Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

Tetsuko Kuroyanagi


Up until recently, it has been very hard for outsiders to name internationally famous Japanese. One of the first Japanese celebrities to leap into the global spotlight was Tetsuko Kuroyanagi - known to many as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and tireless fundraiser for numerous charities and one of the few Japanese celebrities to make it on to the "Tonight Show."

Born in Tokyo in 1933, she studied at the Tokyo College of Music with the aspiration of becoming an opera singer. However, after graduation Kuroyanagi joined Tokyo Hoso Gekidan and found herself drawn into acting and the world of television entertainment. As it turned out she went on to become the first actress to be exclusively contracted to NHK.

In 1975 she started the TV program that was to make her a household name throughout the nation "Tetsuko' Room." The chat show, that still airs daily on TV Asahi, soon had celebrities from television, sport and politics queuing up to take a seat next to Kuroyanagi. What made it a winner was Kuroyanagi's unpretentious warmness as a presenter combined with a refreshing directness of approach along with her undeniable good looks. The series became compulsive viewing and provided many classic TV moments, such as her now legendary interview with the notoriously media-shy Ken Takakura, and how she managed to turn his monosyllabic grunts into something resembling a conversation.

In 1981 her career took a new turn, when her book "Madogiwa no Totto-chan" (Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window) was published. It's an autobiographical memoir of her childhood, particularly her education at Tomoe High School, and her inspirational teacher Sosaku Kobayashi. An instant bestseller in Japan, it was first translated into English in 1984, and has been highly regarded in many countries as an insightful look at what education "should" be all about. With the money earned from the royalties from the book, Kuroyanagi set up several charity organizations to help children in Japan and abroad, and to date the organizations have raised and distributed over US$20 million.

In 1984, in recognition of her numerous charitable works, Kuroyanagi received the post of UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and throughout the late '80s and most of the '90s, she visited many developing countries on goodwill missions. This means that she was, along with UN and UNICEF staff, exposed to scenes of tragedy, depravity and danger. In the former Yugoslavia, Tetsuko and her team were detained for several hours by police, but were eventually released after their cameras and vehicles had been confiscated.

Kuroyanagi has now given up the post, but still remains on several UNICEF committees, and the book "Totto-chan's Children" was published in 1999, describing her experiences working for UNICEF. Apart from "Tetsuko's Room" (Channel 10, 1pm weekdays), she is also a regular on the Saturday evening quiz "World Mysteries" from 9-10pm, and gets the answers correct with an almost supernatural degree of accuracy.

The local press now affectionately call her "Tamanegi Oba-san" (Grandma Onion) because of her distinctive hairstyle, but whatever you call her, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi remains that rarest of individuals - famous, talented, and sincere.

James Walker

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