An enigmatic woman wearing a frilly white dress stands silently outside Matsuzakaya department store in Yokohama’s Isezakicho district during a local festival. Her face is caked in white makeup and her eyes are lined in black.
The same woman wearing the same white dress and makeup stands near an elevator in the GM Building in the backstreets of Isezakicho, where she would collect tips in exchange for pressing buttons for customers as they make their way to their appointments.
She later sits her belongings and sleeps in a corridor of the same building. At other times, she dozes on a wooden chair, upon which a cushion bears a hand-scratched expression of love in what seems to be Japanese and Chinese.
The etching reads, “I love you Ms. Meri.”
The above images are included in an award-winning 2006 documentary by Takayuki Nakamura on one of Yokohama’s most well-known personalities: “Yokohama Mary.”
Mary has over the years almost become something of an urban legend. Many locals either knew of the homeless woman’s existence and some had even seen her, but no one really seemed to know anything about her.
Some say she was a former “pan-pan” girl, a street prostitute who served American soldiers during the Allied Occupation of postwar Japan. Outside of that, however, little is known about Mary’s background.
Rumor has it that she once appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Others have argued that she wasn’t homeless at all, but lived in luxurious accommodation in the expensive district of Yamate.
It has even been said that Mary was a descendent of the Imperial family, with some calling the woman “Her Majesty.”
Nakamura, a Yokohama native, first ran into Mary when he was in junior high school. At the time, he was on his way to see a movie.
“I was shocked when I first saw her,” Nakamura recalls. “With her face painted white and being so still, from a distance I thought she was a statue. After that, it became quite normal to see her around. … It’s not like I would talk to her or interact with her in any way, but whenever I went into the city, she would always be there.”
In 1995, however, she suddenly disappeared. Locals thought she had probably died or had gone back to her hometown — supposedly in either Ibaraki, Fukushima or Hiroshima prefecture — and checked into a nursing home. However, no one knew what really happened to her.
Nakamura likens Mary’s presence in the area to the statue of Hachiko near Tokyo’s Shibuya Station.
“If Hachiko disappears one day without warning, everyone would be flummoxed because the statue’s presence is so natural,” he says. “Her disappearance was that shocking. I started my documentary out of pure curiosity — I just wanted to know what kind of person Mary was.”
Nakamura was 22 when he began working on his documentary. He spent a couple of years researching the history of Yokohama, from the arrival of the black ships and the opening of Yokohama to foreign trade in the 19th century to postwar Yokohama.
In his book “Yokohama Mary,” which was published by Kawade Shobo Shinsha Publishers in August, Nakamura focuses on the history of prostitution in the area.
The book provides details on the chabuya, which catered to foreign men as a bar, cabaret, dance hall and brothel as well as the Recreation and Amusement Association (organized brothels for the Occupation forces) and the so-called pan-pan girls that hit the streets after the RAA was closed down in 1946.
In his book, Nakamura notes that there were rumors of how Mary used to work at an RAA facility in Kobe before moving to Kanagawa Prefecture.
“Yokohama is a city that has accepted foreigners since its opening and, throughout time, prostitutes have co-existed in this city. That remained the same after the war as well,” Nakamura writes. “After looking into the history of Yokohama from its opening to the end of World War II, I began to realize that it was almost inevitable that Mary existed in Yokohama.”
Nakamura talked to a number of people who either knew Mary or knew of her existence. He found that those who knew her genuinely seemed to care about her and tried to help her in different ways.
These people began to tell him about the ways in which Mary had also had an influence on their own lives.
“The people I interviewed began talking about themselves through Mary — their lives, their family, their history and what Yokohama was like back then,” Nakamura says. “Mary was the gatekeeper to these people’s stories.”
Gay cabaret singer Ganjiro Nagato was one such friend.
Nagato had heard the rumors about Mary, but really only met her in person for the first time in 1991. She was standing outside a side entrance to a theater where Nagato was scheduled to perform and looking at a poster advertising the event.
Knowing who she was, Nagato gave her a ticket and invited her to attend the performance. At the conclusion of his set, Mary approached the stage and gave him a present.
The documentary includes footage of this moment, capturing the joy on Nagato’s face as he received his gift. The audience clapped as the two shook hands.
“Few people probably knew who I was, but everyone clapped because Mary was famous,” Nagato says with a laugh in the documentary.
In the film, Nagato says he was born in Taiwan before the war and had always dreamed of becoming a singer.
He moved to Tokyo when he was around 20 years old but found it tough to catch a break. He worked as a male prostitute in Kawasaki for a couple of years before eventually ending up in Yokohama managing a bar called Chat Noir.
