Critic awaits callers in Imperial Hotel suite

by Angela Jeffs

The Imperial Hotel in central Tokyo’s Hibiya district is a surprising place. Yes, of course the rich and famous stay there. But how many realize that this famed institution also rents out private office suites. On the fifth floor, for example, is where TV commentator and author Kenichi Takemura hangs out.

A knock brings one of several female staff to the door. Passing through this room into another, here lies the maestro upon his couch. He appears half asleep, and most definitely puzzled. Did he know I was coming? He did. Oh well, he indicates grumpily, pulling himself up into a sitting position, then you’d better sit down.

It would be a rare Japanese over, say, the age of 40, who does not know Takemura’s face and name and trademark pipe. Being compared in his heyday to the U.K.’s David Frost, he can lay claim to having interviewed just about everyone who was anyone over the years.

So here he sits, surrounded by the glory of the past: the walls hung with photos and memorabilia. Every flat surface is covered with paper — newspapers, magazines, letters, yet his bookshelves are a masterpiece of organization. When asked how many books he has written throughout his heady career, he points out 500, arranged in chronological order.

“This was the first,” he says, pulling it out for inspection. “In English it translates as ‘Around the World on ¥1,500,’ ” which was the cost of a passport when I was a student.”

He launched — and for years conducted — his professional career as a journalist with the Mainichi Daily News in Osaka. “I got a part-time job with the paper while studying at Kyoto University. They helped me go to the U.S. for two semesters at Syracuse and Yale’s graduate schools of journalism in the States on a Fulbright Scholarship.”

In 1953 (“or ’54, I can’t quite remember which”) he sailed for Europe. He recounts this casually, but the truth is that this was far from commonplace; few Japanese were allowed to travel abroad in the immediate postwar period.

“Roaming around and staying in youth hostels was a great experience. I’ve no idea where this desire to explore came from. My father was a merchant. But apparently I was curious even as a very small boy.”

In 2006, he published 10 titles. His most recent this year, coauthored with famed pro-skier Yuichiro Miura, is “Jinsei no Reiru wa Ippon Dewa Nai (There Is More Than One Railway in Life).”

This philosophical tack fits in with his new lifestyle, which he is promoting as WLS, for Work Life Balance. “People get stuck in a rut on one track. But there’s other stuff. So I say, try new things.”

Takamura likes to think he pioneered the ideology of working hard and playing hard. The pipe — a Dankan — helped promote this image: a professional relaxed on the job. “Shintaro Isehara once tried to set me up to smoke Dunhills tobacco, but no, I said, homegrown only. Someone has to support the Japan tobacco industry.”

Always one to stir things up and take risks, he moved his family from Osaka to Tokyo 30 years ago. That was when his TV career really took off.

“I survived for years, interviewing famous people and personalities live on Channel 8 (Fuji Terebi) from 7:30 to 9 p.m. — everyone from Nakasone to Reagan to Thatcher to Koizumi, Isehara and Abe. Often they wrote to me personally afterward saying how much they had enjoyed our talks. You can see from the photos (on the wall behind him) how relaxed we were.”

At the height of his popularity at the end of the 1970s, Takemura was popping up on TV nearly nonstop. His catchphrase in Osaka dialect — “Daitai ya na. . . (Generally speaking. . .)” was so well known that even my own husband admits to once mimicking him at a company banquet.

Takemura was admired as a strong critic and very opinionated. Compared to radicals of his time — like the recently deceased Makoto Oda (who founded Beheren, the Vietnam peace initiative) — he tended to remain politically center rather than leaning to the left. Now many would regard him as conservative, if not shifting to the right.

Yet there is no doubt he remains a maverick: critical in his own inimitable way, and therefore always interesting. Choosing his words carefully, he speaks of Japan’s “vulnerability” (rather than having weak spots).

Japanese common sense, for example, is very odd, he reckons: “No one likes conflict, but if any other country sends troops abroad into a war zone, it’s understood that there will be casualties.

Someone from Jietai (Self-Defense Forces) gets hurt or killed and suddenly everyone calls for withdrawal.” Strange, he thinks.

Yet for all his coverage of world leaders and events, his Web site is in Japanese only. There’s next to nothing about him in English on the Internet, a fact which appears even more idiosyncratic when you consider his home page is headed Worldwide Takemura.

So, I ask, why the Imperial Hotel?

“Because I have an endless stream of interesting people on my doorstep. There are so many banquets and parties. I can mingle and meet and chat with whomsoever I choose.”

Could he pick out any one famous name who’d made a deep impression?

“Hard, but perhaps Reagan. Everyone’s always treated me very nicely, but he really touched my heart, with lots of jokes. He told me about seeing a truck in the U.S. carrying a banner bearing anti-Japanese auto-industry sentiments, and the truck was made in Japan. He thought that was really funny; we laughed a lot.”

Takemura also recalls an official banquet at the White House with Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton. “Now she’s an interesting woman. . .”

His own wife is also an interesting woman. Ryoko Takemura has accompanied her husband on trips to over 80 countries, and while he tends to be active with work and/or outdoors sports, she’ll sit quietly with a sketchbook or paints and canvas and get on with a creative life of her own. Last year, a brochure of her paintings was published, and while Takemura is clearly proud of her (and possibly even dependent on her), it’s clear from the choice of photographs that she’s along for the ride, not the other away around. (There’s no photo of her alone, and several of him.)

Clearly loving the great outdoors, the family has three country retreats: one in Hokkaido (for skiing), in Hakone, for onsen and hiking; and on Yonakuni, the westernmost island in the Okinawa chain, for scuba diving.

Asked if he’s spent much time exploring the mysterious sunken city found off the coast, Takemura suddenly springs to life and grins from ear to ear. “You know about that? Remarkable, remarkable, you must come stay, see for yourself.”

Almost as quickly though, he sinks back onto the couch and assumes a hang-dog expression. Moving around gets less easy, and he’s the first to admit he’s not the man he was. But he and Ryoko were in New Zealand two months ago, and he’s still in demand for books and columns. At age 77, he really has nothing to complain about.

Working out of his Imperial suite suits him, he says. It’s different of course; now he tends to wait for people to come to him rather than going out in search. But, being a believer in serendipity, he’s confident that every day someone interesting will come along.

“Now just wait a minute while I can run this shaver over my face before you take my picture. Also where’s my pipe? OK, now I’m ready.”

www.takemura.com