A lifetime spent selling pearls to the stars

by David Chester

Today’s pop quiz: What do Jodie Foster, Harrison Ford and Brooke Shields have in common? Hint: They are all happy customers of the Wally Yonamine Company. No, they did not purchase autographed baseballs (although Yonamine, former ace slugger for the Yomiuri Giants, is still known as “the Jackie Robinson of Japan”).

Give up? They, and a long list of other celestial beings, are proud owners of fine jewelry sold by Yonamine’s wife of 48 years, Jane.

Looking like a celebrity herself in an elegant black dress, perfectly coiffed hair and (of course) a string of pearls, Jane has held court in her Roppongi boutique for 37 years. The walls can no longer hold all the photos and messages from movie stars, orchestra leaders and sports figures, all who have sought her advice on the one item no woman should be without.

Born in Kamuela, Hawaii and raised on Parker Ranch (the third largest cattle ranch in the United States), where her father was a carpenter, Jane was known to family and friends as Mitsuko Iwashita. But when an American elementary school teacher, hired to instruct the nisei children of the ranch’s employees, got frustrated pronouncing their Japanese names, Mitsuko suddenly became “Jane.”

After moving with Wally to Tokyo in 1952 when he landed the Yomiuri Giants contract, Jane began selling o-kaeshi (return gifts) to Hawaiian nisei who had come to bury the ashes of their grandparents in Japan. An acquaintance, Dr. Hung Wo Ching, decided if Jane was going to sell anything, it should be essential, lasting and of great quality: pearls. He became a silent partner and Jane, with no collateral other than Wally’s name, managed by 1963 to set up shop in the back of a tailor’s store in a four-story building in Roppongi (the tallest building there at the time).

“Roppongi was a nice sleepy town,” recalls Jane, and whips out a faded photo of Roppongi crossing to prove it: two huge, wide roads, with nary a car in sight, low buildings and few pedestrians.

Though sequestered in the back of someone else’s shop, Jane was proud to be able to pay 20,000 yen rent for her space. When the tailor skipped town one night, the landlady decided she was through with male tenants. Giving the rest of the space to Jane, she said, “We’re women — we won’t cheat each other. We’ll help each other.”

Indeed they did: Jane stayed put for 35 years. What started as a one-desk, wing-and-a-prayer operation has now become a magnet for luminaries, expatriates and visiting employees of foreign corporations, who are sometimes found lined up around the block to pick up “something from Jane’s.” She would have stayed in her former premises, but finally moved (across the street) two years ago when a typhoon caused irreparable roof damage.

Customers wouldn’t have minded, though. Starting with a visit from the L.A. Dodgers in the 1960s, word spread among foreign baseball players wanting to bring back a bauble to wives or girlfriends (or both) that Wally’s wife ran a pearl shop. After the athletes came the actors, musicians, statesmen and top company executives. “We don’t advertise,” Jane states firmly. “With jewelry, you always ask a friend.”

One of those friends once insisted on bringing his “date” to the shop before taking Jane to lunch. Jane was too busy with customers at the time to give it any thought — until she looked up and saw Elizabeth Taylor in front of her. Though Taylor has always had a preference for diamonds, she didn’t leave Jane’s without a little trinket — a pricey string of South Sea black pearls. Nowadays, Jane says, bus tours from Yokota often bring up groups of 30 women at a time, “just to see where Liz bought her pearls.”

Though she continues to meet the high and mighty, Jane says her greatest honor was when she was selected to appraise the Vatican treasures, which were exhibited in Japan in 1980. Japanese authorities, though, were a bit shaken when she said the treasures were “priceless.”

She smiles, “I had to spend some time explaining ‘priceless’ didn’t mean ‘worthless.’ “

Baseballs and pearls have been good to Jane and Wally and their three children, Amy, Wallis and Paul, and the Yonamines have shared their good fortune with others. A short list includes: An annual $5,000 college scholarship for Hawaiian high school seniors, team sponsorship in The Japan Times Charity Relay Race and the establishment of the Wally Yonamine Leukemia Research Foundation at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

With all the activity through the years, you’d think they might consider spending more time relaxing at their second home in Hawaii. Not a chance: Wally still teaches at baseball coaching clinics on weekends and Jane strings pearls the way some people do crossword puzzles.

“I can do 14 strands watching a television movie,” she claims. “You won’t see me sitting still.

“Besides,” she sighs, flipping through shots of the likes of Robert De Niro and Vanessa Williams, “I still have to find space to put all these pictures!”

Until then, promises Jane, she’ll just “keep on stringing along.”