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Cook, writer, TV host, actress and more: Briton toasts eventful half-century in Japan

by Louise George Kittaka

Seated in a sunny corner of a Tokyo cafe, Jill Sinclair Ito has the relaxed air of someone with all the time in the world. In fact, this vibrant British septuagenarian, who is celebrating a personal milestone of 50 years in Japan this year, has a schedule to rival many people half her age. She shared her memories of half a century of living in this country.

Longtime readers of The Japan Times might recognize Ito as the writer of Cooking with the Seasons, a weekly feature that ran from 1978 to 1997. In the pre-Internet era, the column was a godsend for foreign residents seeking easy and tasty recipes they could make with ingredients that were readily available. Cookery writer, however, is just one among several strings to Ito’s bow.

Hailing from the city of St. Albans to the north of London, Ito was interested in other cultures from a young age. Upon leaving secretarial school, she took a job as assistant to the press attaché at the Indonesian Embassy in London.

“After four years with the embassy, I decided I wanted a chance to represent Britain abroad, so I applied and was accepted to join the Foreign Office. I remember making a list of the places I wanted to go. Tokyo, Athens and Beirut were my top three choices and Tokyo was what I got.”

In 1963, Ito arrived in a Tokyo that was rapidly modernizing but where life was still strictly ordered.

“I lived in a large residence known as the Ladies Mess, along with about a dozen other unmarried women who worked at the British Embassy,” she recalls. “Some of the women were keen to move out, but I’d lived in a bed-sit in London so I knew how good we had things! Our meals were provided, our rooms were cleaned for us and we were always taken to work in a chauffeured car.”

While she appreciated the merits of embassy life, Ito wanted to get to know Japanese people her age, so she joined an international friendship club.

“When I first came to Japan, few Japanese had the chance to go abroad, unless they were from embassy families or had been sent overseas to study,” she says. “The young people were interested in talking to foreigners and finding out about other cultures, just as I was.”

After 2½ years, Ito was sent back to Britain and then given her second overseas posting, to Dusseldorf in what was then West Germany. This new assignment, however, was short-lived because Ito’s heart soon led her back to Japan.

“I’d met my future husband in passing while I was still in Tokyo, as he was taking English lessons from a colleague at the British Embassy. Then he was dispatched to London by his firm and a mutual friend put us in touch.”

The relationship began as platonic but soon blossomed, and Ito swapped her job in Germany for marriage in Tokyo.

Having come to know their future son-in-law during his time in London, her parents were supportive of her intercultural marriage.

“The only problem was that my husband never understood my dad’s jokes!” she grins.

Ito only met her in-laws after arriving back in Tokyo in 1969 and marrying. While there was initial trepidation on both sides, she says she was fortunate that they respected her need to make her own way in Japan.

“We built a small house next door to them but didn’t live together,” she explains. “It was important for me to have the space to develop my relationship with my husband and children on my own terms.”

The newlyweds settled in the bed town of Fuchu, a sharp contrast to her pampered existence at the embassy.

“All the buildings were wooden in those days and there was one shop that could generously be called a supermarket,” she says. “I was certainly thrown in at the deep end but I learned to accept there were different ways of doing things, and people were very kind and put up with my mistakes.”

Ito honed her cookery skills through the daily meals she prepared for her family. She was occasionally asked to teach the finer points of British cooking to local women.

“I think most of them came just for the chance to try these strange new dishes, and not because they intended to prepare them at home. Then there was the woman who wanted to know if she could substitute peanuts for the walnuts in my Christmas cake recipe!”

Cooking with the Seasons came about after Ito learned that her friend Joan Itoh (now Joan Itoh Burke) was retiring her Rice Paddy Gourmet cooking column in The Japan Times.

“I thought I had nothing to lose, so I put together some ideas for several columns and sent them away. I got a call from the newspaper a few days later and it took off from there.”

Burke is also the founder of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese, which Ito joined a few years after the group started in 1969. Ito credits AFWJ as being a constant source of support over the years and enjoys friendships with members of all ages. She served a term as president and her comical impressions of Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher have become something of a tradition at AFWJ’s annual conventions.

Cooking with the Seasons led to other opportunities for Ito. She was invited to become the only non-Japanese member on the judging panel of the Kikkoman Recipe Contest for foreign residents, organized by the makers of the famed soy sauce.

“At first, the panel were judging the recipes from a Japanese point of view, but I noticed things changed a lot during the 11 years I was involved. As Japanese people traveled more, new tastes took off and new cultures started to influence cooking here. There was a gradual fusion of Western and Japanese flavors and foods, which was reflected in the panel’s choice of winning recipes.”

A completely new sideline opened up for Ito in the early 1980s when she decided to apply for a role in the chorus for an opera.

“The La Scala opera company was coming from Milan on tour. By the time I found out, all the seats had been sold, but then I read they were hiring extras for their Tokyo shows, so I applied and got in. I got to see the opera after all!”

Then, after hearing about opportunities for part-time modeling and other work from fellow cast members, Ito signed up with a talent agency.

“It took a while to get my first real job, but it gradually built up. I’ve played mothers and grandmothers on TV and in movies, and in one case a fairy godmother in a commercial for a language school.”

Much of her work these days comes from saigen (reenactment) dramas, where scenes from overseas events are recreated for TV documentaries. Ito admits that she particularly relishes the chance to play villains.

Ito’s engaging personality and knowledge of Japanese food and language earned her the role of host on “Cuisine Japanesque,” a cable TV show produced by TV Tokyo in the late 1980s aimed at the foreign community. Working with respected chef Koichiro Hata from the Tsuji Culinary Institute, Ito’s job was to translate Hata’s instructions for viewers.

She admits that being on the show was quite nerve-wracking, especially at the beginning.

“Sometimes I didn’t always quite get what the chef said, but I carried on regardless. Of course, my family liked to chuckle over my occasional errors!”

Learning to keep her cool on set gave her the self-confidence to hold her own in any situation. This experience stood her in good stead when she went to work part-time as the adviser for foreign residents at the Fuchu City Office, a role she held for seven years until the city opened its International Exchange Salon in the mid-1990s, which is staffed by English-speaking volunteers.

“I listened to people’s problems or complaints and then explained how things are handled here in Japan and tried to work things out with them,” Ito explains. “I was told I had a gift for taking on irate foreign visitors and sending them away with a smile!”

Ito is still listening, but these days it tends to be to random people she meets while out and about on her forays around Tokyo.

“Sometimes a person just wants to talk with someone — anyone. It’s a simple thing, but it never hurts to give someone your time. Once they’ve shared their problem, perhaps they’ll realize things aren’t as bad as they thought. I am always happy to listen.”

In recent years, Ito has taken on the renovation of a dilapidated farmhouse in rural Niigata, which she refers to affectionately as “Jill’s Folly.” While her husband prefers to stay in Tokyo with all the comforts of home, Ito jumped at the chance to experience country life.

“I love it for the surroundings and for the interaction with the locals, who’ve adopted me as one of their own,” she enthuses.

Asked if she has any advice for other foreign residents about building a happy life in Japan, Ito collects her thoughts for a moment before answering.

“Look at everything, good or bad, as a learning experience. Don’t expect to understand every single thing in Japan — I still don’t! But remember, there is always a meeting point in any situation.”

Then with a gracious smile and a wave, she is off to her next appointment.

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