Taiho May 29, 1940 — Jan. 19, 2013
“Taiho showed he is still the strongest wrestler in sumo by overwhelming Tamanoumi in the final bout to hand his fellow yokozuna his only loss of the tournament and force a playoff. . . . In the playoff match, Taiho once again outmaneuvered Tamanoumi on the belt, effectively preventing his tough little opponent from getting both hands on the sash at any point in the bout. . . . Tama effectively offset his 330-pound (150 kg) opponent’s arm-throw attempts with simultaneous arm-throws. . . . Tama then retaliated with a desperate attempt to hoist his opponent off his feet, but just didn’t have the strength to pull it off. . . . Taiho immediately countered with an arm throw, and although it fell short of the target, it enabled him to drive Tama to the edge and finally pressure him past the straw boundary for the tourney-winning triumph.” — Andy Adams, The Japan Times, January 1971
Sumo wrestling grand champion Taiho won his 32nd tournament that month. He retired in May, four months after his bout with Tamanoumi.
Taiho died of heart disease at the age of 72 but the sports icon will forever be remembered as the greatest sumo wrestler in postwar Japan. The late yokozuna still holds the record for most sumo tournament wins, although Hakuho, the current yokozuna, is not far behind with 27.
Michiko Yamaoka 1930 — Feb. 2, 2013
Fifteen-year-old Michiko Yamaoka left her home in Hiroshima on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, and headed to the local telephone office where she worked at the time. Along the way, at 8:15 a.m., the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the city. She was about 800 meters from the epicenter of the blast.
“Immediately after I saw the glare of bright yellow light in the sky, I was knocked down by the incredible force of the explosion. For a few seconds I thought I was dead,” Yamaoka wrote in memoirs that recalled the experience. She barely survived, but was left with severe burns and her face “swelled like a balloon.” Even her friends didn’t recognize her and ran away terrified of the way she looked.
Yamaoka spent the next few years hidding inside her home and admits that she was suicidal.
In 1955, however, she was invited to the United States along with 24 other hibakusha women and underwent 27 corrective surgeries to fix her keloid scars. The 25 women later became known as the “Hiroshima Maidens.”
In 1979, Yamaoka began speaking about her experiences of the war and became one of the most vocal hibakusha antiwar activists of her generation.
“I am not a scholar or a politician. I have no intention of being drawn into a political debate about whether dropping the bomb was a justifiable act. I only know what I suffered personally, and that is what I will speak about,” she used to say.
Yet, she also mused over how her life would have taken a different path had Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration sooner than it did.
“I could have had a happy life like those who have never experienced the devastation,” she told The Japan Times in 1989.
Yamaoka died of pneumonia at a nursing facility in Hiroshima. She was 82.
Danjuro Ichikawa Aug. 6, 1946 — Feb. 3, 2013
Less than three months after the kabuki fraternity lost Kanzaburo XVIII, it was hit hard again with the passing of Danjuro XII. The deaths of the two stars came at a crucial time as the Kabukiza theater in Ginza was preparing to reopen after three years of construction.
After debuting at age 7, Danjuro came to be known as one of the best kabuki actors of his generation, and was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government in 2007. He was also awarded the Purple Ribbon from the Japanese government that same year.
Danjuro, whose real name was Natsuo Horikoshi, held the name of Ichikawa Ebizo prior to 1985. He “often delighted his audience by recapturing his father’s image on the stage,” The Japan Times wrote at the time, adding that the “future of the kabuki theater seems to have been entrusted to Ichikawa Ebizo.”
The name of Ebizo today is held by Danjuro XII’s son, who, like his father, is tasked with carrying the art of kabuki on his shoulders as the heir of the prestigious Ichikawa clan.
“I couldn’t give back anything to my father,” Ebizo said after Danjuro’s death. Calling his late father “a man with big love,” he pledged to “practice the art of kabuki,” he said.
Danjuro was first diagnosed with promyelocytic leukemia in 2004 and continued to suffer from health issues ever since. He was 66 at the time of his death.
Yuko Tojo May 20, 1939 — Feb. 13, 2013
Despite being the granddaughter of wartime Prime Minister and Class-A war criminal Hideki Tojo, Yuko Tojo remained out of the spotlight for most of her life until the mid-1990s. She then spent the next two decades publishing memoirs of her family, appearing on TV shows and even running (unsuccessfully) in the 2007 Upper House election.
Here is a selection of her more memorable quotes:
“Of all the lies told about Japan’s history, the worst one is the fabrication of the so-called Nanjing Massacre” (on the Nanjing Massacre, during which up to 300,000 Chinese were killed).
