One of the nation’s first female lawmakers is working on what she says will be her last project: a museum for dolls sent to Japan from over 50 countries in support of world peace.

“The most important task for me now is to create a home, or museum for the 111 peace ambassador dolls. I must accomplish it while I’m alive,” Tenkoko Sonoda said.

The dolls will be on display for a short time, at a three-day exhibition starting Friday at Gallery Kubota in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward.

The sprightly 87-year-old has witnessed how Japan suffered and recovered from the ashes of war, and she truly values peace.

Born in Tokyo in 1919, Sonoda’s progressively-minded father sent her to Tokyo Woman’s Christian University and then Waseda University’s faculty of law, at a time when few women went to college.

Sonoda was devastated by the war. Many of her male schoolmates died in the fighting and, feeling guilty at having survived, she shut herself away for several months.

But one day, after hearing radio reports that rural people who had come to Tokyo in search of food were starving to death in the streets, she convinced her father to take her to Ueno Station to see for herself.

“I was distressed at that time thinking why I was left to live from that war,” Sonoda said. “But when I saw that scene, I strongly felt that people who survived the war must not die of famine.”

On their way home through the Shinjuku district, her father, seeing that she was deeply troubled by what she had seen, told her she should tell the people on the crowded street how she felt.

She did and that day, less than two months after Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, marked the start of a long and eventful political career.

She began making daily speeches on the street about what she had seen and how the government had to do something about it.

She would tell the crowd that to survive the war only to subsequently die of starvation would cause the spirits of the dead “feel guilty.”

“We must survive to rebuild Japan,” she told the crowd.

The audience began to grow and her message eventually spawned a civic movement. In 1946, at age 27, Sonoda became the youngest woman of 39 winning female candidates to get a seat in the first postwar government, representing the Japan Socialist Party.

She later made headlines when politician Sunao Sonoda from the rival Democratic Party left his wife to marry her.

Theirs was a modern marriage. He went on to hold several Cabinet posts, including Foreign Minister, while she held her seat in the Diet. She had two children while in office, the first woman to do so — and the only one until 50 years later.

The kimono-clad, mobile phone-toting Sonoda still keeps busy heading more than 16 associations, including Japan and China Peace Friendly Contact, and the Japan Cherry Blossoms Association, which gives trees to countries to promote world peace.

Her story of the dolls she is trying to find a home for goes back to 1927, when the United States sent 12,700 pretty blue-eyed dolls as gifts to Japanese children from American kids.

“It was a time when Japan-U.S. relations were slowly deteriorating. I believe the gift was a message from the American people that the children of both countries must remain friends,” she said, adding that Tokyo reciprocated with Japanese dolls.

One American doll was given to each public elementary school, including Sonoda’s.

“The doll closed its eyes when laid down but when lifted, it opened them and said ‘Mama,’ ” she said. “We were fascinated because there was no such advanced toy in Japan at the time.”

When Japan went to war with the U.S., most of the dolls, coming from the enemy state, were burned or used to practice bamboo spear assaults.

However, several thoughtful principals who thought their schools’ dolls should not be used to bear the brunt of people’s anger toward the U.S., hid them.

When Sonoda learned that some of the dolls were still around, she formed a group of several women, including diplomats’ wives and people she had met at the Diet, to collect them.

She felt it was significant that the dolls had survived and saw them as symbols of peace. The group organized a peace rally around them in 1978.

And it was an observation by a precocious young boy at that rally that resulted in the collection becoming international.

“He said there were only U.S. and Japanese flags and that it would be nice if all the flags of the world were there,” Sonoda said.

She held a fundraising campaign in 1979 — the International Year of the Child — and raised 37 million yen. With the contribution of labor from an old, established Asakusa doll maker, the group had 100 pairs of Japanese “peace ambassador dolls” made.

The dolls were dressed in silk kimono, and held little Japanese passports and the message, “Let’s be friends.”

The group presented them to all the embassies in Japan. “When we gave the dolls, we asked the wives of the ambassadors to display them in locations in their countries where they would be visible, such as children’s hospitals or libraries, so children would see that they had received a message from Japanese children,” Sonoda said.

Since then, 57 countries have responded by returning a total of 111 peace ambassador dolls from their countries.

Sonoda has been planning since the 1970s to build a museum for the dolls that would have an exchange center and theater for kids of the world. But the plan faded with the deaths of several key backers of the museum project, including Matsushita founder Kounosuke Matsushita and architect Kenzo Tange, she said.

Recently the idea has been revived, with Kumamoto and Hokkaido governments offering to donate land for the building. Sonoda is considering Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture, as the site, as her late husband was born there.

To raise funds for the museum, Sonoda will kick off a fundraising drive at the start of the Gallery Kubota exhibition.

Sonoda still has the strong sense of public duty that compelled her to speak on the streets after the war.

“I would feel guilty if the dolls remained asleep (in the warehouse) after I pass away,” Sonoda said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.