From Japanese Girl to Grandmother, Flying Around the World

War, Piano — then Impresario

New York, N.Y. If we are going to speak about my life, I would like to start with the story of World War II. Because not many people know much about this war, especially in America. You might not believe this, but I experienced this war when I was only six years old.

Hina doll (female doll) on Hina festival (Hina doll
Growing up in Japan in the 1930’s, I was taught how girls were supposed to behave.

I was born the year World War II started, in 1938, in the small village called Takarazuka. This village lay on the outskirts of Osaka where my family had a country house. I was raised in a very strict family the in Japanese tradition. At the age of three, in kindergarten, I remember this incident:

A big bully, a boy, came and pushed me into the row where we all standing, waiting for our turn for the swing. I could not forgive him, so I ran to him and grabbed both of his wrists, and decided to never let go! First he laughed and tried to free my hands, but he could not, then he started to cry.

Everyone was amazed at me because everyone feared him. Then, the teacher accused ME instead of him, saying, ‘You are a girl, what kind of behavior is that!” and made me stand for an hour. This was my first experience toward prejudice against GIRLS in Japan!

MountainsAt the age of six, I was put into a prestigious boarding school in the mountains. 

It was a very happy time otherwise. When a teacher taught a new song, I could not wait to run home, climb up the piano stool and play and even made accompaniment using the left hands with the harmony I liked. Every day, I dreamed becoming a pianist.

At the age of six, I was put into a prestigious boarding school in the mountains. The school was very strict and they taught the mannerism of a Japanese Samurai spirit, to respect the Emperor. One hour before sunrise, we ran up to the top of the mountain, and cited out loud the Emperor’s words of education and prayed at sunrise, doing a yoga-like exercise, then ran down the mountain for breakfast.


Because of the war, we had nothing much to eat. The congee, so delicious, was made of wild plants and wild potato or millet from the mountain. For lunch we were given roasted soybeans, each of us got one more than one’s age (for me only seven). We caught grasshoppers on sunny days, and gathered snails on rainy days. We had to chew everything we ate one hundred times. Indeed it was not enough, but everything was delicious!

Every Friday, my mother and our gardiner would come to pick me up for the weekend. One Friday, looking at a beautiful sunset, overlooking the road, they did not show up. I cried, and cried, then fell into a sleep. In the middle of the night, they arrived.

They had walked for hours because there was no train, they said. I got on to the shoulder of our gardiner, bit a huge delicious juicy tomato he brought from our vegetable garden, and we started to descend.

A B-29 releases incendiary bombs on Yokohama in May 1945. (U.S. Air Force photo)
A B-29 releases incendiary bombs over Japan, 1945. Photo: U.S. Air Force.

Suddenly, countless B-29 air fighter planes flew over, filling the sky with loud noise. They were headed towards Osaka. The city of Osaka lit up just like huge fireworks. To me, it was just beautiful, as I had no idea what was happening. It was a huge air raid, lasting three and half hours (11.57 to 03.30), in which the entire city of Osaka was wiped out, killing its entire population.

In pitch dark, we descended the mountain, sometime hiding under the big concrete houses with large windows. Glasses shattered around us, because of sheer noise vibrations. We could not use flash lights because, I was told, the enemy would see sign of life and drop more bombs.

After the raid was finished, we walked home along the railroad track, singing all the folk songs we knew. We arrived home in the afternoon. My grandmother gave me a delicious sweet potato. Afterwards, I fell into a very long sleep.


That evening, our relatives who had survived arrived from Osaka. They were absolutely dirtied and crawling miserably, with tree sticks, broken bones, injured bodies and faces full of blood. We lost some relatives. So many people died that night, but mostly children, old folks and women. Because all the men were at war in Southeast Asia.

I was too small to understand it all, and it had been, I thought, beautiful from the mountain top!

I went back to school. We sat and bowed deeply and listened to the voice of our emperor. I did not understand what was said, but everyone was crying. I was told that the war had ended and our country lost. Afterwards, our principle, naked, in the backyard, took a long Japanese sword and cut many, many trees — one after another. I was just bewildered at the power of a Japanese sword. It cut through large trees with one swing! The principal said, “If the American soldiers come, I will kill them and then commit seppuku.”

A few days later, the American Military Police came to our school and took all of our faculties. This was the last time I saw my beloved teachers. I cried for many hours.
Seiji_Ozawa_1963During the war, no one taught piano of course, yet my mother found an excellent piano teacher soon after the war. Piano became my entire my life. All day long, I was at the piano.

I wanted to be a panits or doctor, but I did not know how to do it. Eventually, I was able to enroll in the best music school, called Toho Music Academy, in Tokyo. Maestro Seiji Ozawa, a famous conductor today, was my classmate.

It was my dream to go overseas. In 1961 I was invited by the Boston Symphony and had the opportunity to go to Tanglewood. Although it was unusual in Japan as a girl, I left Japan all by myself. I did not speak English then.

I realized quickly my childhood dream to become a world class pianist was out of my grasp – I was not good enough. I went to Boston University and New York University, then became an impresario: Cultural Promotor to introduce different cultures, to different countries.

In this field, I became No. 1 in the world. I was so prominent then, making an average of 2,000 events per year, all over the world, and flying to over 150 countries.

One of the most important and interesting events of my career was to produce the Grand Kabuki’s first tour outside of Japan – from New York, Chicago to Los Angeles. This was 1967. Stay tuned!

Originally published as Vol. 1 in Weekly Biz, September 16, 2017; translated by Jim Luce.

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz



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About Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura

View all posts by Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko was born into a distinguished old family in Kyoto, Japan, and graduated from Toho conservatory of Music in Tokyo. In 1961 she came to U.S. as a pianist sponsored by the Boston Symphony. She studied at Boston University, New York University, and received her Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine from New York State University and the International Academy of Education in Tokyo. From 1968 to 1992, she promoted cultural exchanges from East to West and vice versa, and became a world famous impresario, producing 2,000 events each year all over the world encompassing over 140 countries. In this connection, in 1972, she went to Dharamsala to find the lost Tibetan Folk Opera, and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom she remains a lifelong friend. In 1973 and 1991 she arranged and funded personally the tours of the Folk Opera of Tibet to the West. She has received many medals and honors from different countries. Her tireless life long work in Philanthropic field is vast and well known ranging from Save the Beacon Theater, Save the Boat People, Help the Homeless, natural disasters of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as relief to AIDS and HIV positive children in Africa. She has been a dedicated Board Member to both the J. Luce Foundation and Orphans International for years. Her work focuses on the Tibetan people; Tibetan children remain especially strong in her heart. She raised fund for the new academic building for Manjushree Orphanage in Tawang, India and supported many aspects of the school. See HuffPo pieces entitled Japanese Holistic Healer in NYC to Build School for Tibetan Orphans in India, A Japanese Dinner with Raul Castro’s Daughter, and NYC Gala in Support of Tibetan Orphans Set for January.

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