Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

Bill Hersey, man about Tokyo, 1930-2018: some tributes

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Bill Hersey, who died on March 14 at age 87, was a fixture on the Tokyo social and entertainment scene for decades, covering everything from openings of Hollywood movies to embassy parties for the Tokyo Weekender, a pioneering free city magazine launched in 1970 by Corky Alexander.

Though “society columnist” was the label most often applied to him, Bill had many other job titles after first arriving in Japan in 1962, including fashion editor for the men’s magazines Heibon Punch and Shukan Playboy, fashion columnist for The Japan Times, travel writer for the Weekender and other publications and, starring in 1978, public relations agent for A-Project, a club and restaurant management company. Bill’s best-known association, however, was with the Lexington Queen, a Roppongi club he turned into a hang-out zone for seemingly every celebrity who passed through Tokyo.

Bill commemorated these and other interactions with thousands of photographs, nearly 1,800 of which were displayed at memorial service and party held at the Tokyo American Club last month. No captions were used and, in many cases, needed, since the faces posing with Bill were so famous: Liza Minnelli, Sylvester Stallone, Rod Stewart, Leonardo DiCaprio, Akira Kurosawa, Shintaro Katsu, Jimmy Carter and, in one early photo, Richard Nixon.

Though he usually looked like he did his clothes shopping on Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive, Bill was from small-town Ohio, specifically Perrysburg, now a suburb of Toledo. After two years in the navy, he studied anthropology at Columbia University and the University of Arizona and lived with Native American tribes. Moving to San Diego, he met Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force personnel who fueled his interest in Japan. In 1962 he bought a ticket on a freighter to Yokohama and the rest, as they say, is history — or rather, thousands of Weekender columns and just as many or more friendships.

The following is a sampling of tributes to Bill from those who knew him, assembled by longtime friend and memorial party organizer William Ireton.

The Ireton family
We were privileged to be Bill’s family in Japan, sharing many meals in Tokyo and frequent yearend vacations together in Hawaii. “Uncle Bill” became a fixture to the Ireton kids — Matthew, Roberta, William, Thomas and Edward — and their parents, Charo and Bill.

Whether at the Ala Moana shopping center in Honolulu, the coffee shop of the Tokyo American Club or the Grand Hyatt Hotel (where his favorite was the risotto at Fiorentina), Bill was family to us. He demonstrated an unending faith in humanity and a genuine love of people — and he never, ever got mad at our kids for the occasional prank.

Once, we all went to the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu one late afternoon and, discovering that the shows had finished, ended up producing our own enactments throughout the park, which we captured on video. They help us remember Bill the way he was: a kind and gentle person.

Tsukasa Shiga
President, Ceremony Group
Tohto Tenpan Co. Ltd.
I had the privilege of working with Bill for over 35 years. We were co-owners of Hersey Shiga International located in Shibuya, serving as the liaison office for The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard Magazine.

Bill was a linchpin in connecting his entertainment celebrity friends, embassy diplomats and VIPs of the corporate, fashion, restaurant, hotel and airline industries. More than two decades ago, when Udo Artists was handling Prince’s first Japan tour, Prince flew into Osaka from a show in Germany, but his stage equipment, carried in two jet planes, was stopped at customs.

Receiving a call for help from Seijiro Udo, Bill negotiated with the U.S. Embassy for the equipment to clear customs in time for the show, so as not to disappoint Prince’s Japanese fans.

Bill was a jovial guy. An intimate friend of Sony CEO Akio Morita, Bill once took an incoming call at the Sony switchboard from a bewildered female caller, saying “Morita-san, o-negai shimasu. Watashi? Bill Hersey desu. Anata, dare?” (“Mr. Morita, it’s for you. Me? I’m Bill Hersey. Who are you?”)

Timothy Langley
Drew up Bill’s last will and testament
People like us who live and work in Tokyo do so easily and effortlessly only because those who went before us cleared the path.

In terms of Roppongi nightlife and the long conga line of the rich and famous that passed through Tokyo, Bill Hersey stood at the pinnacle among pathfinders, to our benefit.

Bill felt he was actually creating history and documented all his shenanigans, hob-nobbings, party-arrangings and club-runnings into a massive collection of photographs and memorabilia. Bill’s involvement in the Roppongi scene and in the global entertainment world found in Tokyo was simply unmatched. He will be greatly missed.

Norman H. Tolman
The Tolman Collection
Bill Hersey, our recorder of what was going on.

For more years than anyone can remember, Bill Hersey was the scribe compiling the history of the social life of the foreign community of Tokyo. Those of us who have lived here for any length of time are grateful for his tireless efforts to bring us a sense of community.

