Nine Notable Japanese Women


March 3 is known in Japan as Hinamatsuri, or "Girls' Day," and is the closest thing that nation has to a "women's appreciation day." (Not that the U.S. is far ahead; yes, we have Mother's Day, and Valentine's Day sort of counts, but...) So in early honor of this holiday, I'd like to pay tribute not only to the Japanese and Japanese-American women whom I count as friends (and no, despite the spelling of her name, my wife Miki is not among them), but to all the wonderful, hard-working women of Japan.

  1. Eiko Ishioka. One of my favorite names to pronounce, this multi-talented designer won an Oscar for her costumes for Bram Stoker's Dracula, received a Tony nomination for her costume and stage design for M. Butterfly, and even won a Grammy for her album cover for Miles Davis's Tutu. She also directed a Björk video and created costumes for Cirque du Soleil.
  2. Murasaki Shikibu. Around a thousand years ago, Lady Murasaki - of the royal court of Heian-era Japan - wrote a novel, The Tale of Genji, one of the earliest novels in human history. (Many argue that it is the first "modern" novel.) That's quite a claim to fame, especially as female novelists in the Western world didn't emerge until hundreds of years later.
  3. Masako Katsura. Back in the mid-20th century, billiards was a hugely popular spectator sport, a little like tennis is today. (And let's not confuse billiards with pool; billiards is a much different and much more difficult game.) One of the top stars in the sport was Ms. Katsura, who routinely beat the best American male players on the circuit with her dazzling cue work.
  4. Michiko Kakutani. The Japanese-American Kakutani is one of the most influential - and most ruthless - literary critics in the world; writing for the New York Times Book Review, she is alternately admired, reviled and feared by the literary community for her catty and sometimes vicious reviews of modern works.
  5. Banana Yoshimoto. On the other side of the typewriter is this hugely successful (and still rather young) novelist, whose debut book Kitchen was a smash success in Japan as well as internationally. As of this writing, she's published no less than twelve novels and sold over six million copies of them worldwide. Lady Murasaki would be proud - or intimidated.
  6. Iva Toguri. A US citizen, Iva Toguri is the classic example of somebody who was in the wrong place at the wrong time: specifically, Japan, 1941. Lacking a valid passport, she was not allowed to return to the U.S. after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and then was forced to work at a Tokyo radio station. One thing led to another, and she was recruited to recite on-air anti-American propaganda, in English, meant to discourage American troops in the Pacific (but which probably backfired against the Japanese military). After the war, she was unfairly nicknamed "Tokyo Rose" (who in reality was the pseudonym of a number of radio personalities). After the war, she was jailed for six years for treason and was only finally pardoned by Gerald Ford in 1977 - over thirty years after the end of World War II.
  7. Yayoi Kusama. A major artist in the 1960s whose significance has only been celebrated fairly recently, she's best known for her obsessive polka dot-covered paintings and installations. Many call her Japan's greatest living artist.
  8. Toshiko Akiyoshi. One of the biggest names in jazz music, Ms. Akiyoshi has received over fourteen Grammy nominations for her work as a composer and pianist. Her big band, the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin (Akiyoshi's husband), was one of the most popular jazz big bands in the world before she dissolved it in 2003.
  9. Yoko Ono. Yoko Ono requires no introduction.