|BIG IN JAPAN
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.