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‘The day my mum looked after the Beatles’

1966 flight dodged a storm, JAL attendant recalls, but that was nothing compared to the tempest that awaited the Fab Four at the Budokan

by David Mcneill

In rock mythology, John Lennon was the cynical, acid-tongued Beatle, Paul McCartney was friendly and open, George Harrison was the quiet one and drummer Ringo Starr was the group’s clown, always joking around. Satoko Condon remembers it a bit differently.

“Ringo was a bit difficult,” says the Osaka native, recalling how he snapped out orders for food. “He hardly spoke and never smiled.” McCartney wrote a love letter to his girlfriend. Harrison was reliably shy. And John Lennon? “I found him the friendliest,” she says. “He was so comical.”

Forty-seven years ago, the Liverpool mop tops came to Tokyo for a historical and ill-fated visit that helped seal the fate of their live tours. Then a young stewardess with Japan Airlines known by her maiden name Kawasaki, Satoko found herself catering to the four most famous men in the world.

After years of seeing them on television, she was surprised to find that they were just ordinary people, she says. “They were trying their best to be friendly but we knew their only privacy was when they were traveling between places, so our aim was to leave them alone.”

Roughly the same age as the 24-year-old Paul McCartney, Kawasaki had lobbied the airline’s publicity department to allow her to serve on the June 27, 1966, flight from London to Tokyo. One of JAL’s best English speakers, she got the job on one condition: She had to persuade the Beatles to wear JAL summer happi coats as they left the plane at Haneda airport.

“I said I would do anything to get on that flight,” she laughs. Before leaving for work on the first class cabin, she took down a picture of the group from her wall and put it in her bag. On looks alone, McCartney was her favorite. But during the long overnight flight, which was diverted to Alaska because of a typhoon, she fell for Lennon.

“I found him the friendliest,” she recalls from her home in Nottingham, England, where she has lived for about 40 years. “He was very shortsighted. On the overnight flight, everything was dark. When he got up and wanted to go to the toilet he couldn’t see a thing, so he was putting his face so close to the cabin wall wherever he went. It was almost comical.”

Lennon had arrived in first class in a badly creased linen suit and asked her if she could press it. “From that moment, every time I had to ask them something I went to him.” When she suggested that the happi coat would cover up the creases, he agreed to wear it, she says. Lennon handed the coats to the other three Beatles.

Ringo sticks in her mind because of his famously big hooter. “His face looked like it was all nose,” she says, laughing at the memory. “When I had to take his order for breakfast, he said, ‘Boiled egg, three minutes, no less, no more.’ For dinner, he said, ‘Steak, very rare.’ He never smiled.”

McCartney, meanwhile, penned a long letter to his then-girlfriend Jane Asher and asked Kawasaki to post it. “I looked at the address and saw it was to her.” Harrison was “very shy,” she says. Manager Brian Epstein watched over everything like a hawk. “He was overprotecting. Every time we moved in the cabin his eyes were glued to us because he didn’t want anyone to ask for autographs or anything like that.”

The plane journey is immortalized in a series of black-and-white photographs by Robert Whitaker, the Beatles’ photographer for much of the 1960s. The photos, and a now famous NHK clip, capture the four walking down the steps of the plane in their happi coats, emblazoned with the JAL logo. Kawasaki’s son Mark Condon, who recently wrote about his mother’s experiences for the first time in a blog post called “When My Mum Met the Beatles,” says the logo was broadcast to millions of fans around the world and “became synonymous with The Beatles . . . the greatest (free) advertising in aviation history.”

Feet planted on Japanese ground for the first time and bleary from lack of sleep, the Beatles faced the usual round of daft probes about their hair, which they handled with customary good humor. Asked about the “motives and incentives” for their hairstyle, Harrison said: “We couldn’t afford a barber at the time.” Ringo: “I think the next change will be when we go bald.”

But then came an ominous question from Ken Gary, representing the foreign press in Japan. “Some Japanese say that your performances will violate the Budokan, which is devoted to traditional Japanese martial arts, and you set a bad example for Japanese youth by leading them astray from traditional Japanese values. What do you think of all that?”

John: “Better to watch singing than wrestling, anyway.”

If Lennon had known the culture war lurking behind the question, he might not have been so flip. No less a figure than Prime Minister Eisaku Sato had publicly criticized the use of the hallowed Budokan, snuggled between Yasukuni Shrine and the Imperial Palace, as an “inappropriate” venue for a concert full of screaming teenage girls.

The Yomiuri newspaper joined in, criticizing rock music for disrupting social harmony. With ultra-nationalists threatening violence against the foreign superstars, police deployed 35,000 officers and armored carriers to protect them.

“It’s amazing security, you know,” commented Ringo at their first press conference. “I’ve never seen so many people guarding us.” It’s for your own safety, he was told. The four found themselves virtually confined to their hotel. Rightwingers protested, screaming invective against the “foreign invaders.” Before the Beatles’ three Budokan concerts, police warned that fans who stood up and made noise would be arrested.

Given a concert ticket as a reward for her PR coup, Kawasaki recalls that the police tactics failed. “When they came on the stage, everyone started screaming,” she says. “And I did too! I was caught up in the heat; I started crying. I really didn’t expect that. I was so calm when I was working with them.”

Jarred by their confusing reception, the Fab Four left Tokyo for Manila where things got worse. After snubbing the husband-and-wife dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the group’s police protection was abruptly pulled and the four were jeered and jostled out of the country. At one stage they feared for their lives. The Beatles never toured again.

Kawasaki went on with her life and watched the Beatles story unfold, often tragically. Epstein died of an accidental drug overdose the following year. McCartney and Asher split a few years later after the actress got wind of his numerous infidelities. The Beatles fell apart messily before the end of the decade and became embroiled in a bitter legal battle.

As for Lennon, he met Japanese artist Yoko Ono a few months after the JAL flight and subsequently divorced his wife to marry her. “I was jealous,” jokes Kawasaki. He was murdered by deranged fan Mark Chapman in 1980. Harrison died of cancer in 2001. Grumpy Ringo survives, after overcoming a battle with alcoholism. The now 70-year-old McCartney she will forever remember as “the romantic one.”

Kawasaki married an Englishman and kept her roughly 2,000 shares in JAL. “We had to buy employee shares,” she explains. “At the time it was worthless.” The airline became Asia’s biggest before going bankrupt in 2010. “My husband said, ‘keep it,’ so I did, and then it was worth nothing. I lost everything.”

As the JAL plane approached Japan in June 1966, the Fab Four signed Kawasaki’s photo: “To Satoko, love from the Beatles.” The photo is still on the wall of her home in Nottingham, says her son Mark — “a frozen moment in time from a bygone era where four men from England were the most famous people in the world.”

Mark Condon’s blog post about the 1966 flight can be found on his website at goldhatphotography.com/the-beatles-in-japan-1966/. Send comments and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Mark

    Great article – well written and an interesting history lesson of Japan at the time. Thank you for covering the story and for encouraging my mother to speak up about an experience many Beatles fans would have killed for! Mark

  • http://www.facebook.com/allan.murphy.355 Allan Murphy

    A very interesting story – especially about the happi coats. Another piece of the Beatles story falls into place. When I arrived in Tokyo, the first place I visited was Budokan. In 2006, the Japan Times, if memory serves, published a book about the 1966 tour. It was the 50th anniversary. I went to an exhibition at the Sony Building.

  • Brian Ware

    What a surprise for me. I was reading the Japan Times at our local library in Musashi Urawa and found myself reading about an ex coleagues wife and son. Must be 20 years since I last saw Mike Condon on a golf course near Nottingham.
    Brian .