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Friendship from the Ruins: Behind an American Family's Remarkable Multigenerational Relationship with Japan

This is the story of one American family's multi-generational friendship with Japan, born out of the immediate postwar experience.



The family of TR Delaney circa 1947. Clockwise from the left, Julia holding Susan, Marianne, Sheila, Sharon, Jerry, Michael, and Thomas Ronald Delaney. (photo provided by Karen Griffin)

In February 1947, an American lawyer named Thomas Ronald ("TR") Delaney (1905-1989) arrived in occupied Japan. He had been sent by Washington, DC to take part in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), more commonly known as the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal (1946-1948). Attorney Delaney's family–wife Julia and six children–soon joined him in Japan.

Thomas Ronald (TR) Delaney circa 1930
Julia Delaney (photo provided by Karen Griffin)

TR Delaney had gone to Japan as part of a judgment against a defeated nation. But when he and the Delaney family returned to the United States, they took with them a much more nuanced understanding of their host country.

Today, the Delaneys and their extended family are a living testimony to the power of friendship across national, and even wartime, divides.

First of 2 parts


Wartime Spent in Montana

Thomas Ronald Delaney was born in Marcus, Iowa in 1905, the son of Irish immigrants. In 1930, TR Delaney graduated from Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, Nebraska. He and his wife Julia (1909-1979), who also hailed from Iowa, lived in Omaha for several years. Then they moved to Polson, Montana. There, TR practiced law for the Lake County government and rode out the Great Depression with his growing family.

Thomas Ronald (TR) Delaney around the time of graduation from Creighton University School of Law, 1930. (photo provided by Karen Griffin)

When war broke out between the United States and Japan in December of 1941, TR wanted to join the fight. He did not pass the medical exam for military service, however, so he remained in Montana.

A Selective Service Certificate of Appreciation Bearing the Signature of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (photo provided by Julie Cline)
A Thomas Ronald (TR) Delaney Campaign Item (photo provided by Julie Cline)

From the American Heartland to Tokyo

While TR was not to see combat in World War II, his political connections–he had run unsuccessfully for local office in Montana on the Democratic ticket–helped him serve his country in another way. Delaney's friendship with powerful Montana senator Mike Mansfield (1903-2001) opened a door for him when the fighting was over.

Thomas Ronald Delaney's IMTFE Pass (photo provided by Julie Cline)

Senator Mansfield served as United States Ambassador to Japan for more than a decade under presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan (1911-2004). Long before that service, he was able to secure for TR Delaney a position at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribuna. In February of 1947, TR Delaney went to Japan to start work as part of the prosecution. His wife, Julia, and their six children soon joined him.

Julia drove the Delaney children to Seattle where the seven boarded a US Army aircraft for the fifty-two-hour flight to Tokyo via Hawaii, Midway, the Philippines, and Guam.

The Delaney family in Montana before leaving for Japan

Family Life in Japan

From a small town in rural Montana, the Delaney family arrived in the war-ruined capital of America's erstwhile enemy in the Greater East Asia War. They lived in the Tokyo district of Ochanomizu, in a house replete with a Japanese garden and servants.

Thomas and Julia Delaney's Children in Occupation-Era Japan. From left to right, Susan, Michael, Marianne, Sharon, Sheila, and Jerry (photo provided by Karen Griffin)

After his work with the Tokyo Trial, TR Delaney worked as a judge in Okinawa, which remained under American occupation after the rest of Japan had been returned to formal sovereignty under Tokyo. The Delaney family returned to America in 1956. They had stayed in their adopted country for nearly ten years.

The Delaney family on leave from Japan in 1949. Clockwise from the top left, Julia, Sharon, Jerry, Sheila, Thomas Ronald, Michael, Marianne, and Susan wearing a kimono and holding her Japanese doll. (photo provided by Karen Griffin)

A General's Children and a Future Empress

In September 2023, I interviewed TR Delaney's two surviving children, daughter Susan Delaney Cline (77) and son Jerry Delaney (92). Also joining the interview were granddaughters Karen Griffin and Julie Cline, grandson Bill Griffin, and Greg Perry, whose wife is the niece of the late Sheila Griffin, the oldest of TR Delaney's four daughters.

The interview opened a window into daily life in occupied Japan. For example, while they were living in Tokyo, TR Delaney's children used to play with the children of other members of the American Occupation. In an interview recorded before her passing, TR's second-oldest daughter, Sharon Delaney O'Connell (1936-2013), recalled going to play "at the MacArthurs' house."

"The MacArthurs" means the home of General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964). General MacArthur was the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), the head of the American Occupation, and the leader of the American military campaign in the Pacific.

Delaney sibling Sheila, who passed away in 1995, also made the acquaintance of someone of great importance.

"Sheila attended the International Academy of the Convent of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in Tokyo," Susan tells me during the interview. "She used to play tennis there. She got to know a young woman who played tennis and attended the Japanese program at the same school. Her name was Michiko. They became lifelong friends."

Sheila Griffin (photo provided by Greg Perry)

"Michiko," Susan confirmed when I went agape, is none other than Michiko, née Shoda, who in 1959 married Crown Prince Akihito, the heir apparent to the Chrysanthemum Throne. Michiko-sama, now the Empress Emerita, reigned from 1989 to 2019 as Empress Michiko of Japan.

Michiko-sama's American Friends

The relationship between Sheila and Michiko-sama deepened over the years.

In 1993, Sheila and members of the Delaney family went to the Imperial Palace, where they had a personal audience with the Empress. It was a time when Her Imperial Highness had temporarily lost the power of speech due to the pressures of her highly public role. Even so, Susan remembers that the Delaneys spent the rest of the day in awe of the aura of Michiko-sama.

In 1994, Sheila had an even rarer experience. She met Michiko-sama for a one-on-one reunion during the Empress' visit to the United States. The two met at a hotel room in St. Louis, where they caught up on a lifetime of friendship.

In a personal note from Empress Michiko to Sheila after that visit, Her Imperial Highness writes, "As the years go by, I realize more and more what a precious gift to be treasured true friendship is. … Thank you, dear Sheila, for being what you are. I send you and your family my love and sincere best wishes."

1995 Letter from Empress Michiko to Sheila Griffin (provided by Sheila's daughter Karen Griffin)

Continues in part 2: Friendship from the Ruins: An American Family Shares Its Story as New Generations Deepen Connections With Japan


Author: Jason Morgan, PhD

Jason Morgan is an associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

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