“I found Mary because of my experiences (in Kawasaki) for two or three years,” Nagato says. “I wasn’t just interested in her out of curiosity.”
Nagato would often meet Mary at Morinaga Love, a fast-food joint in Isezakicho. He knew she was homeless so he tried — and failed — to secure some financial support from the government.
He offered Mary some of his own money whenever he could, but she never accepted a straight-up handout.
“I always put the money in an envelope and told her to buy some flowers,” Nagato says. “She was so dignified.”
Mary never forgot to thank those who had helped her and would always return the favor with a small gift or a beautifully handwritten letter that was signed under her pseudonym, “Yukiko Nishioka.”
Others also tried to give Mary their support. Emiko Fukunaga, who worked at cosmetics store Yanagiya, found some white powder for Mary that wasn’t based on oil and could wash off easily with water. Kimiko Yamazaki, who ran a laundry business called Hakushinsha with her husband, let Mary store clothes at the shop and allowed her to change there whenever she needed. Hairdresser Tatsu Yuda would do her hair.
Photographer Hideo Mori was in his 20s when he first saw Mary almost 50 years ago. “I felt like I had caught a glimpse of something I shouldn’t have seen. She was young and stylish back then and looked very pretty,” he says, explaining that she still worked the streets then.
Mori was a son of a local vegetable store grocer, the second-youngest of nine siblings. In 1993, he found Mary in the GM Building in Isezakicho, collecting tips from visitors after operating the elevator for them and taking them to their floors.
While in the building, Mori asked Mary for permission to photograph her. She consented and so Mori spent the following year in Mary’s footsteps, documenting her daily routines.
Mori still remembers the places in Yokohama where Mary used to frequent.
Pointing to a spot in front of what is now Starbucks, Mori notes that Mary would often sit on a public wooden bench that used to be there and sleep sitting upright. A jewelry shop was once located at the site and Mary often stood outside staring longingly at the valuables in the window, he says.
Mary would also sleep in a women’s bathroom in the same building, Mori says.
“I don’t know about her life before Yokohama but she never had a home during her time here,” Mori says. “When she was younger, she would basically find customers and stay at hotels.”
When she was older, Mori adds, “I would find her curled up like a cat, fast asleep on the bathroom counter.”
Mori says he was constantly surprised at Mary’s knowledge of the neighborhood.
“She obviously knew the area very well,” Mori says. “I would often lose her whenever she entered a building.”
The GM Building is still standing to this day, hosting a variety of restaurants and bars. Standing inside the lobby, Mori points to a corner by the stairs where a chair for Mary once sat. “This is where Mary ended up when she was old,” Mori says. “No one chased her away.”
Mori worked on his collection of photographs of Mary until the winter of 1995, eventually publishing a book titled “Yokohama Pass: Hama no Meri-san.” By this time, Mary had disappeared from the streets and he never got to show her his images. “A city is made up of various components, including buildings and people,” Mori says. “Mary is a part of Yokohama. When she disappeared, the city landscape changed completely.”
For decades, the city of Yokohama embraced Mary and its residents were happy to forgive her quirks. In making his documentary, however, Nakamura found that the city eventually turned its back on Mary and drove her away.
Some locals became bothered by her presence, insisting that she use a dedicated tea cup at a cafe or refusing to get their hair done in the same salon.
Nakamura says Mary’s friends felt empathy toward her because they were also survivors of World War II.
Subsequent generations, however, were not so forgiving. “There was a generational change in the 1990s from those that lived through the war to those who have never experienced war,” Nakamura says. “Without empathy, Mary became a foreigner and, as the times changed, she no longer had a place in Yokohama.”
Nakamura eventually found Mary in a nursing home. She had left Yokohama in December of 1995 and was living under her real name, which the documentary does not disclose. The documentary also declined to reveal the nursing home’s location, as Nakamura had promised Mary he would do. She was reportedly content with her new life in the home and no longer wore the white makeup she was famous for.
In 2003, Nakamura took Nagato, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, with him to perform for her one last time.
The documentary shows Mary looking happy as she listened to Nagato sing a rousing version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
Mary passed away in January 2005 at the age of 83.
Yokohama’s Isezakicho district has certainly changed significantly since 1995 and gone are many of the places Mary once loved, including Morinaga Love, Matsuzakaya department store and the Hakushinsha laundry.
What’s more, many of the people in the documentary who cared for Mary, including Nagato, have also since died.
And yet Mary was very much an integral part of what the city of Yokohama once stood for and people such as Nakamura and Mori are keen to remind others of her legacy.
“As far as I’m concerned, Mary is Yokohama,” Nakamura says. “She is the very foundation of what Yokohama means to me.”