Susan Dumas enjoyed the unique experience of living in Japan during both the mid-1950s and early 1960s, something of a rarity for an American gaijin. As a young adult, Ms. Dumas dabbled in the entertainment industry in Japan, appearing mostly on television and in print as a model. She even briefly lent her voice to the dubbing of a Japanese monster film. These days, Ms. Dumas designs and creates robes, and her travels in Japan have inspired her current activities. In July 2019, Ms. Dumas answered Brett Homenick’s questions about her pursuits in Japan.
Brett Homenick: To begin, where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Susan Dumas: I never tell people where I was born because they automatically think that is where I am from. I tell them I’m from everywhere and wherever I land.
BH: As a girl, what were your hobbies and interests?
SD: I was always an artsy-fartsy type, recreating projects that were in women’s magazines. I still have my first creation from when I was about 12 or 13 years old. I finally threw it out a few months ago after schlepping it around for 60 years!
BH: When did you first move to Japan?
SD: My first visit to Japan was around 1954. I was around nine.
BH: Where specifically did you live at the time?
SD: Prior to going to Japan, my mother, me, and my brother lived in Baltimore with my mother’s sister and her husband while my father was in Korea for a year, then he got stationed in Tokyo and brought us along. My father rented a Japanese architect’s home in the countryside near Tokyo. We lived in a typical Japanese neighborhood and had tatami floors. Also had a housekeeper. I played with the kids in the neighborhood. I also remember the honey buckets being carried through the neighborhood. Pee-yew!
BH: This was shortly after the end of World War II. What do you remember about the state of Japan at the time?
SD: I was too young to be aware of that type of history. I became more aware on my second visit.
BH: What kind of fun things did you do in Japan back then?
SD: My parents took us on trips to as many famous places as they could. We were always on the go in between my dad’s job and grade school.
BH: Why did you leave Japan for the first time?
SD: My father got transferred to another assignment, Oklahoma, whereupon my mother gave birth to my sister and told my dad that if he didn’t transfer us out of Oklahoma immediately, she would leave him. He moved on that very quickly and got stationed in Indianapolis where he was an ROTC instructor at Butler University for four years.
BH: What did you do in the U.S. before returning to Japan?
SD: Before returning to Japan around 1960, I was a freshman at Broad Ripple High School.
BH: Why did you ultimately return? When was it?
SD: My dad got stationed in Tokyo to fly C-130s. We returned to Japan around 1960 for my sophomore year in high school.
BH: How had Japan changed in the intervening years?
SD: In the ’60s in Japan, it seemed that the university students were hungry to learn as much as they could about Americans, and most especially about our language. I know my parents spent time teaching English to some Japanese students. We were approached all the time on the streets. The students were very bold and anxious about meeting us and wanted a commitment to teach them English. The Japanese loved American culture and wanted to soak up as much as they could through meeting us.
BH: In the early 1960s, the Japanese film industry was booming. Would you happen to have been aware of the Godzilla series or Japanese monster movies at the time? Were they noticeable in the pop culture back then, to the best of your recollection?
SD: I believe those movies were popular, although I don’t recall going to them. I do remember the blow-up black Winky Doll was the rage in the ’60s. I remember taking it with me wherever I went.
I remember going with my dad to do voice-overs for one of the monster movies, possibly Godzilla. That was a lot of fun, but don’t have pictures of that experience. Just remember sitting in a very small and smoky theater room with the movie projected in front of us. It was fun.
BH: Just to be clear, did you do any voice-acting for the monster movie, or were you just there watching your dad?
SD: I did a voice-over, but I don’t remember anything beyond that.
BH: Could you talk about your father in a bit more detail?
SD: My father’s name was David Singer. My mother was Doré Singer.
Dad was a member of the Jolly Rogers in the South Pacific where he flew 69 bombing missions. He retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. Would have made full colonel if he went to Vietnam, but didn’t believe in the war and didn’t want to go. My father started out his career as a music teacher in Woodbury, Connecticut.
When he retired from the Air Force, he went back into teaching and moved to Connecticut by the water and bought a sailboat and taught music in high school. One of the great memories I have of my father was when we visited his father in Connecticut, the two of them would play a duet. His father was a master violin player. My dad also played the violin but played the piano with his dad and sometimes switched off.
