Rokusuke Ei — writer, broadcaster, raconteur — died on July 7 at the age of 83, roughly two decades after publishing a best-seller called “Daiojo,” which means “Dying Peacefully.” Several media outlets reported that Ei passed peacefully. He’d had Parkinson’s disease for a number of years before he died and yet continued to present his long-running show on TBS Radio until this spring — though he often did so over the phone. He also had to rely more on his female announcing partner, which in a way was the saddest aspect of his decline. Ei was, more than anything, a man of words, someone who understood the power of simple, clear language. His gift was instinctual — he didn’t need to choose his words carefully.
In a series of memorial interviews in the Asahi Shimbun with some of Ei’s professional acquaintances, veteran comedian Kinichi Hagimoto said of his friend, “It was almost depressing to meet someone who could express himself that well.”
Ei’s most famous accomplishment was the lyrics to “Ue wo Muite Aruko,” the only Japanese-language song ever to reach the top of the U.S. pop charts. Americans in the early 1960s loved the song — redubbed “Sukiyaki” — for its irresistible melody and singer Kyu Sakamoto’s yearning delivery. They had no idea what the song was about, but in Japan, where it was even more popular, the appeal was its words, which describe a person holding back tears as he walks. What caused those tears isn’t revealed in the song, though it is believed Ei was lamenting the Japanese government’s capitulation to the U.S. by signing a security treaty extending the status of American bases in Japan.
The irony that a song about despair over American military hegemony became a hit on American radio is almost too rich. Ei was a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist, a child of the Showa Era (1926-89) in the most fundamental sense. Old enough to remember the war and its horrors, he grew up on the grounds of a temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa district before being evacuated to the countryside. Recognized as a prodigy at a young age, he started writing for public broadcaster NHK even before attending Waseda University. Though he wrote scripts for television, he never seemed to trust its power over people. Radio was his passion, as it was a more active, participatory medium.
In the thousands of hours he spent on the air the war informed everything he discussed, even if he didn’t mention it overtly. He advocated for the military-renouncing Article 9 of the postwar Constitution, and condemned the recent campaign to revise it so as to place the burden of duty on citizens rather than the government.
“The Constitution is a set of rules to protect the people,” he wrote in the Mainichi Shimbun in 2013, believing that the current administration, whose members did not experience the war directly, failed to appreciate the Constitution’s central role in the prosperity that Japan has enjoyed since 1945.
Ei was the last of his kind — unless you count Kyosen Ohashi, another media giant who died less than a week after Ei, at the age of 82. The one-time jazz critic was just as articulate as Ei, though more assertive. Ohashi had no problem with TV, and was responsible for some of the most influential programs in the annals of Japanese broadcasting, in particular the scandalous late-night talk show “11 PM.” He was a showman, and enjoyed making people uncomfortable with his wry, informed candor.
Like Ei, he grew up in the working class shitamachi (downtown) area of Tokyo during the war and emerged from it with a special regard for the value of the individual. He hated the idea of unmediated loyalty to a cause or group, which is why he loved the spontaneity and freedom of American jazz.
And yet, like Ei, he also loved what made Japan unique: its culture and language. He adopted his first name, Kyosen, when he wrote and published haiku during his college days at Waseda (before dropping out). But he didn’t distinguish between his love for his country and his desire to be a part of the world, and retired in the early ’90s to live abroad, with residences in Canada and New Zealand.
Some of his wanderlust was political in nature. Ohashi was acutely sensitive to anything that smacked of the old, prewar idea of Japan as a sacred land. He freely spoke out against demagoguery in the name of national security.
In 2001, he was asked by the opposition Democratic Party of Japan to run for a proportional seat in the Upper House, and he won. But when the DPJ voted to support the U.S.-led war on terror following 9/11, he was the only member to vote against the resolution, effectively alienating him from the party. He quit within six months. In his last regular column for the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai last July, he called on readers to cast their ballots against the ruling party in the upcoming Upper House election. Like Ei, he found the government’s ambitions with regard to military expansion “frightening.”
Some claim Ohashi’s anti-government sentiments were the reason his death was underreported. Similarly, the critic and TV personality Piiko, in another Asahi tribute, said he appeared on an NHK memorial to Ei and stressed at one point his mentor’s antiwar stance, but the producers edited it out. Ohashi’s pronouncements, like those of two other Showa Era celebrities who died in recent years — actor-emcee Kinya Aikawa and writer Akiyuki Nosaka — could come across as overly dramatic and self-serving, but as Piiko points out, they still deserved attention, because when witnesses to history die, “you lose something invaluable.”
Ei was humbler and more measured in his disdain for the arrogance of authority, but it didn’t make him any less effective in conveying the harm those attitudes cause. He leavened his indignation with an incisive wit that added to its power.
“He was the master of nuance, which some people didn’t get,” comedian Hagimoto told the Asahi. “But often such small details can change a whole society.”
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