“The army did not forcefully make women into sex slaves” (on the issue of the Imperial Japanese Army’s “comfort women” during the war).
“It was a brutal act, on par with the massacre of Jewish people by the Nazis” (on the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
“It was a trial that violated international laws” (on the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, in which her grandfather, Hideki, was found guilty and sentenced to death).
“I believe the war was not a wrong one. If there was anything wrong with it, it was the fact that we lost. Therefore if my grandfather, Hideki Tojo, is to be held responsible for his wartime act, it shouldn’t be because he started the war — it should be because he lost it” (on the Pacific War and her grandfather’s culpability).
Tojo worked as a Japanese-language teacher and a counselor at a reformatory during her life, according to her website. She was 73 at the time of her death.
Kohei Nakabo Aug. 2, 1929 — May 3, 2013
One of the most famous legal battles Kohei Nakabo took a part in was the case of Morinaga’s arsenic-tainted baby formula, which caused more than 130 deaths and widespread poisoning in Western Japan in the mid-1950s. The Kyoto native had just passed his bar exam at the time, but 14 years later when families sued Morinaga for side effects, Nakabo was chosen to lead the prosecution counsel.
He initially tried to interview as many of the victims and their families as he could. During the course of his interviews, he found that while the mothers of disabled children were critical of Morinaga, they were also crushed with guilt for having fed poisonous milk to their babies.
“I have only myself to blame,” one mother told Nakabo. “Even if I suffer for the rest of my life because of this child, I won’t blame anybody. It’s all my fault.”
“When I heard that, I felt deep anger at Morinaga and the government,” the lawyer recalled.
“May you never forget that behind your success as an enterprise, there are the victims who were crushed to death,” Nakabo informed Morinaga’s legal team in court. “The voices of the victims will not go away until proper remedial actions are taken,” he added.
It took nearly 20 years for Morinaga and the state in 1973 to acknowledge their culpability over the tainted baby formula and agree to support those permanently affected by having consumed the product.
“You must take an analytical look at what is happening and be able to tell what is essential from what is not,” Nakabo once said. “When you know what is essential, you can develop a real passion for your work.”
Nakabo, who also served as the head of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and the chief of Resolution and Collection Corporation, died of heart failure. He was 83.
Jiroemon Kimura April 19, 1897 — June 12, 2013
Jiroemon Kimura was the oldest man in the world for more than two years before passing away at 116 years and 54 days old on June 12. He is verified as the longest-lived man in history, and was the last known living man born in the 19th century.
Kimura was 6 years old when the Wright Brothers made their first flight; 15 years old when the Titanic sank; 26 when the Great Kanto Earthquake struck; 48 when Japan surrendered to the Allied forces; 67 at the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; 90 when Michael Jackson held his first solo concert in Japan; and 100 years old when the Mars Pathfinder landed on Mars.
The Showa Emperor was four years younger than Kimura; John F. Kennedy was born when Kimura was 20.
Kimura survived two world wars, witnessed Japan’s postwar recovery, the heyday of the country’s economic prowess and the burst of the bubble economy. All in all, 61 different prime ministers led the country during his lifetime.
The Japan Times was launched only 28 days before Kimura was born. News stories published on Kimura’s birthday include reports on Queen Victoria’s upcoming Diamond Jubilee as well as the war between Greece and the Ottoman Empire.
Kimura had seven children, 14 grandchildren, 25 great-grandchildren and 15 great-great-grandchildren.
The secret of his longevity? “Don’t eat too much, and don’t have any likes and dislikes,” he once said.
He died of natural causes at a hospital in Kyoto.
Akitsugu Amata Aug. 4, 1927 — June 26, 2013
Since the government in 1955 began certifying Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties (more commonly known as Living National Treasures), only 340 have been honored with the title. Master swordsmith Akitsugu Amata received the certification in 1997.
Amata began studying and manufacturing Japanese swords when he was 13, and quickly made a name for his works in national forging competitions.
In 1959, however, he began to question the modern process of sword-making and started taking a different approach.
“He knew it was reckless, but he began researching ways to manufacture iron on his own,” his family states on his website. He moved to Tsukioka, Niigata Prefecture, and commenced his search for the perfect iron. He studied sword-making measures used in 14th-century Japan and introduced elements of these into his own creations.
