Sadly, Nobu Yamamoto died on Sunday, February 16, 2003. I am honored to have known this gracious woman and humbled by her participation in my book.
Walter Wolf, wrote an in-depth article for the March 1, 2001 issue of "The
Independent" (Santa Barbara, California).
Mr. Wolf granted permission to share some of the highlights of his
article describing the fascinating life of Nobu Yamamoto, the Japanese brush
artist whose calligraphy appears throughout the next "Akita-Treasure
of Japan." The
article recounts Wolf’s interview on the eve of Nobu Yamamoto's 100th birthday
grandmother was Queen Min of Korea. My mother was a young Korean princess. Her
liaison with the Meiji Emperor resulted in my birth in Japan in 1901. I was a
princess, but a very secret princess, provided for by the Imperial Court but
given no official recognition. I recall being told that I was an upside-down
baby that my mother had a very difficult birth, that I was born half dead, with
no one expecting me to survive. I did, but my mother died shortly afterward. I
was raised by a nursemaid from a good Japanese family. She was with me for more
than 40 years.
cannot recall ever having seen my father, the Emperor. He had charged Ito
Hirobumi (Japan's first prime minister) with the responsibility for my care.
Bringing Master Oh from China to be my tutor provided part of that care. Master
Oh was a doctor of medicine and a master in the ancient art of Chinese
calligraphy and sumi-e. This wonderfully patient man was my teacher and
companion for about 15 years. My study of those arts started when I was only 3
upbringing included many other skills: how to sit, to stand, to hold my head, to
walk gracefully, to speak softly, to dress, to wear my hair, to apply makeup,
and all the other aspects of being a princess, but always a secret
was encouraged to travel, always with my nursemaid and a small group of women,
essentially attendants. We traveled to the major cities of China, Korea, and
Manchuria. There was always a house for me next door to the Japanese Embassy.
home in Tokyo was quite large. In the early 1920s, when many White Russians
relocated to Japan, my house became a haven for quite a few of them. They
introduced me to ballet and to the Russian language. A French lady taught me
some French. A few Europeans spoke English and helped me.
direct contact with these Europeans was rapidly changing my knowledge of the
world. Contrary to all tradition, I read newspapers and books about Europe and
America. Reading was an activity for men, not women. Japanese women were
expected to be demure, to defer to men, to become wives and mothers at an early
age, to work hard for the family, and to be quiet. That was not for me. I was
interested in the world, not in marriage.
the assassination of Ito Hirobumi in 1909, the responsibility for my care was
transferred to the very famous Prince Saionji. He had made all of the
arrangements for my travels in the Orient. In 1923 when I told him I wanted to
go Germany to study art, he suggested America instead, saying the arrangements
for me would be difficult in Germany. My totally none traditional attitude had
made me a misfit in Japan. There were people in high places who would have liked
to see me far removed. Their wishes were about to be fulfilled."
story continues, describing how representatives from Japanese Consulates
throughout America greeted her arrival in each city, calling her
"Princess." Following two
years in the United States, she traveled throughout the Orient until the war
invaded her life in 1937:
One trip, in about 1937, became a turning point. I was on a train in Korea on my
way to a city in Manchuria. As we approached the border, two doctors traveling
with me said that I was not going to Manchuria that I was being taken to
Mongolia to marry a nobleman I had never heard of. Instantly I knew that I had to escape. Taking only my purse, I hid in the restroom.
as the train started to move, I jumped from the train and hid in the
stationmaster's office. He sensed the seriousness of the situation and let
very unpopular Japanese occupation of Korea, which had started in 1905, had left
thousands of people homeless and on the brink of starvation. My being Japanese
in that situation was not at all good, but I am I half Korean by birth, so I
changed my clothes and became Korean. Almost no one knew of my Japanese
background. The secret continued.
upon my uncle to help, I opened what I called a studio where orphaned Korean
girls could find food, shelter, schooling, and hope. I struggled to learn more
Korean, but since the Japanese puppet government had forced every school to
teach Japanese, communication was not a big problem. Finding enough food
always was. The first teachers were my nursemaid and myself.
Other teachers were added as we could. At its peak we had about 75 girls,
ages 5 to 20. Each of them got a good start in her new life, some of them going
on to the best universities in Korea. Some became teachers. Many married well
and raised families. Noblemen friends of my uncle, Prince Li, adopted the
graduating ladies, giving each one a real family name. What a gift.
continued that work for many years, making occasional short trips back to Japan.
The war had started in Europe. Japan was changing. The military factions had
become very powerful. I happened to have been in Tokyo when the Japanese navy
bombed Pearl Harbor, but I knew nothing about it for a long time.
I spent the war years in Korea working with orphaned girls.
the war ended I returned to Tokyo and was shocked at what the bombs and fires
had done. My home, among thousands
of others, had been burned to the ground. Li
Gu, one of Prince Li's sons, had been killed by the atom bomb in Hiroshima.
Homeless and hungry people were everywhere."
describes her encounter with Staff Sergeant Francis Ryozo Yamamoto, a Japanese
American member of an intelligence unit attached to General Douglas McArthur's
headquarters in Tokyo. She met the
Sergeant years earlier in the United States.
Eventually they married and settled in Japan. In 1975 they moved from
Japan to Pasadena where their children attended college.
There is so much more to her story but for now, Sensei lives in Santa
Barbara, California, where she teaches Chinese calligraphy and sumi-e.
When I met this wonderful woman in July 2002, I learned she had an Akita as a child. Perhaps that is one of the reasons she agreed to do the calligraphy for each chapter of my book. At 101 years of age, Sensei's hands are youthful and fluid; she is a tiny woman with amazing energy who remains active teaching art and more-she is a living example of strength, character and heart.
- HOME -