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Updated: Mar 27, 2019

The real story lost in time and translation


The real story lost in time and translation PART ONE

San Diego and Yokohama, sister cities located on opposite sides of the Pacific Ocean, share another link—a statue of THE GIRL WITH RED SHOES. The statue was inspired by the famous Japanese nursery rhyme, 赤い靴 "Red Shoes” written in 1922 by Japanese poet Ujō Noguchi, and then composed into song by Nagayo Motoori. The poem and song lyrics place the mother on the Yokohama pier, hiding to watch as her little girl—clad in red shoes—leaves to board a ship with blue-eyed foreigners. In the song, the mother cries out how she will think of her daughter every time she sees red shoes and she wonders if one day her daughter will look back across the sea and yearn for home.

While it is widely known in Japan that the beloved nursery rhyme and statues were inspired by the real-life story of Iwasaki Kimi—a young orphan girl from Fushimi, who was given up for adoption due to hardships—the story behind that story isn’t as well-known. You see, both the poem and the song took creative liberties in the retelling.

Kimi was born in a small village at the foothills of the old Shizuoka prefecture. The unmarried mother, finding life difficult with an illegitimate child, moved, and when the opportunity presented itself, she married.

To ensure a better life for the child, the woman’s new father-in-law arranged for mercenaries to adopt then three-year-old girl and take her to America. However, the child contracted tuberculosis—then incurable—before setting sail, and was turned over to a nearby orphanage instead, where she remained until she died at the age of nine.

The child’s mother and husband never knew.

Theories suggest the father-in-law had fabricated the mercenary story for the mother and delivered the little girl directly to the orphanage himself. I tend to believe this.

Sy Fields—who lives in Japan and you’ve met through his article on Hafu—have debated why Kimi was given up at all. Once the mother had married, the stigma of a woman with an unmarried child would have resolved itself. So, why did the father-in-law convince his son and new wife the little girl would have an easier life in America?

My theory is that Kimi was Hafu or known then as mixed blood. Why else would life continue to be difficult? Why else would her child which she kept to the age of three be a worry for the mother’s new family?

I also believe THIS is the real reason the city of Yokohama gifted the GIRL WITH RED SHOES statue to stand on the tip of Shelter Island, near the US naval base in San Diego. She stands at each port on either side of the ocean to remind us of the thousands of innocent children lost between them.


The real story lost in time and translation PART TWO

Yesterday I shared the real-life story of Iwasaki Kimi, the little girl behind the famous GIRL WITH RED SHOES statues in Japan and San Diego. Read the first post here.

Today, I’ll share how her story first became known to Japanese poet, Ujō Noguchi, who wrote the words to the beloved Japanese nursery rhyme, Akai Kutsu 赤い靴 “Red Shoes”.

After Kimi’s mother, Iwasaki Kayo, had agreed with her new father-in-law to give up her then three-year-old daughter to American mercenaries, her and her new husband, Suzuki Shiro, moved to Hokkaido. There they tried to make a living as pioneer farmers, but it was hard work and they were falling behind. Kayo’s brother came to help with the overload, but soon passed. They then lost their farmhouse to a fire.

With so much loss—Kayo giving up her little girl, losing her brother and all their possessions—the new couple again moved. This time to Sapporo.

There, Shiro found work with a small newspaper called Hokumeishinpō. This is where poet, Ujō Noguchi Worked and a friendship formed between them.

Over time, a friendship formed between them and the couple shared their story of Kimi. How they had given her to mercenaries in Yokohama, so she could have a better life in America. Remember, they never knew she was given to the orphanage due to tuberculosis where she remained until she died at the age of nine.

The story of hope and sadness inspired Ujō Noguchi to write the famous poem Akai Kutsu 赤い靴 “Red Shoes” and a year later, composed into song by Nagayo Motoori.

A young girl with red shoes

was taken away by a foreigner.

She rode on a ship from Yokohama pier

taken away by a foreigner

I imagine right now she has become blue-eyed

living in that foreigner’s land.

Every time I see red shoes, I think of her

And every time I meet a foreigner, I think of her.

When she misses Japan where she was born

I imagine she stares at the blue sea

and asks the foreigner if she can go home.

赤い靴(くつ) はいてた 女の子 異人(いじん)さんに つれられて 行っちゃった

横浜の 埠頭(はとば)から 汽船(ふね)に乗って 異人さんに つれられて 行っちゃった

今では 青い目に なっちゃって 異人さんの お国に いるんだろう

赤い靴 見るたび 考える 異人さんに 逢(あ)うたび 考える

生まれた 日本が 恋しくば

青い海眺めて ゐるんだらう(いるんだろう)

異人さんに たのんで 帰って来(こ)


The real story lost in time and translation PART THREE

The orphanage where Iwasaki Kimi died at the age of nine from tuberculosis—then incurable—stood at No.50 of old Nagasaki town. Kimi’s room was the farthest from the stairs on the second floor of the old wooden building. There, she battled her illness for years without her mother ever knowing she hadn’t been adopted and taken to America.

Since Kimi was only three when she arrived, I wonder how much she remembers of her mother and her previous life and what she was told by the Christian staff when she was old enough to ask. Surely, she would ask. Did she look out her window to the small rural town below and imagine each passing family as her own? Or did they share her mother’s name, and if so, did she try and run away to find her?

In THE WOMAN IN THE WHITE KIMONO, Tori, my American character digging into her father’s past, sums it up best, “Not knowing is bad, but not knowing doesn’t change what is.” Or in Kimi's case, what was. Her mother was encouraged by her new father-in-law to give up the three-year-old for a better life, and while controversy surrounds the father-in-law’s true intentions. (Did he fabricate the story of the American Mercenaries and instead deliver the child himself to the orphanage? Was the “better life” more for his son to avoid the stigma associated with the child?) Nevertheless, the fact remains the same, Iwasaki Kimi contracted tuberculosis and instead of living a better life in America, lived a short one in the old wooden orphanage only a short distance away without her mother ever knowing.

And while you won’t find the orphanage today—it has been replaced with the Juban Inari Shrine—the town where it stood has not forgotten Kimi or the real story behind the beloved song. After the true story was revealed in 1989, another statue was erected, this one in the heart of the city.

The same day the new statue was installed, someone placed 18 yen near the statue’s feet, and every day after, more money appeared. This started a goodwill charity with proceeds benefiting UNICEF. (The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund)

The first GIRL IN RED SHOES statue was erected in Yokohama’s Yamashita Park, in 1979 due to the nursery rhymes popularity, before anyone knew that Kimi had not, in fact, been adopted and sailed away with American mercenaries.

In 2009, the city of Yokohama gifted another GIRL WITH RED SHOES statue to stand on the tip of Shelter Island, near the US naval base in San Diego.

The original GIRL IN RED SHOES statue in Yokohama and the one in San Diego look out over the Pacific Ocean to remind us of the thousands of innocent children lost between them. The GIRL IN RED SHOES statue of Kimi that stands at the heart of the city where she lived out her short life in the orphanage reminds us with knowledge, comes responsibility.

As we near the end of the year, I urge you to consider Kimi and the UNICEF for your tax-deductible charity of choice.

UNICEF - The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund:

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