The swords Amata made through this process rarely appear on the market any more, but when they do they can reach a few million yen. Some of the famed swords manufactured by Amata include the one used by yokozuna Kitanoumi during his entrance ceremony in 1974. Amata was also responsible for creating the imperial guardian sword, presented from Emperor Akihito to his grandson, Prince Hisahito, when he was born in September 2006.
According to his family’s website, Amata continued his lifelong research “until the end” and died still trying to master the art. Amata passed away from pneumonia at the age of 85.
Masao Yoshida Feb. 17, 1955 — July 9, 2013
Masao Yoshida was the plant manager during the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant disaster, and is widely credited with averting a full-scale catastrophe that might have even led to the evacuation of Tokyo.
“In the week following March 11, we had no idea what was going to happen next. We did our best under the circumstances,” Yoshida later told reporters, describing the uncertainty that immediately followed the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011. “But there were multiple occasions during that time when, in my gut feeling, I knew that I was going to die.”
Yoshida received universal praise for his leadership and decision-making at a time of enormous stress.
“Don’t disturb me,” he told one Tokyo Electric Power Co. executive in a phone conference during initial attempts to control the crippled facility.
His defining moment came on March 12, a day after the tsunami struck, when Yoshida, under direct orders from Tepco corporate executives, told his men to stop injecting seawater into reactor 1 to keep the reactor from overheating. Off mic, however, he ignored the order and told workers to keep pumping seawater into unit 1 whether the front office liked it or not. The injection of salt water into the reactors meant they could never be used for power generation again.
While Yoshida’s heroics may have prevented the reactor cores from exploding, critics say he bore some initial responsibility for the crisis, since the safety of the nuclear power plant was already in question before the quake struck.
Yoshida died of esophageal cancer, which due to the rapidness of its onset was determined to be unrelated to the nuclear accident. He was 58 at the time of his death.
Hiroshi Yamauchi Nov. 7, 1927 — Sept. 19, 2013
After Hiroshi Yamauchi rebuilt and sold his family’s playing-card company, he used all the profit to develop a video-game console that was eventually released in July 1983. The Family Computer system, known as Famicom in Japan and the Nintendo Entertainment System overseas, went on to sell more than 63 million units worldwide.
“(Yamauchi) made the best decision under limited resources and options at the right time,” current Nintendo President Satoru Iwata said in an interview in “The Philosophy of Nintendo,” which was published in 2009. “If I were placed in the same situation, I don’t think I’d be able to do that.”
Yamauchi was often ranked as one of the richest men in the country, and topped the Forbes ranking of Japan’s richest men in 2008 with an estimated $7.8 billion in assets. Asked about how he achieved his success, he often claimed that he and his company “were simply lucky.”
But it wasn’t all about the money for the mogul.
When Nintendo was in negotiations to purchase the Seattle Mariners in 1992, there were protests among fans in the United States against selling a Major League Baseball team to an overseas company. Hearing this, Yamauchi agreed to finance 60 percent of the $125 million purchase but also reduce his percentage of the voting stock and his overall control of the team.
Asked by The Japan Times why he agreed to the deal, he said that it was purely from a desire to provide service to the community of Seattle, where Nintendo based its U.S. headquarters.
Yamauchi died of pneumonia at a hospital in Kyoto. He was 85. The Seattle Mariners held a moment of silence before their game on Sept. 24 to honor their late owner.
Takashi Yanase Feb. 6, 1919 — Oct. 13, 2013
Batman kills his enemies. So do Ultraman, Spider-Man and Superman. However, in creating his version of the ultimate superhero, Takashi Yanase settled on a round-faced, caped character whose head is made of bread filled with sweet bean-paste.
In explaining his unusual choice, Yanase often said that Anpanman is the epitome of his idea of a superhero that was formed during the war. There is nothing more justifiable than one person providing food for another, he said. Hunting down and killing a nemesis, meanwhile, is at times questionable because wars and battles are often fought with both sides believing they have a right cause.
Since the original Anpanman was created in the mid-1970s, the hero has remained one of the most popular figures among children and has appeared in all kinds of products, including snacks, books, games, toys, TV programs and movies. Baikinman (Germ Man) is the arch nemesis in the series, but the two never go after the other seriously. All the while, Anpanman provides pieces of bread (taken from his face) for whoever is in need of food.
Yanase had suffered from poor health over the past 20 years or so, coming down with heart conditions, vision problems and bladder cancer.
He pondered retiring a few years ago, but continued to work after hearing how Anpanman and its theme song kept children upbeat in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake.
“When you die, you die,” he said during one of his last appearances in front of the media. “I am going to die with a smile on my face.”