Ratna Sari Dewi Sukarno has become a well-known Japanese media figure in recent years and has just raised some $90,000 for victims of terrorist attacks in the United States.
The widow of the former president of Indonesia, who fell from power in 1966, she is a miracle of survival and reinvention, having lived in virtual exile from her homeland, Japan, for more than four decades. She now lives in the Gotanda district of Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, with four lap dogs and an entourage of secretaries and housekeepers.
It is 8 p.m., and she has plasters on her elbows and shins after falling off a bicycle while teaching herself to ride for a New Year television special. A bottle of Champagne (her usual evening tipple) keeps her going through this, her first lengthy English-language interview with the Japanese press.
You provoke really strong feelings. People seem to either love you or really hate you. Why is that?
Well, you know (laughs uproariously), you can’t please everybody. When some people compare themselves to me, there is jealousy, envy, a sense of inferiority . . . a complex that can explode into anger. Yet the fact is, right now I’m one of the most popular people in Japan. Many like my style, my looks, what I do, my way of saying things. Those who don’t are comparing me against themselves. How come she’s had so many chances? Why not me? These people are no good. As I’ve been telling people on my lecture tour, everyone is given chances. Whether you have the intelligence to recognize a chance when it comes up, that’s another matter. Then you have to work hard to make the most of that opportunity to achieve success. How many widows of politicians can survive ? My husband died 32 years ago, yet I’m world-famous now.
Looking at your resume, it seems that you reinvent yourself every 10 years or so.
That’s right. I have never wanted the world — Indonesia in particular — to think I survive only as the ex-wife of Sukarno. I want people to see that I can live successfully without him. Makiko Tanaka has a similar problem. Japanese men and the Japanese government were determined not to accept me from the very beginning. I’m direct, straightforward. Some just can’t take it. But audiences like me; they admire my guts. Popularity is a funny thing. You can’t make people love you, however hard you try.
Also from your resume, it appears life started in 1959 when you met your husband. Who were you before you became Madame Sukarno?
I was Naoko Nemoto from Nishi-Azabu [in central Tokyo’s Minato Ward], and a very ambitious girl. I wanted to be an opera singer, or a great writer. I had many talents, winning all the painting competitions at school. But most famous artists died poor, and I felt it was my duty to help my mother and younger brother. Picked for a part in a play on entering junior high school, I decided to become an actress. My father died when I was in junior high.
Those were hard times. My earliest memories are of sirens, my first word, B-29s. Entering elementary school, we girls had to kneel down and push our hair forward to be sprayed with DDT. Boys had their heads shaved. Our lunches were the leftovers from the American base. We were poor but we couldn’t complain.
Returning from Fukushima where we were evacuated, we had to pass through a tunnel between Ueno and the subway station. It was pitch black and stinking, full of people sleeping. When someone plucked my sleeve begging for food — I was wearing a red kimono, to look nice for my father — I screamed. But it was only a tiny child. I said to myself, I’ll never forget this: I may be poor, but at least I have parents. That child has no one. There is always someone worse off than yourself.
Were you always aware you were very pretty?
Traveling back from Fukushima, on the subway, three GIs got in our packed coach. Everyone shrank back — few Japanese had even seen a foreigner. When one of the GIs picked me up, my mother went crazy, thinking he might eat me. But I knew he was only trying to help. When the train stopped, and one of the GIs put his leg out to stop more people getting on, passengers told my mother she was lucky to have such a pretty daughter. So, yes, I knew my power.
The gossip is that you worked in a club. What was it like?
The truth is I was a very serious girl. By day I worked [at Chiyoda Life Insurance], at night I went to Mita Senior High School. I was also studying Japanese dance, Urasenke tea ceremony and Sogestu-style flower arranging. I wanted to learn everything that a girl from a good family took for granted. I must have decided already that Japan was too small for me; that I was extraordinary.
But all this cost money. So one night a week I worked in a club: the Kokusai Club in Akasaka. It was the only place where foreign VIPs could go and relax. When a Filipino singer friend took me there, my eyes were out on stalks. Japanese women were in rags in the streets, and here were girls wearing furs, driving cars and speaking English, all looking as if they had just stepped out of Vogue magazine. I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want!’ Hearing about the table charges, and realizing I could earn 6,000 yen a night — which is what I earned in a month at Chiyoda Life — I borrowed a dress and cheated on my age by 2 years. Everybody who was anybody went there — John F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, the rich and the famous.
What was your impression of Sukarno when he came to the club?
Oh, a great man. Beautiful. Beautiful. Overflowing with humanity.
Was it love at first sight?
