Suzue Akashi, 74, is a folk musician who plays traditional Japanese songs on shamisen with taiko drum accompaniment. Her insatiable desire to learn took her from a Tokyo dairy to the education center at Haneda Air Force Base, to university in Tennessee and work in Texas during the 1950s. Back in Japan, she sold Avon cosmetics before deciding to commit herself to playing shamisen, which she ultimately did at the prestigious Matsubaya restaurant. A winner of countless music competitions, and the 2002 recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award, she is proudest of having always done the right thing, even when it was painful to do so.
I have good skin and posture because I grew up in a milk hall. My parents bottled and delivered milk in Tokyo. Milk was a luxury in the 1930s and I was very lucky because I could drink as much as I wanted. Kids teased me at school for my white skin. When I was in the U.S. in the 1950s, both blacks and whites asked me why I had such white skin and such straight black hair. Many of them touched my hair and face.
If it’s short and sweet, then nobody gets bored. I enjoy singing hauta, which are 2- or 3-minute songs, with great punch lines, compiled from the best parts of longer pieces.
I operate like a U.S. university: easy to get in, but hard to graduate from. In the traditional Japanese art world, the teachers are revered and pick their students carefully. I don’t. I never refuse anybody who wants to learn from me. I have a responsibility to give my knowledge to as many students as possible.
After surviving the war I can never complain. Our whole neighborhood was firebombed. Once the bombs hit their targets, the cloths inside them that were soaked in napalm flew all over the place, so every 15 or 20 cm a small fire ignited. It was so pretty. We ran through the firestorm, down to the Tamagawa River. Once we got there, we were stunned because the riverbank was already full of people standing in the water. We couldn’t squeeze in. Then the U.S. planes started dropping firebombs on the people in the river. I don’t know why or how my family survived World War II, but we all did.
War is never personal. I never hated the Americans for what they did to us.
Why sleep when being awake is more fun? I took one of the oceanliners of the American President Line to San Francisco. It took two weeks and I never stayed in my room but fooled around on deck, staring up at the sky, with some charming men next to me.
Some people see colors but not the whole picture. In 1958 I was working as a secretary at a cotton office in Texas. A black engineer at the factory was injured by one of the machines and rushed to the hospital. We got a call from the hospital saying that the doctor was refusing to treat him. Our president, Mr. Tapp, was furious and drove to the hospital himself. He screamed at the doctor until he finally agreed to help.
Airplanes are a bore. They get you places, but not in style.
It’s better to love than be loved. After I came back to Japan, I married a Taiwanese man who supplied noodles to my father’s restaurant. I’d never noticed him before, even though he was always stopping by. Once he proposed, I just couldn’t say no. That’s just me. He adored me and treated me like a princess, but I couldn’t return his feelings. Those were sad times — I can’t even remember how many years we were together. He developed liver cancer and died in my arms.
It’s never too late to switch careers. I was 40 and making great money as an Avon Zone Manager. I loved my life. One day I bought a record of minyo-, traditional folk songs. As I listened, I could smell the fresh soil and crisp air those songs were born in. I was hooked and started to take shamisen lessons.
Watching TV is nonsense. I either work or practice my songs. I hate sitting around.
Selling is all about complimenting the customer. Find something you like about him or her and praise it. Never lie!
I don’t need to be loved by everyone. I’m always honest and speak the truth, even if it hurts at times. Most Japanese say what the other person wants to hear, but they never say what should be said. This creates lots of problems.
Geisha’s lives are about endurance and effort. I worked as a musician at Matsubaya, at one of the top ryotei (a high-class Japanese restaurant). Guests enjoyed delicious sukiyaki or tempura dinners while listening to music and enjoying the dances by geisha, who were superior artists.
Two parents must have one voice. My second husband was also Taiwanese. We were very happy at first. He had four children from his previous marriage, with two still at home. He was the typical sweet father, letting the kids run wild. I tried to discipline them and asked them to study and behave, but he never backed me up. He just stayed silent. A weak father makes a good mother look evil. I had no choice but to divorce him.
If you want to be successful, you need to have a specialty, something that nobody else has.
Learning something for a long time is not enough; continuing it for life is the key. People study an art form but once they feel they are pretty good at it, they quit. Soon they forget everything they had learned. What a waste.
If I could be half as nice as my mother was, I would be a wonderful woman.
A great teacher can change lives. My high school English teacher, Masako Tango, always wore kimono, had her hair up in a bun and never had makeup on. But she spoke English as well as a native speaker and was well-versed in English literature. All of us students stayed in the classroom before her class and studied hard because we respected and admired her.
Be strict with yourself and gentle with others. I am very disciplined with myself. I always study so hard.
Never throw away an opportunity to study or work. I loved Bob and he loved me, but when I got a scholarship to study in Tennessee I left him behind in Haneda. I figured there were many other Bobs in the world but maybe no more scholarships. I was right. Keep in mind that this was 1950s Japan, so getting an invitation to go to college in the United States was very special. I didn’t want to miss the boat.
Once I knew I was adopted, I loved my parents even more than before. I had the most wonderful childhood and the greatest parents. When I applied for a passport at age 25, I found out that I had been adopted by my uncle. I was shocked and amazed that they could love a selfish girl like me that much, even though they were not my birth parents. I adored them even more from that moment on.
I didn’t believe in one love. I believed in love. Yet I found my sweetheart when I was 54. I never met a nicer man. His face is not much but he has a heart of gold.
To have a good life, education is the key. First of all, find what you want to do and focus on it. Every day people mature, so doing something new every few years is natural. The point is to do it at full steam, to work hard and excel at what you do.