My father was one of the most upright gentlemen I know. A proud American — kind, generous, thoughtful. He was highly respected during his military career.
My dad’s greatest joy was flying. When he retired, he flew small planes and would take us up in them.
He and my mother were real theater- and concert-goers. Our house was always filled with music and art. My mother was a fashion illustrator and found work wherever they were stationed. Then she turned to painting and sold all over the world.
When I would visit my parents, my mother was always standing at her easel painting in a room my dad built for her, and he would be in his loft office using his flying software and would fly somewhere — Hawaii, Germany, etc. And if he wasn’t using flying software, he would be traveling on a train somewhere with other software.
He would also be playing show tunes, jazz, and classical music. He must have had the entire original collection of Broadway show tune albums in his office. He was an interesting man who made his own beer, sushi, and always loved wearing a kimono.
He and my mother were involved with community theater in Wiesbaden, Germany, and Tokyo.
When my mother, brother, and I arrived in Tokyo in the ’50s, and my father brought us to our Japanese architect’s home, my father filled my room with toys and Japanese dolls. He made us feel so comfortable in a strange land. He also set up a huge separate room with the old Lionel Trains and set up scenes that the train traveled through and around. It was magnificent.
I don’t recall my father ever seeing one of the Japanese monster movies. I wish I knew how he got involved with voice-overs. I haven’t found anything in his papers about that.
BH: What other pursuits did you have in Japan?
SD: I belonged to a modeling agency, the Patricia Charm School, which got me a number of interesting assignments. I didn’t realize until recently that it was a front for some unmentionable activities for the wives of bored service members.
I did a movie on the grape industry in Japan.
I also played Viola for a program on TV to teach English to Japanese people. My father filmed me on TV, but don’t know where that is right now.
Me and some classmates were the first to bring the twist to Japan on TV to the music of Chubby Checker singing “The Twist.” That was so much fun.
My mother was a fashion illustrator and worked for one one of the department stores illustrating clothing for their newspapers and catalogs. She also did some designs for Neiman Marcus, and illustrated a children’s book on visiting Japan.
My parents were involved with a theater group called the Meiji Players.
Mom acted and did set design, and my father was the director and sometimes acted, too. They had a wide circle of friends there outside the military, so their lives were full of interesting people and activities and lots of parties.
BH: When did you return to the States?
SD: I returned to the States in 1963 when my father was next stationed in Reno, Nevada. I stayed there for a few months and attended the University of Reno, taking a few courses and working part-time for a collection agency.
It was there that I learned that Kennedy was shot when I went to one of the casinos for a candy bar, and the news was on. So shocking. I didn’t like Reno, so moved to Baltimore to live with my aunt and uncle until my father’s next assignment to Wiesbaden, Germany. I went with him.
BH: What did you do after returning?
SD: After returning from Germany two years later, I decided to become an actress and moved to NYC. I got the acting bug from my folks. Did some acting in Germany with them, too.
In New York City, I went to several acting schools and ultimately ended up studying with Terry Schreiber and the Alice Theatre in the ’60s, George Morrison’s Theater Games, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, and others. The first play I performed was one of Susan Miller’s plays. (She is the playwright who wrote Anyone But Me, 20th Century Blues, and many, many more.)
I did a three-month dinner theater tour down south called Ladies’ Night in a Turkish Bath, and met my future husband who was also in the play and was taking a short sabbatical from his art. After meeting my husband, I quit acting and became an artisan and did some display pieces for major department stores and worked with a famous decorator in NY, and then we moved to Florence, Italy, for two glorious years.
BH: Do you have any final comments for our readers?
SD: I loved my experiences in Japan, especially as a teenager. I liked the department stores, little yakitori stands down little side streets, and I can still smell the wonderful aroma of that. I remember there was a little restaurant that served Russian pirozhkis that were to die for—so soft, filled with chopped hard-boiled eggs and beef that was encased in a spongy shell that we would dip in a mixture of ketchup and mustard. Have not found anything like it the United States.
My sojourn in Japan greatly affected my artistic endeavors. I created a kimono in jute that was part of a major kimono exhibition in Washington, D.C., in the ’90s about how the kimono form has been an inspiration to craftspeople. My work today still reflects the Japanese culture, and my new series is based on the boro robes.
Please visit Susan Dumas’ website for more information as well as images of her various Japanese-inspired garments.