In some ways, Kaoru Kanetaka introduced the world to Japan — and maybe a little bit of Japan to the world — when she flew around the globe in 1958.
It took her 73 hours 9 minutes and 35 seconds, a world record at the time by commercial aircraft and, as she wrote in The Japan Times upon her return, even faster than she planned.
The famed travel writer and television producer, whose show aired for 30 years, died Saturday at age 90 due to heart failure.
“What sad news. She was such a beautiful person, and to me she was a star. When ‘Kanetaka Kaoru Sekai no Tabi’ (‘Kanetaka Kaoru’s World Travels’) started, she introduced us to the fun and excitement of studying abroad, the many traditions and cultures out there in the world by interacting with those who practice them,” said actress Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. “After I became a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, I was reminded of Ms. Kanetaka almost everywhere I went. She pioneered documentary filmmaking and impacted our lives greatly.”
Born in Kobe, Kanetaka graduated from St. Hilda’s School in Tokyo before attending college in Los Angeles. After graduating she returned to Japan where she began her career as a travel writer. Her show was the first of its kind and launched at a time when few women held media jobs.
Throughout her life, Kanetaka traveled to more than 150 countries and interviewed famous figures like former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Spanish painter Salvador Dali and Prince Charles.
Her curiosity and adventurous spirit became a symbol of worldliness at a time when traveling abroad was uncommon for Japanese.
During her trip in 1958, Kanetaka departed from Haneda airport in Tokyo and stopped in various global cities, where she was greeted by notable figures and officials. She met Harry Belafonte, an American singer, in Rome; greeted the Japanese ambassador to the Philippines in Manila; and posed for photographers in Bangkok.
Kanetaka said she embarked on the voyage for three reasons.
First, she wanted to demonstrate the “exactitude with which airlines maintain their schedules” despite unforeseen factors like headwinds and late or missed connections. The second reason was to highlight Tokyo’s status as a major city for air travel, due to its location as well as its size. The third reason, she explained, was her hope to highlight how the world was getting smaller.
“The world has shrunk considerably since the time, less than 70 years ago, when Nellie Bly … went around (the planet) in 72 days. The record today is now almost a twenty-fourth of what it was then,” she wrote for the Japan Times in 1958. “I feel that it will shrink more and at a faster pace. The speed with which speed is developing nowadays, I believe I’ll be alive when someone tries to go around the world in 80 minutes.”
“Today, there is reason to predict speed inconceivable to us now.”
Information from Kyodo added