Sometimes the components of a news story fit together so perfectly that you can’t help but wonder how much of it was engineered by the press. Actress Hisako Manda, a former beauty queen who found success in recent years as a cover girl for magazines catering to women in their 50s, is currently at the center of a celebrity melodrama that has the weeklies competing for new, startling revelations.
Last month, Manda’s long-time live-in partner, businessman Chikara Sasaki, died of a rare form of cancer that was diagnosed only two months earlier. Sasaki was the head of the fashion house Link Theory and is reported to have been worth ¥20 billion. However, because he and Manda were not married, the actress can’t expect to receive any money. Wills are rare in Japan and Sasaki didn’t write one, so his inheritance is determined by the Civil Code, which is strict about who gets what. Spouses receive half, with the remainder divided among the couple’s children. If there are no children, then the deceased’s parents and siblings have claims on the legacy.
Common-law wives don’t, but if the couple has a child who was formally acknowledged (ninchi) by the deceased male partner, that child can receive one-half of the amount a “legitimate” heir — a child produced from a legal union — would receive. Manda and Sasaki have a son, who can therefore receive something, but Manda is entitled to nothing, even though she supported Sasaki financially during a period when his business was on the ropes.
Shukan Gendai calls Manda “the woman who was left behind.” The magazine generates sympathy for the actress with a re-creation of events whose confluence seem like a conspiracy. Because Sasaki, who was only 61, was never told by his doctors how long he had to live, he did not arrange his affairs so that Manda could receive her share of his estate. In fact, the article claims that in the hospital Sasaki told Manda that he would marry her after he got better. The maudlin value of this piece of intelligence is made more wrenching with the added detail that Manda herself did know her partner only had a month to live and didn’t tell him. In other words, she selflessly gave up what many would consider her rightful share of the estate so as not to cause him any emotional anguish.
Sasaki is a legend in the apparel industry. He started out in the 1970s working for World, a textile trading company, rapidly ascending to the point where the president put him in charge of the company’s Hong Kong division after it was made an independent firm. World Hong Kong thrived under Sasaki’s stewardship, and in the late 1980s he returned to Japan and formed a new company that licensed the American clothing brand Theory, which was also a hit.
The affair started in 1987, while Sasaki was still married. The Japanese contestant in the 1978 Miss Universe contest, Manda has had more lasting success as an actress than most Japanese beauty contest winners do, though she rarely gets leading parts. Her name value increased greatly when the media found out she was pregnant, and though she had the child in New York, according to Gendai she never let the “press bashing” get to her. One suspects that Gendai itself was in on the “bashing,” but the magazine now professes admiration for her “solid” demeanor: She risked her career for her child and the man she loved.
Sasaki divorced in 1994 but Manda, according to Gendai, didn’t think it necessary to marry him. She was afraid his three children by his former wife would not approve. More importantly, she didn’t want to bend to the media’s disapproval of the relationship. She even had the audacity to say publicly that she was “comfortable” being an unmarried mother.
Familiarity bred acceptance, and Manda became so identified as Sasaki’s significant other that she might as well have been married to him. Having never been a big star the bashing didn’t have a notable effect on her career, and may even have helped it in the long run: She provides the Japanese voice for the lead character of Susan Delfino for local broadcasts of the American prime-time soap opera “Desperate Housewives.”
In the late ’90s, Sasaki’s Hong Kong business was hemorrhaging cash and according to Shukan Shincho Manda saved it by buying a piece of property from him for ¥80 million. To add insult to injury, the couple tore down their Meguro home last year because they wanted to build a new house on the same land, but with Sasaki’s death construction has been put on hold because the ¥500 million property is in his name.
Gendai says Manda is on good terms with Sasaki’s three children, and it is not unusual for legitimate heirs to share their inheritances with nonrelatives. However, there is another twist to the story, which Shincho delivered at that moment when it would have the biggest effect. After Sasaki had slipped into a coma, the magazine published an article saying that the ailing businessman had, several years ago, acknowledged a daughter by another woman, his long-time press secretary. Shincho said Manda knew about this affair, but Gendai claims she wasn’t aware of the child until she read about it in Shincho, and was shocked, not so much by the fact that he had another child, but because he had kept it from her. This additional heir, illegitimate like Manda’s own son, now figures into the legacy; which means the former press secretary is also involved.
But that’s not all. The women’s weeklies are now reporting that Manda’s son is about to be the father of an illegitimate child; that is, unless he marries the mother, who is eight years older. How this latest development affects the legal part of the story no one knows, and while it’s tempting to use the drama as an illustration of the antiprogressive nature of Japanese family law, the first question that comes to my mind is: Haven’t any of these people heard of condoms?