Not at all. I was overwhelmed. I felt only enormous respect. Love came much later. I didn’t place myself on his level at all.
But he scooped you up and carried you away.
He invited me for tea with the Indonesian ambassador and his wife, telling me about his time in Japan during World War II. I was so impressed by his knowledge of Japanese history — world history at large — it was not difficult to be captivated. Three months later, when he invited me to Indonesia for two weeks, I was torn. But influenced by my husband’s letters, and quite sure I wanted to see the world, I accepted. My God, Hong Kong airport was two jerry-built tin-roofed hangars, and Singapore didn’t have a single restaurant with air conditioning; you ate with one hand, flicking flies away with the other. But Jakarta was lovely — white houses, red roofs, lots of green trees; and the people were sweet, so gentle and nice. Now it’s very different! When I saw how people worshipped Sukarno, how they treated him like a god, I hardly dared ask about his previous wives. But I had to know.
He was already married?
To understand, you need to know his history. Arrested at age 27, he was given a life sentence by the Dutch. In those days, talk of independence got a person hung, but the Dutch didn’t dare kill him — they were scared of an uprising. Released at age 40 by the Japanese military, he was the first to proclaim independence, on Aug. 17, 1945, after Japan’s surrender. Returning after the war, the Dutch left for good in 1950, taking Indonesian shipping with them. Imagine, 12,000 islands with no boats! His first wife had to bring up five children alone. He was in prison for 13 years; it’s a long time. When he remarried, women demonstrated in sympathy for his first wife, and Sukarno didn’t dare put his new bride into the Jakarta Palace. So she lived outside the city and he only saw her occasionally. These are the circumstances in which I met him: a Jakarta bachelor-type person.
What happened after your initial trip to Indonesia came to an end?
It didn’t. The two weeks became forever. One afternoon — we were visiting Bali — we were standing on a terrace, with the largest sun I’d ever seen blood-red on the horizon and the coconut trees black silhouettes. It was rare moment alone, surrounded as he was by “yes men.” Suddenly he asked: “Please be my inspiration, my strength, and the joy of my life.” Well, I thought, I could live another 100 years and never hear such words again. If he chooses me, I should dedicate my life to him. If his work for the state was to be his monument, maybe I could be a part of it. And if I could be a bridge between Indonesia and Japan, that had to be a good thing. I realized my life had been a preparation for this moment. If it was God’s will, then I should dedicate myself. We married quietly in November 1959. He was 57, but very young-looking and handsome.
You had to convert to Islam to marry him. Was that a problem?
In my mind I was still Roman Catholic, but I thought, if I had to be a Muslim, so be it. Today my philosophy is that there is no God. We create divine beings because we need something to pray to. But we’re so egotistical and selfish, we only pray when we want something.
What was the hardest cultural adjustment?
Everything was hard, but I was only looking at him, totally supported by his love. He reminded me of his feelings every second of the day — with a flower, a little note reading, “I am physically here in a Cabinet meeting, but my heart is with you.” Or when I was combing my hair — which was way way below my waist — he would say his love was longer than my hair. He was such a poet. I have 500 of his letters locked up in a bank. If you place one on your heart, you can feel its warmth.
Did he involve you in politics?
People assume he chose me because I was pretty, but I don’t think so. I think it was my character, because I’ve never been afraid of anybody. Imagine standing on top of Mount Fuji, unable to see the ground for all the cloud. He was surrounded by people concerned only with pleasing him. I was very straightforward, had my own opinions, loved history, spoke English. I was a very unusual young Japanese woman, to say the least.
How did you survive the coup?
It was called a communist coup, but as we all know now, General Suharto planned it. My husband remained president for the next two years, and I was the communication pipeline between him and the generals. For Sukarno, it was country and people first, country and people second, country and people third. I came maybe fourth. You know, if such a person cannot work, it’s death for him. He lost his position as life president in 1967, the day our daughter was born. When Suharto declared himself acting president, my husband was placed under house arrest in my palace.
You had a palace?
Yes, he built it for me.
What did you call your daughter?
In Indonesian, her name means “Essence of the Star,” but it’s Karin for short. My own name, Ratna Sari Dewi, means “Essence of the Jewel.” She’s in New York right now, working for a PR company. We don’t see one another so often, because I’m mostly here now, but we’re very close. She was only 3 when her father died, but she knows him, through the letters he wrote to her, films and so on.
What happened when Sukarno died?
