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Sumiko Sakamoto

by Judit Kawaguchi

Sumiko Sakamoto, 70, is a singer and award-winning actress whose heartfelt performances have made her a favorite of the late film director Shohei Imamura. Imamura cast her in three of his films, among them “The Ballad of Narayama,” winner of the 1983 Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, in which her brilliant portrayal of an elderly mother not only earned her a kiss from Orson Welles, but also the Japanese Best Actress Award from Nihon Academy. This year she celebrates her 50th anniversary in show business, but the role and performance she is happiest with is that of being a wife and mother who is so full of love that she thinks nobody can compete with her on the homefront. A believer that children are gifts that must be cherished, for the past 14 years she has devoted most of her time to running the Seibo Nursery and Kindergarten in Kumamoto, Kyushu.

Never give up one thing for the sake of another. Destiny creates opportunities for us and we must accept them all as they come. Don’t even think of stopping one thing just because a new possibility has appeared. Who knows if you will succeed or not — just do them all. When I was feeling pressure to give up singing and acting to please my future mother-in-law so that I could marry her son, I knew that was not even a choice. I wanted both, persevered and got even more.

Don’t watch your back: watch his! A man is all about his back. His iki — coolness — shines through there. When I saw my husband’s back, I knew he was great, and he is. It is not the size or shape of his back that matters, but the feeling I get about his character, which is written on it.

Mobile phones are great tools to show love. We have been married for 36 years and still now, we e-mail each other a dozen times a day and talk on the phone. I love mobile phones because when I want to hear his voice suddenly, I just call no matter where I am. Thank you, mobile phones!

If a man talks, it is cheap. His meaning can be conveyed without many words, just by actions.

If you are too fast for the classics, you might just be perfect for Latin music. I was 22 and an NHK-radio chorus girl. This is before we even had TV, and cabaret was so hot in Japan. We sat on the steps like in those old Hollywood movies, but I was too fast for the chorus so I decided that I had to go solo.

Family is always more important than work. Fourteen years ago my mother-in-law, who was 89 at the time, got sick and I felt this was the moment to go and take care of her. I was booked solid for 6 months but I canceled all my engagements and moved to Kyushu to stay at her house and take care of her. I was a star back then but for her I was the sun, moon and the whole galaxy. That was a 1-year present for me. She died in peace and in safety. I felt that as a wife to her son, I had to do it.

When parents get older, children must do what they ask. In “The Ballad of Narayama,” the mother tells her son to take her to the mountain — the domain of gods and goddesses — to die in peace, as the village is too poor to support people over the age of 70. He is reluctant, but since she insists, he finally carries her up. It sounds cruel, but is it really? I think it is a lot crueler to throw one’s parents into nursing homes and leave them there to die.

If you give birth, you should raise your child on your own. Cats, dogs, lions, they all take care of their cubs. I run a nursery and a kindergarten and we have over 300 little ones in our care. We try our best, but nobody can replace the care and love of their mothers.

Do mothers really have to work now? I wonder. They work to buy nicer clothes and to eat in restaurants and take trips abroad. If you just skip all that, a family could live on a lot less and mom could stay at home and raise the children. Nurseries are costly, too. People love doing things on their own, except the most important job — parenting — they delegate to others. This is a big mistake, because those years never come back and the damage can never be mended.

You must respect each other’s differences — even religious ones. We were both 33 and Japanese, but we were from totally different worlds: he was a Catholic from the super-macho male culture of Kyushu island; a doctor from a wealthy family whose favorite pastime was reading historical novels. I was a Protestant from Osaka; an actress and singer in colorful clothes and makeup with a taste for night clubs. Yet we clicked and we have been running right on time without missing a beat for 36 years together.

If it’s meant to be, you will be together. I went to a club and saw him. I liked his back and sat down next to him. Nice! We talked and he gave me his name card. I was singing in a club the next day, and when I woke up, I had a cold. My friend took me to a doctor and who was it? My nice guy from the club! He took my temperature, which was rising steadily, and offered me a ride to the club, which was a good 11/2 hours away. He gave me an injection for the cold so I slept — probably snoring in the back seat. When we got to our destination I invited him in to hear me sing. That was it. He said he was stunned that a tiny woman could sing like a giant.

A mother’s love can know no boundaries. We were dating and he invited me to his house. His mom was waiting for me, with a rosary in hand and a priest next to her. I was all confused, thinking that someone had died. Nobody had, but I was going to interrogated. She asked why I sang and why I was acting. I said I acted in movies but in real life I never did. I realized this was an audition to be her son’s wife, and I wanted to pass it. I had to win her over, but things looked really bad for me. She was tough and very serious about saving her son and family from some strange bar singer, but I kept my cool and answered all her queries politely. That discussion taught me how a great mother loves her son and wants to protect him. I fell in love with her. I thought I wanted to be like her when I was her age. What a lady.

Once you become part of a family, be nice to each other. I’ve never argued with my mother-in-law. Before we got married, she was tough on me, but once I became her daughter-in-law she changed and treated me with so much love that it felt she loved me more than she loved her son.

Let kids grow up at their own speed. The Montessori method we use at our kindergarten is based on establishing a peaceful environment where we trust children and do not try to teach them anything. We think kids have the power to grow and we just help them.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “Weekend Japanology.” Learn more at: http://juditfan.blog58.fc2.com/