If the United States had Ann Landers and Dear Abby, and Britain had Marje Proops, then Japan had Jean Pearce — someone who transcended the title of “columnist” and became a media icon for several generations of readers.
From 1964 to 2000, Pearce’s columns, Readers’ Exchange (1964-75) and Getting Things Done (1975-2000), were a staple of The Japan Times. For foreign nationals living in Japan in the pre-internet years, the columns were a must-read. In a warm and witty style, she served up information on myriad topics, from the mundane to the life-changing. You never knew quite what to expect when you turned to Pearce’s page, but it was always guaranteed to be a good read.
If a column sparked interest or contained information that you thought might come in handy, you cut it out for future reference. Although it may seem hard to believe to those raised in the internet age, there were surely many foreign nationals out there with a notebook stuffed with clippings from Pearce’s columns. The dearth of information in English back in those days can be seen from the fact that The Japan Times published two volumes of Pearce’s columns in book form in the mid-1970s, under the title “Jean Pearce’s How to Get Things Done in Japan.”
Beverly Findlay-Kaneko fondly remembers Jean Pearce from her time working in the newspaper’s op-ed department as a copy editor.
“When I worked at The Japan Times in the 1990s, my department handled her column. She called and dropped by every so often with a smile on her face. Her columns always arrived in ‘eco-friendly’ packaging — recycled envelopes. We all went to The Japan Times 30th Anniversary Gala for Getting Things Done, and I knew she had been in Tokyo for a long time. But, I am still surprised she was 96!”
Reflecting on how she came to write the column, in June 2000 Pearce wrote: “There had been a Q&A column running in The Japan Times for several years. A few days after I arrived in Japan, it was announced that the writer was leaving. Someone else had already been hired, but when she left, I had a phone call from the paper — by then I knew several of the people who worked there — and my first column appeared three days later. I only missed one deadline in the next 36 years. I was overseas and the mail was delayed.”
For every reader whose query made it into a column, there were many more to whom Pearce replied privately. (A personal reply was sent on the condition that a stamped addressed envelope had been enclosed with their letter — postage costs would have been astronomical if Pearce had covered them herself.) Many years before I took over the present-day incarnation of Pearce’s column, I was one of those readers, anxiously scanning the pages of The Japan Times or my letter box for an answer to my question.
In early 1990 I was a naive 20-year-old, not long out of university and living in a provincial area of Japan on training for my first real job. I was also newly engaged to a Japanese man whose family refused to meet me. Aside from the obvious reason for their dissention — I was a foreigner — they also disapproved of the 10-year age gap between us and the fact that we had got engaged 10 days after first meeting at a Christmas party the previous month.
I vaguely remembered that Pearce had mentioned a support group for foreign women with Japanese partners, so I wrote to her for more details. Within a couple of weeks she replied, helping to link me up with a foreign wife in my area who was a wonderful source of inspiration and encouragement. Things eventually worked themselves out, his family came around to the idea and we celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary earlier this year.
The support group was AFWJ (the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese). Irrespective of the original name, AFWJ welcomes foreign women of any national or cultural origin who are (or have been) in a relationship with a man or woman of Japanese nationality.
AFWJ is set to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2019 and owes much to Pearce and Getting Things Done. Twenty years before I wrote to Pearce, another young foreign woman with a Japanese partner reached out for help.
Feeling isolated in Niigata, American Joan Itoh wondered if there were other women in the same situation and tentatively wrote to Pearce. After Pearce put out the call in her column, there was enough of a response to merit a get-together at the Tokyo American Club in the autumn of 1969. Once again, Pearce helpfully publicized the meet-up in her column, and the organizers were overwhelmed when the numbers of foreign women who showed up far exceeded their expectations. AFWJ was on its way.
Now known as Joan Itoh Burk and based in Canada, AFWJ’s founder recalls her friendship with Pearce. “Over the years, Jean and I became close friends,” Burk says. “When I moved to Tokyo, I found an apartment just one block from where she lived. We shared many laughs and a few tears over the years.
“It was Jean who encouraged me to write for The Japan Times when their food columnist left,” says Burk, who went on to author the Rice Paddy Gourmet column. “She was my inspiration and mentor. She was a foreign woman who managed to carve out a career in Japan and kept it going for many years. She will live on in my most treasured memories.”
Pearce penned her final Getting Things Done column in July 2000 just before leaving for the United States with new husband William Sherman. In a heartfelt message to her readers, she wrote:
It is the response that I have received from my readers that has made my work so fulfilling for so many years. And here I must say that I cannot find the words to tell you how much this will always mean to me.
Please don’t feel unhappy about my departure. I am going to a new life with a person whom I love deeply, one who shares my experience and my appreciation of this country.
Getting Things Done belonged to Jean Pearce — how could another writer even begin to hope to fill those shoes? Instead, The Japan Times changed the column to reflect the shifting nature of life in Japan in the internet age, renaming it Lifelines.
Two writers, Angela Jeffs and Ken Joseph Jr., co-wrote the column for some years. Ashley Thompson then took over in the fateful month of March 2011 before handing the baton to me in 2013.
Lifelines currently runs once or twice a month, with lawyers from the Tokyo Public Law Office also contributing answers on matters of a legal nature.
The last couple of years of Jean Pearce’s columns are archived on the JT website: www.japantimes.co.jp/author/int-jean_pearce. If you have a story about how Jean helped you get things done in Japan, please let us know. Is there a particular column you remember that you’d like us to track down and reprint? As always, please send all your comments and questions on any issue related to life in Japan to Lifelines at firstname.lastname@example.org.