A Japanese Woman in China Before It Opened to the West

New York, N.Y. There have been many interesting things in my life, but I think perhaps this story is most interesting: I went to China, a country without diplomatic relations, before even Japan’s Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei. And I saw the Cultural Revolution firsthand.

Nixon’s Visit Surprised the World

In February 1972, there was news that surprised the world. U.S. President Nixon went to the People’s Republic of China, a nation that did not yet have diplomatic relations. At this time, post WWII conflict between Communism and Democracy had a large impact on the world.

NixonU.S. President Richard Nixon steps off the plane in Beijing, 1972.

When Nixon became president, the relationships between America and both China and the Soviet Union were both bad. Political transactions and secret negotiations were swirling.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1971, the U.S. launched an exchange with China that became famous after later being dubbed “Pingpong diplomacy.” There was an international table tennis tournament in Nagoya, Japan. After participating in it, the American table tennis team visited China.

The next year, President Nixon himself visited China and met with Mao Tse Tung and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. It is said this visit became a turning point in the Cold War after World War II; the relationship between the U.S. and China changed from conflict to reconciliation with this series of meetings.

A month after this shocking Nixon visit, the Chinese government invited twelve prestigious Americans in April to Beijing. American media moguls such as the chairs of CBS and ABC, Time magazine, and others flew to the People’s Republic. Of course, I was not invited.

There was a great man, a publisher, who was a friend of mine. He was among these twelve media leaders to go. The day before the trip, he rang me up. One of the twelve were sick and they had an extra place – would I like to join them? 

Passengers debark from an Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-114 at Domodedovo Airport in Moscow. (© FoxbatGraphics LLC Image Library)

“Because we have a sick person, do you want to go?” “Of course, yes! Jesus, yes!!” was my immediate answer. They arranged everything. The Swiss embassy came to my office and arranged visas and passports, etc. We travelled through Russia and soon thereafter arrived in China. It was April 1972.

I Met Ordinary Chinese

During my stay, I wanted to see as many Chinese as possible. I would sneak out of the hotel somewhere around 4:00 in the early morning with two other participants in their 50’s. We got out to the city and I was able to see how the average Chinese citizens were living.


I was actively doing things there in the early morning as I would do at night in other countries. At night, with no electricity, it was dark about 6pm, and the streets were empty. It was true darkness with not a single cat walking. I think now how truly amazing I could see such a landscape with my own eyes.

Early in the morning, I played mahjong and volleyball, and of course Tai Chi. I ate dumplings in small market stalls. I also participated in tug-of-war several times. Of course nobody spoke foreign languages, so I would write what I needed in Japanese characters (kanji), and my new friends could make some sense of it. I think meeting normal Chinese was a wonderful achievement.

At this time, they were all wearing gray “people’s” clothes. Women were prohibited to wear makeup, hair was knotted in braid, and we were not able to really talk to anyone. But I was really glad I was able to go to China at that time. I witnessed the last gasps of Mao Zedong’s so-called Cultural Revolution. Six months before Japanese prime minister Tanaka Kakuei’s visit.

JapanChinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai with Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Kakuei.

In 1971, a year later, I became interested in Tibet, and in the summer of 1972, a few months after I went to China, I visited Tibet and decided to bring Tibetan ethnic opera performances back to the U.S. and Canada. However, as the relationship between China and Tibet was so bad then, if I visited Tibet I would never be able to return to China for political reasons.

A Journey Not Recorded

Strangely, there are no records left of this trip, anywhere. The facts seems to have been eliminated. Because photography was prohibited, I have nothing to share but the above memories.

Originally published as Vol. 7 in Weekly Biz, December 2, 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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