The subject of the popular children’s song “Akai Kutsu” (“Red Shoes”) may have died many years ago, but she remains very much a symbol of friendship and a driving force behind charity events.
The sad song portrays Kimi Iwasaki, who was separated from her mother and adopted by American missionary Charles Huit and his wife when she was 3 years old.
The song, which has been sung by nearly all Japanese during their childhood, describes the girl, clad in red shoes, leaving Yokohama by ship with a foreigner.
Iwasaki was born in the village of Fujimi, now known as Shimizu in the city of Shizuoka, on July 15, 1902. She died of tuberculosis at age 9 at a church orphanage in Azabujuban in Minato Ward, Tokyo, having never actually made it to the U.S.
Residents of Azabujuban, a bustling shopping area near the Roppongi entertainment district, visit and maintain friendships with people in a variety of places, including the city of Shizuoka, in an effort to teach children the importance of bonds between parents and children, and to tell the story of Kimi.
Kimi’s mother gave her up when she decided to live and work on a homestead in Hokkaido. She believed her daughter would live a happy life with her adoptive parents. She died believing Kimi was alive in America.
But Kimi came down with TB, an incurable disease at the time, just before she was to leave for the United States.
Ujo Noguchi, a noted folk and children’s songwriter, heard the story of Kimi and wrote “Akai Kutsu.” The music was composed by Nagayo Motoori.
A statue depicting a girl wearing her hair in braids stands at the corner of a square in Azabujuban. It was erected in 1989 when a group of residents, including clothing store owner Kimitoshi Yamamoto, 60, appealed to officials of the Minato Ward Office for its construction after learning that the orphanage had been located in the ward.
On the day that the statue was erected, Yamamoto learned a coin had been placed at its base. He spotted coins in the following days and decided to place a box there. Within a few days, the box was filled with money.
Residents holding charity events during Azabujuban’s annual festival have donated money collected in the box to charity organizations, including 8 million yen to UNICEF.
“It seems that not only shoppers but children drop small change in the box,” Yamamoto said. “As I think of Kimi, I (feel I should) continue to appeal for the happiness of parents and children.”
Eleven people from Azabujuban joined in an evening riverside gathering in her memory in Shimizu last July 16. They floated lanterns down the Tomoe River as “Akai Kutsu” played in the background.
After Shimizu watch-store owner Osamu Sugiyama, 54, learned by chance that Azabujuban had a statue of Kimi, the two shopping districts began holding exchange events.
He told Minato Ward officials that Kimi’s hometown also had a statue of her but that many people were unaware of her story. He was then introduced to Yamamoto.
The girl’s story and song have attracted attention in other parts of the country.
Kimi statues can be found in the Hokkaido village of Rusutsu, site of her mother’s homestead, and at Yokohama port. Choirs from Rusutsu and Yokohama exchanged visits several years ago.