys, Lives of Mississippi Authors Edited by James B. Lloyd (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1981), page 87; and Hal May, "Lewis Elliott Chaze", in Contemporary Authors (1985 edition, Volume 113), page 89).

1937 Graduated Oklahoma University, BA in Journalism
1941-1943 News Editor, Associated Press, New Orleans, Louisiana
1943-1945 U.S. Army, 11th Airborne Division, Technical Sergeant
1945-1951 News Editor, Associated Press, Denver, Colorado
1951-1970 Reporter, Hattiesburg American, Hattiesburg, Mississippi
1970-1981 City Editor, Hattiesburg American, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Chaze served in the 11th Airborne Divison as a technical sergeant, and was in Japan for a while during the Allied Occupation, but it is not clear in what capacity or for how long. Templeton, compositing information from secondary sources, writes -- "After World War II he remained in Japan for a time while American troops occupied the country. Later, he transferred to the Denver, Colorado, Associated Press Bureau."

Bill Pronzini (b1943), a very prolific author and anthologist of detective and other genres of fiction, began his tribute to Elliott Chaze like this (Mystery*File).

Elliott Chaze (1915-1990) was an old-school newspaperman who began his journalism career with the New Orleans Bureau of the Associated Press shortly before Pearl Harbor, worked for a time for AP's Denver office after paratrooper service in WW II, and then migrated south to Mississippi where he spent twenty years as reporter and award-winning columnist and ten years as city editor with the Hattiesburg American.

Pronzini describes The Stainless Steel Kimono (1947), Chaze's first novel, as "a modest bestseller and an avowed favorite of Ernest Hemingway." He characterizes this work and Chaze's second novel, The Golden Tag (1950), as "literary mainstream" -- apparently because they were originally published in hardcover by Simon and Schuster.

Nine novels

Chaze was the author, by my count, of nine books, most of them novels, some later reissued under different titles. A few of the novels also came out in bookclub, Canadian, British, and French editions, and Black Wings Has My Angel is now available in a POD edition. The following list, however, shows only the earlier, principal US editions.

1947 The Stainless Steel Kimono (Simon and Schuster; 1955 Perma Books M-3011; 1965 Macfadden 60-214)
1950 The Golden Tag (Simon and Schuster; 1959 Love on the Rocks, Berkley Books G-26)
1953 Black Wings Has My Angel (Gold Medal 296; 1956 Fawcett Publications; 1962 One for My Money, Berkley Books; 1985 One for the Money, Robert Hale)
1963 Two Roofs and a Snake on the Door (The Macmillan Company)
1965 Tiger in the Honeysuckle (Charles Scribner's Sons; 1966 Bantam)
1969 Wettermark (Charles Scribner's Sons)
1983 Goodbye Goliath (Charles Scribner's Sons)
1984 Mr. Yesterday (Charles Scribner's Sons; 1986 The Catherine Murders, Robert Hale)
1985 Little David (Charles Scribner's Sons)

The protagonists of a number of these titles are news reporters and otherwise reflect Chaze's personal observations if not experiences.