The Japanese government wanted to shake hands with Suharto, so I was an embarrassment to them. They made it very clear and the press was very unkind. Many people still connect me with what they read in those days. In three years, Suharto killed over a million Indonesians, with the support of the international community. The world turned against my husband because he refused to accept American bases on Indonesian soil. He said, “I’ve just made my country independent after 300 years. Why should I give it away again?” I believe him the greatest politician of the 20th century.
After his death in 1970 you went to France. Why?
I considered America, Japan and other powers responsible for my husband’s downfall. I’d always thought of France as being kind to political refugees and exiles, so I took my daughter to Paris. In the beginning it was marvelous; I was young, beautiful, wealthy, exotic . . . everyone wanted to know me. They laid out the red carpet. But I had to work, and gradually that became all-absorbing. I began working as a consultant and PR for European and American construction companies.
Did you get your wealth out of Indonesia?
No, no, France thought I was wealthy. OK, I was well-off, but not wealthy. My husband was not materialistic; he would give an expensive watch to a servant without a thought. He was no [former President Ferdinand] Marcos [of the Philippines].
Yes, I think a lot of people imagine you to be like [his wife] Imelda Marcos.
I’m not at all. Look around [the room]. You can see.
After 10 years in France, you went back to Indonesia. Again why?
I missed it. Also France under [Francois] Mitterrand was not like France under [General Charles] De Gaulle and Giscard d’Estaing. Life changed. It became a socialist country, so dull and boring.
I gather you don’t think much of socialism.
(Shudders) That’s putting it mildly.
And then Indonesia didn’t pan out as expected. What went wrong?
Well, I put in another 10 years . . . I’ve spent 21 years in Indonesia in total. And how I worked! But Indonesian people had changed; I was so disappointed. By 1980, I was counting the days to departure. I’d seen that now-famous TV debate between [George] Bush and [Bill] Clinton, where they spoke for an hour without notes. I’d never seen anything like it. I thought, if that was democracy, maybe I should try it. Of course I know now that American democracy only works for, and in, America. But back then, the idea of freedom seemed very attractive, very liberating.
What was your goal in the United States?
When I became 50, I was staying in the Okura Hotel [in Tokyo]. I switched on the TV and saw a program about there being 6,400 Japanese over the age of 100. I said, what? If I’m going to live another 50 years, I want to be born new, doing what I want to do, ignoring everyone else’s opinion and going my own way. The greatest luxury is to be mentally, economically and physically free. That’s what I set out to do in America. I lived three months with American Indians — a philosophical trip. In general, I thought black Americans were coquettish to white Americans. There are too many who want something for nothing. But native people had their land taken away from them. There are 2 million Indians and 45 tribes, with such rich cultures and wonderful medicine. They are much more respectable than those ancestors of slaves who think America owes them a living.
You came back to Japan just two years ago. Is this where you live now? Have you come home?
I used to think home was in my husband’s arms. Now it’s wherever I am living and working. I returned to Japan because I was invited back.
Who invited you?
Japanese society. As the economy and education began to sink, I was being asked more and more to appear on TV and make my opinions known. I may have lived abroad for 42 years, but I still have a Japanese mentality, morality and so on. Society is compromising, going soft. There’s no morality here. Japan is so low. When I began to get angry with Japanese people, they loved it. I was beginning to be booked up here virtually every day, traveling from New York.
Does the Japanese media now pay you respect?
A lot. It’s been a 180-degree turnaround.
You’re also a philanthropist.
Yes, I’m chairwoman of the annual Imperial Byzantine Charity Ball and Gala Banquet, held this last Oct. 10 at Tokyo Meguro Gajoen. It’s primarily an investiture ceremony for the Order of St. John and the Order of St. George, presented by His Imperial Highness Prince Henri Constantine [III de Vigo Aleramico] Paleologo [of Italy]. Normally we raise money for the Japanese Red Cross Society and the Association to Aid Refugees, Japan. But this year we decided to give part of the proceeds to [then New York Mayor] Rudolph Giuliani, to be used for the injured, and in New York’s reconstruction.
What should we expect of you by 2010?
I want to go to Brazil, to go up the Amazon in a canoe and capture a brilliant blue butterfly. Go to Alaska and see salmon jumping upriver and see bears catching them with their paws. Go to Tibet to spend time with the monks.
So this will be a decade of spiritual growth for you.
Yes. Also to paint, and publish a book of poems. And complete my autobiography.
Do you live here alone?
Yes. I’ve no time for relationships. My dogs give me all the unconditional love I need right now. I’d rather have a good secretary than a boyfriend any day.
But how do you cope emotionally, such a strong-minded opinionated woman in such a cool culture?
Well, you know, it’s a funny thing, but since I came back, I’ve realized: I’m very Japanese.