Nine Notable Japanese Women

Billiards champ Masako Katsura

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 US is far ahead; yes, we have Mother's Day, and Valentine's Day sort of counts, but...) 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, hardworking women of Japan.

  1. Eiko Ishioka. One of my favorite names to pronounce, this multitalented 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 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.) Ms. Katsura was a top star in this sport, and she routinely beat the best male players with her dazzling cue work.
  4. Michiko Kakutani. The Japanese-American Kakutani is among 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 fewer than twelve novels and sold over six million copies of them worldwide. Lady Murasaki would be proud – or intimidated.
  6. Iva Toguri. An American citizen, Iva Toguri is a classic example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time: specifically, Japan in 1941. Lacking a valid passport, she was not allowed to return to the US 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). Toguri's alias was "Orphan Ann"; it was only after the war that she was erroneously nicknamed "Tokyo Rose" (the pseudonym of a number of other radio personalities). She was jailed for six years for treason, and was only finally pardoned by Gerald Ford in 1977.
  7. Yayoi Kusama. A major artist in the 1960s whose significance has only been celebrated fairly recently, Kusama is best known for her obsessive polka dot-covered paintings and installations. Many call her Japan's greatest living artist.
  8. Toshiko Akiyoshi. This jazz icon has received over fourteen Grammy nominations for her work as composer and pianist. The Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra featuring Lew Tabackin (Akiyoshi's husband) was one of the world's most popular big bands before she dissolved it in 2003.
  9. Yoko Ono. Ms. Ono requires no introduction.