Bill’s response to an invitation was a “must go” and he was sure to be present at a reception of any note, chatting up the guests, happily introducing newcomers to the old crowd, while making sure he didn’t leave anyone out. His work on the social scene was vast, and people from every walk of life got to know and appreciate his hard work. For many people, appearing in his column was important and getting their picture taken by Bill was a social accomplishment they cherished.

I was a fortunate beneficiary of his kindness, and my gallery was often visited by those who had first heard of The Tolman Collection from Bill. My first encounter with him was long ago when he was in his fashion stage and had a clothing shop on Aoyama-dori. Then he moved to other businesses and finally to the Weekender, where everyone read his column first in any issue.

His involvement in good causes was extensive; perhaps he was best remembered for his work with children at Christmas time.

He has left a reputation that others may envy and we will all miss him.

Dewi Sukarno
It’s not an overstatement to say that Bill’s life itself is the social history of Tokyo. He was broadly acquainted with members of the Japanese Imperial family, notables in the political and business circles, world-famous superstars visiting Japan and Japanese superstars from the Showa Era (1926-89). His photos are exactly the history of postwar Japan.

When he arrived in Japan in 1962, he became the first foreigner to work as a model. What he wrote as a reporter for Japanese weekly magazines and the Tokyo Weekender filled the society columns. He was so popular that he was always invited by the diplomatic corps in Tokyo to celebrate their national days.

He co-hosted a Christmas party for orphans every year for 19 years with the Hilton Hotel. I believe that his gentle personality will forever remain in the hearts of his friends who loved him.

Dale Toriumi
National Azabu Supermarket
Bill Hersey was a person who cared about others. But when he started to give his opinion, it was hard to stop him. Bill walked to a beat of a different drum; he really did not care what others thought of him. He was able to strike up a conversation with just about anyone since he was truly interested in other people.

I recall visiting him in the hospital when he was in a wheelchair. I helped him to the hospital lounge and out of the blue he started a conversation with a family from Nepal. I stepped out for a minute and when I returned they were all laughing and enjoying themselves, as Bill told them about his travels. After I returned Bill to his hospital room I talked to the family and it turned out they didn’t speak English and really did not understand what Bill was saying. But from his smile, they could tell he was a special person who truly cared.

Skip Cronin
Imperial Hotel
I first met Bill Hersey in a tiny, crowded club in the basement of a building behind Aoyama-dori in 1965. He and I were the only foreigners there. He came in with a group of attractive young Japanese and was the center of attention. My friends told me he was a celebrity who wrote about trends and fashionable places in a still bleak post-Occupation Tokyo.

Over the decades we bumped into each other frequently in connection with my work as international public relations director for the Imperial, where Bill spent many nights at glittering parties with visiting VIPs and celebrities. I often teased him that his epitaph would be “Another Day, Another Buffet!”

But Bill impressed me with his neverending gratitude for the good fortune his position had brought him in Tokyo. He never took it for granted and was remarkably humble, self-deprecating and unpretentious. And always busy.

He once wrote about some American business leaders at a party at the Imperial and sent off his draft and photos to Tokyo Weekender, expecting the staff to fill in the correct names and titles. The chairman was an elegant gentleman who had lost all his hair. When the column came out he was identified as “Bald Guy,” as that’s what Bill’s notes said.

I miss Bill a great deal. He was an indelible icon of his era and a colorful part of Tokyo history.

Bill Hersey (second left) with (left to right) William J. Grimm, William Ireton, Tsukasa Shiga and Dale Toriumi, all four of whom have offered tributes to their late friend.
Bill Hersey (second left) with (left to right) William J. Grimm, William Ireton, Tsukasa Shiga and Dale Toriumi, all four of whom have offered tributes to their late friend.

Rev. William J. Grimm
Catholic priest
Until I got to know Bill personally in his later years, I only knew him from his photos with the rich and famous in the Weekender, and I assumed he was most interested in those sorts of people. But, once I got to know him, I realized that he was interested in everyone, even those who would never appear in his column. Waiters, cashiers, coffee drinkers at the next table, people in the elevator, passers-by on the street — Bill had a greeting for them all.

Though he spoke next to no Japanese, he would use his own grammar-free Japanese-English patois with such obvious friendliness that, though initially confused by being spoken to by a big-nosed gaijin (foreigner), people overcame their reticence and tried to respond in kind.

Bill Hersey was a friendly man who helped others be friendly. Any man of whom that can be said was a good man.

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